Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Haiti's civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 due to increases in political and street violence and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's call for citizens to take the law into their own hands.
A December 2001 attempted coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and violence by his supporters in the wake of the assault on the National Palace, appeared to be the result of what one observer called "a damaging game of attrition [that] characterizes negotiations to resolve Haiti's political stalemate." Throughout the year Haiti was wracked by political and social unrest, in large part the fallout from disputed national and local elections held late the previous year, in which Aristide and his Lavalas Family party swept to power. As a result, the largest benefactors in the international donor community announced that they were withholding $500 million in aid until the government took the steps needed to normalize the country--a move that damaged Haiti's precarious, poverty-stricken economy even further. Haiti's U.S. Justice Department--trained national police force proved incapable of stemming increasing criminal anarchy, and Aristide's call for people to take violence into their own hands legitimized an already vigilante-minded public's view of crime control.
Since gaining independence from France in 1804 following a slave revolt, the Republic of Haiti has endured a history of poverty, violence, instability, and dictatorship. A 1986 military coup ended 29 years of rule by the Duvalier family, and the army ruled for most of the next eight years. Under international pressure, the military permitted the implementation of a French-style constitution in 1987. It provides for a president elected for five years, an elected parliament composed of a 27-member senate and an 83-member house of representatives, and a presidentially appointed prime minister.
In the 1990 elections, Aristide, a charismatic left-wing priest, won in a landslide over conservative Marc Bazin. Aristide sought to establish civilian authority over the military; he also railed against corruption. When Haiti's elite and the military conspired to overthrow him, Aristide overstepped the constitution by calling on supporters to defend the government by violent means. He was overthrown in September 1991. Aristide was replaced by a military triumvirate headed by General Raoul Cedras. Tens of thousands of paramilitary thugs terrorized the populace, and the regime was steeped in narcotics trafficking. The United States and the United Nations imposed trade and oil embargoes. In September 1994, facing an imminent U.S. invasion, the military dictatorship agreed to relinquish power. U.S. troops took control of the country, and Aristide was reinstated and his security guaranteed by U.S. and UN forces. Aristide dismantled the military before the June 1995 parliamentary elections got underway, and their internal security functions were eventually handed over to the new Haitian National Police (PNH). International observers questioned the legitimacy of the June election, and Aristide's supporters fell out among themselves. The more militant Lavalas movement remained firmly behind him. However, the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD), a leftist coalition that had backed him in 1990, claimed fraud and boycotted the runoff elections. In the end, Lavalas won an overwhelming parliamentary majority
In the fall Lavalas nominated Rene Preval, Aristide's prime minister in 1991, as its presidential candidate. With Aristide backing him and the FNCD and most other major opposition parties boycotting, the result of the December 17, 1995, election, which opposition politicians claimed was marred by serious irregularities and fraud, was a forgone conclusion. Preval won about 89 percent in a turnout of less than one-third of those eligible.
Preval took office February 7, 1996. The UN had planned to withdraw its troops by the end of the month. The new U.S.-trained PNH, however, clearly lacked the competence to fill the void. At Preval's urging, the UN extended its stay, but by June cut its presence to 1,300. The final U.S. combat force had withdrawn two months earlier.
In September 1996, Preval purged much of his security force, which, according to U.S. officials, had been involved in the murders a month earlier of two politicians from the right-wing Mobilization for National Development (MDN) party, which counted on heavy support from former soldiers. Senate elections held in April 1997 were fraught with irregularities, and the resulting ongoing election dispute meant that parliament would not approve a new prime minister to replace Rosny Smarth, who resigned in June 1997 following growing criticism of the government's economic policies. In September Aristide announced an alliance with other congressional groups to oppose Preval's economic reform plans.
The next two years were marked by political violence, including the murder of an opposition senator. It was also a time of growing corruption, politicization, and frequent indiscipline of members of the new police force, which had been created from scratch in a country with tenuous civic traditions and where the sustainability of post-Cedras administration of justice reform was always in doubt. In August 2000, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it was ending its long-running, scandal-ridden police and prosecutorial training effort in Haiti, without giving a reason for its decision
Aristide, revered by some as a defender of the powerless and Haiti's first democratically elected president, swept to victory in a November 2000 presidential contest boycotted by all major opposition parties and held against a backdrop of widespread civil unrest and voter intimidation. Running on a populist platform of economic reactivation in the hemisphere's poorest country, Aristide's nearly 92 percent of the vote in the presidential election was mirrored in contests for nine senate seats--all won by his Lavalas Family party--giving his new government all but one seat in the upper house. In elections, held in three stages in May, June, and July of 2000, which opponents claimed were rigged, the Lavalas Family also won 80 percent of the seats in the lower house.
A recent departure of UN teams designed to monitor the performance of Haiti's relatively new civilian police force and its compliance with human rights standards left the Aristide government with a free hand to carry out its campaign against the opposition. Senior opposition figures said they feared what they said was the incipient creation of a one-party state. In December 2000, opposition political parties said that they would work to create an alternative government before Aristide was sworn in on February 7, 2001. Proceeds from narcotics trafficking have corrupted large sectors of the police force, and knowledgeable sources say that several national legislators elected in 2001 are in the pay of the Colombian drug cartels. In response to the fraudulent election, a 15-party opposition alliance, called the Democratic Convergence, named a 75-year-old human rights activist, Gerard Gourgue, to the symbolic post of provisional president.
Throughout 2001, the Democratic Convergence kept up the pressure on Aristide to resign and capitalized on popular anger with the lack of government services and the state of the collapsing economy. The arrests of prominent opposition figures and attacks on their followers have doomed efforts to bring about a reconciliation among the warring political factions, despite several high-profile efforts by the Organization of American States (OAS) to coax the parties into agreement. In early 2001, Gourgue led more than 1,000 members of Haiti's military, disbanded following the U.S. invasion, in a march through downtown Port-au-Prince, demanding the reestablishment of the army and Aristide's resignation. (The military had fallen into deep discredit as the result of its service under several harsh dictatorships that ruled Haiti before 1994.) In July, men in army fatigues killed four police officers when they stormed a police academy and a police station, demanding loyalty to the (nonexistent) army. The attackers then fled to three towns in a central province, where they killed two more policemen. The small but growing demand that the army be reconstituted reflects the state of collective insecurity felt by Haitians, and popular disenchantment with the ineffectiveness of the PNH. In November, a general strike by the political opposition shut down Haiti's second largest city, Cap Haitien, and reflected unrest throughout the country. On December 17, 30 armed gunmen tried to storm the presidential palace, only to be repelled by police and palace security guards. At least 13 people were killed in the attack and subsequent mob violence by Aristide supporters, while authorities launched a manhunt for the former Cap Haitien police chief accused of leading the coup attempt.
Faced with a spiraling crime wave in 2001, Aristide also appeared to condone mob rule. In June, he declared that people caught committing crimes did not need to go to court to be judged. "If a hoodlum stops a vehicle in the street and takes the keys ... he is guilty," Aristide told a group of police officers. "It is not necessary to bring him to court to have him judged. Zero tolerance for criminals. Period." Although Aristide defenders denied the call was a blank check for summary executions, human rights advocates pointed out that lynch-mob-style killings climbed in the aftermath of the speech. Police said that street crime had also dropped by 60 percent.
Alleged irregularities in the May 2000 parliamentary elections caused Haiti's opposition parties to boycott the November presidential contest. The credibility of the charges raised against Aristide's Lavalas Family party machine were such that the United States, Canada, and the European Union--all of which provided significant financial and technical support to Aristide's government after he was returned to power in 1994--refused to send observers to the sham November elections. According to the Aristide-dominated Provisional Electoral Council, the former president won 92 percent of 2.87 million votes cast, or 61 percent of eligible voters. However, most independent observers say the turnout was significantly lower. Opposition politicians claimed that ballot boxes had been stuffed and tally sheets tampered with in order to inflate the turnout figures.
The constitution guarantees a full range of political rights and civil liberties. The protection of such rights in 2000, however, remained precarious, as the rule of law was tenuous at best, and the situation was aggravated by a yawning security vacuum.
The judicial system remains corrupt, inefficient, and essentially dysfunctional, particularly in rural areas, and U.S. reform efforts, tainted by allegations of corruption involving U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Justice Department contractors and others, were abruptly brought to a halt in mid-2000. The legal system is also hampered by a large case backlog, an outdated legal code, poor facilities, and the fact that business is conducted in French, rather than Creole, Haiti's majority language. Haiti's 19 penal institutions are uncommonly harsh, and in a country that has no death penalty, getting thrown into one of them is often considered a death sentence. The largest prison, the Penitentier National, built in 1918 during a period of U.S. occupation and designed to accommodate no more than 1,000 prisoners, holds 2,100. A severe backlog of cases means hundreds suffer lengthy pretrial detention periods. In March of 2001, it was estimated that only 818 men out of the 3,063 held in Haiti's prisons had been convicted of a crime, compared to 23 out of 167 women jailed, and 14 minors out of 79 in detention. On a positive note, in 2000 two landmark trials convicted leaders of the former military and police officers accused of grave rights violations.
Following the U.S.-led invasion of Haiti in 1994, a first-ever civilian police force was created. Trained by the U.S. Justice Department in conjunction with UN authorities, the Haitian National Police (PNH) has proved to be an overwhelming disappointment, as corruption is pervasive and adherence to modern police practices and procedures is uneven at best. The police force has proved to be no match for traffickers in Colombian cocaine, who move an estimated one-fifth of the total entering into the United States through Haiti. Drug corruption and penetration of law enforcement by the narcotics lords is one of the most serious issues facing the PNH today and accounts for part of the increasing mistrust Haitians feel towards the police.
Mob violence and armed gangs posed severe security threats in urban areas. Former soldiers and others linked to the former military regime and common criminals were responsible for much of the violence, including political assassinations. Break-ins and armed robberies, rare a few years ago, are now commonplace, and many observers tie the growing violence directly to increases in both the drug trade and local narcotics consumption. Haitian officials also say that the rise in crime is due to the repatriation of convicted criminals from other countries, particularly the United States. Turf wars between rival drug gangs have resulted in the killing of scores of people, including several policemen. Private security forces that carry out extralegal search and seizure are flourishing.
A number of independent newspapers and radio stations exist. Outlets critical of the government remain targets of official intimidation, including mob attacks. Television is state run and strongly biased toward the government. In December 2001, Brignol Lindor, news director of Radio Eco 2000, was stoned and hacked to death by an allegedly pro-Aristide mob. The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres accused Aristide supporters of frequent harassment of journalists, and accused Aristide of obstructing justice in the investigation of the April 2000 assassination of outspoken radio journalist Jean Dominique. The first investigative judge to take on the case quit under pressure, while a second was forced to send his family into exile. One of the suspects under investigation for Dominique's murder was Aristide confidant Senator Dany Toussaint, a former military officer with his own political power base among the poor.
Labor rights, as with all other legally sanctioned guarantees, are essentially unenforced. Unions are generally too weak to engage in collective bargaining, and their organizing efforts are undermined by the high unemployment rate. In July 2001, Haitian human rights activists charged that authorities in the Dominican Republic had continued mass deportations of Haitian immigrants, despite assurances that they were trying to improve the situation. Some one million Haitians work in the Dominican Republic, primarily on sugar plantations and in construction.
HIV/AIDS is a leading cause of death in Haiti, where adult prevalence rates for HIV are above four percent.
Trafficking of children within Haiti occurs primarily for purposes of prostitution or labor. Haiti is to a lesser extent a country of origin for trafficked men and women to the United States, Europe (mainly France), Canada, and the Dominican Republic. The government has acknowledged its internal trafficking problem and, despite severe resource constraints, is making significant efforts to address it. There is no Haitian law that specifically prohibits the trafficking in persons.