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Haiti received a downward trend arrow due to violent political warfare involving the former military, Aristide supporters, and others.
Haiti is a nation under siege, beset by extreme levels of political and criminal violence, lawlessness, and corruption. The past year saw no progress in stemming the absolute decline of the political and economic conditions that, for most Haitians, make life extremely difficult. Haiti has the lowest life expectancy and highest infant mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti's people are also among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and have the lowest levels of human development, including a literacy rate of less than 50 percent. Following a mysterious attack on congress in December of 2001 and a subsequent violent retribution, various international efforts, including those of the Organization of American States (OAS), have failed to find a negotiated solution to the political impasse that began after the 2000 parliamentary elections. The opposition Democratic Convergence (DC) has refused to cooperate with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's efforts to stitch together a coalition that will satisfy the reservations of the United States and the OAS, and that will lead to an end to the sanctions imposed on Haiti. The country has become a dictatorship in all but name, as power has been monopolized by President Aristide and his Lavalas Family (FL) party.
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 militarya permitted the implementation of a French-style constitution in 1987. It provides for a president elected for 5 years, an elected parliament composed of the 27-member Senate and the 83-member House of Representatives, and a prime minister appointed by the president.
President Aristide was first elected in 1990. Deposed by a military triumvirate after only eight months in office, for having called on his supporters to use force in defending his government, he was sent into exile. While paramilitary thugs terrorized the populace, the regime engaged in blatant narcotics trafficking. The United States and the UN imposed trade and oil embargoes. In September 1994, facing an imminent U.S. invasion, the officers stepped down. U.S. troops took control of the country, and Aristide was reinstated. Aristide dismantled the military before the June 1995 parliamentary elections got under way. International observers questioned the legitimacy of the June election, and Aristide's supporters fell out among themselves. The more militant FL movement remained firmly behind him, while the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD), a leftist coalition that had backed him in 1990, claimed fraud and boycotted the runoff elections. The FL won an overwhelming parliamentary majority.
The FL nominated Rene Preval, Aristide's prime minister in 1991, as its presidential candidate in the fall. In the December 17, 1995, election, marred by irregularities and fraud, Preval won about 89 percent of the vote with a turnout of less than one-third of those eligible; he took office February 7, 1996. The UN had planned to withdraw its troops by the end of the month. The new U.S.-trained Haitian National Police (HNP), however, 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 after allegations surfaced that members were involved in the murders of two politicians from the right-wing Mobilization for National Development (MDN) party. Senate elections held in April 1997 were beset by irregularities, and the resultant 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 policies. In September, Aristide announced an alliance with other congressional groups to oppose Preval's economic reform plans.
Aristide had been revered as a defender of the powerless and was swept to victory again in November 2000. The elections were boycotted by all major opposition parties and held amidst widespread civil unrest and voter intimidation. Aristide ran on a populist platform of economic reactivation; opponents claimed he was bent on establishing a one-party state. Aristide's nearly 92 percent of the vote in the presidential election was mirrored in contests for nine senate seats--all won by his FL party--giving his new government all but one seat in the upper house. In parliamentary elections, which opponents claimed were rigged, the FL won 80 percent of the seats in the lower house.
The 1987 constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully. Credible charges of irregularities and fraud have beset every election since 1990. The FL has manipulated most legislative and general elections, including the presidential elections of 2000. In practice, the FL controls the presidential, legislative, and judicial branches, while most local and regional elected leaders are members of the FL.
The constitution guarantees a full range of political rights and civil liberties. At a practical level, these rights remain precarious, as the rule of law is tenuous at best and the situation is aggravated by a security vacuum. Political warfare involving the former military, Aristide supporters, and others continues unabated. In 2000 the FL itself appeared to be falling victim to open strife between warring factions.
The judicial system is corrupt, inefficient, and dysfunctional. The legal system is burdened by a large backlog, outdated legal codes, and poor facilities; business is conducted in French, rather than Creole, Haiti's majority language. Prison conditions are harsh, and the ponderous legal system guarantees lengthy pretrial detention periods. International reform efforts ended in 2000 following allegations of corruption involving the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Justice Department contractors, and others.
The 5,200-member Haitian National Police (HNP) force has been politicized by the PL, is inexperienced, and lacks resources. The HNP has been accused of using excessive force and mistreating detainees, and accusations of corruption are frequent. The HNP is increasingly used against protesters attacking the government. Police brutality is on the rise and there is credible evidence of extrajudicial killing by members of the HNP. Mob violence and armed gangs pose serious threats in urban areas. Former soldiers and others linked to the former military regime, as well as common criminals, are responsible for much of the violence, including political assassinations. Break-ins and armed robberies are commonplace, and many observers tie the growing violence directly to increases in 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.
Freedom of speech and the press are limited, and violence against journalists is common. International observers find that media outlets tend to self-censor in fear of violent retribution. There is a variety of newspapers, including two French-language newspapers, with a combined circulation of less than 20,000 readers. Many newspapers include a page of news in Creole. While opposition to the government can be found in the written press, it is beyond the reach of most, primarily because of illiteracy and cost. There are more than 250 private radio stations, including 40 in the capital. Most stations carry news and talk shows, which many citizens regard as their only opportunity to speak out with some freedom. Television is state run and strongly biased toward the government.
Satellite television is available, though it has minimal impact, as most Haitians cannot afford access to television. The few stations carrying news or opinion broadcasts express a range of views. There is no censorship of books or films, and access to the Internet is free. The official educational system is hostage to patronage and pressure from the PL.
There is freedom of religion. However, labor rights, as with all other legally sanctioned guarantees, are not respected. Unions are too weak to engage in collective bargaining, and their organizing efforts are undermined by the high unemployment rate. There is widespread violence against women and children. Trafficking of both drugs and people is a serious problem.