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 political rights rating rose from 7 to 4, its civil liberties ratings from 6 to 5, and its status from Not Free to Partly Free, due to the holding of elections for the first time in more than five years.
In 2006, Haiti began the process of establishing a democratic government through elections. The first round of presidential and legislative elections was held on February 7, and presidential candidate Rene Preval received just enough support to win without the need for a runoff. Runoff elections for undecided parliamentary races occurred on April 21, and local elections to select 9,000 other public officials were successfully held in early December. Street violence persisted despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force, and the Haitian economy remained in tatters as international donors pledged an additional $750 million in aid.
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.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was revered as a defender of the powerless, was first elected president in 1990. Despite calling on supporters to use force to defend his government, he was deposed and exiled by a military triumvirate after only eight months in office. While paramilitary thugs terrorized the populace, the regime engaged in blatant narcotics trafficking. The United States and the United Nations imposed a trade and oil embargo, and the United Nations authorized the deployment of a multinational force in July 1994 to facilitate the return of the legitimate Haitian authorities. In September 1994, facing an imminent U.S. invasion, the military rulers stepped down. U.S. troops took control of the country, and Aristide was reinstated. He dismantled the military before the June 1995 parliamentary elections got under way. International observers questioned the legitimacy of the balloting, and Aristide’s support began to fracture. The more militant Lavalas Family (FL) party 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, who had been Aristide’s prime minister in 1991, as its next presidential candidate, despite the fact that he was not a party member. In the December 1995 election, which was 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 in February 1996. The United Nations had planned to withdraw its troops by the end of the month, but the new U.S.-trained Haitian National Police (HNP) lacked the competence to fill the void. The UN force extended its stay at Preval’s urging, but cut its presence to 1,300 troops by June; the U.S. combat force had withdrawn two months earlier.
Aristide was swept to the presidency again in November 2000. The election was boycotted by all major opposition parties and held amid widespread civil unrest and voter intimidation. Aristide ran on a populist platform of economic revitalization; opponents claimed that he was bent on establishing a one-party state. His win of nearly 92 percent was mirrored in that year’s parliamentary elections, which gave his supporters 80 percent of the seats in the lower house and all but one seat in the upper house.
Despite the electoral victory, Aristide ultimately lacked the domestic legitimacy and international backing to stay in power. Foreign donors cut their aid programs to Haiti in 2000 when a standoff between Aristide and his opponents prevented new elections, and poverty worsened. An armed revolt, led by a combination of Haitian political gangs and former army officers, threatened Aristide’s hold on power in February 2004. The United States and France declined to send peacekeepers in the absence of a political settlement between Aristide and opposition groups, and he was obliged to resign that month and accept eventual exile in South Africa.
The circumstances surrounding the forced resignation were quickly papered over by a constitutional transition that elevated Boniface Alexandre, head of the Supreme Court, to the position of president. Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, an Aristide ally, agreed to remain in office to help the transition process, but was later jailed by the interim government. Political decay continued throughout the rest of the country. By March 1, the National Resistance Front for the Liberation of Haiti—led by the controversial Guy Philippe, a former soldier and the U.S.-trained chief of police of Cap Haitien—had rolled into Port-au-Prince. Without a mandate to disarm the new arrivals, an international peacekeeping force—sent under UN auspices to restore order—limited itself to patrols while generalized looting took place.
On March 10, a commission of elder statesmen announced that Gerard Latortue, who had been in exile in Miami, would become the country’s new prime minister. The UN peacekeeping force gradually expanded beyond the capital and was renewed by contributions from Brazil and other Latin American countries. The force eventually reached 7,400 troops and civilian police, but they maintained a continuous presence only in major cities and were not able to ensure security nationwide.
The proposed 2005 electoral timetable suffered repeated postponements throughout the year. Against the advice of the UN Security Council and other international bodies, Haitian electoral authorities finally decided to delay the first round of presidential and legislative elections until February 7, 2006. The interim government and international authorities had hoped to ensure that new elected officials were sworn in by that date, which would have marked the end of former president Aristide’s term had he not been ousted prematurely.
Despite early turbulence when some polling stations opened late, the 2006 presidential and municipal elections were deemed the cleanest and fairest in Haitian history, and turnout surpassed 50 percent. The elections yielded evidence of both political consensus and continued fragmentation. Former president René Preval (1995–2000) won his second term with 51 percent in the first round after minimal campaigning, triumphing over at least 33 other presidential contenders. But Preval’s newly organized Lespwa Party failed to win a majority in either house of Parliament despite the strong advantage of his position as president-elect in the weeks before the second round of parliamentary elections. Lespwa won just 11 of 27 seats in the Senate and 20 of 85 seats in the lower house. The results signify that while Preval emerged as a strong candidate among the Haitian electorate, he lacked the coattails needed to create an equally large showing in Parliament.
The presidential election, which was conducted peacefully, temporarily deteriorated into competing allegations of fraud and massive street demonstrations, with the losing candidates challenging the legitimacy of the result. The fact that 34 candidates chose to vie for the presidency demonstrated the high level of atomization among the country’s political classes, though the robust voter support for a single candidate, Preval, showed that the poor were much more united. He garnered enough votes to claim the presidency without need for a runoff. Meanwhile, parliamentary runoff votes were held April 21, and the new legislature was subsequently sworn into office. Lawmakers embraced an active role in discussing policies, but generated no concrete legislative proposals during the year. On December 3, the final round of local elections were successfully held when Haiti elected 1 senator, 10 deputies, and 9,000 local public officials.
In July 2006, international donors pledged an additional $750 million to assist with Haiti’s economic recovery. The country had some of the worst human development statistics in the Western Hemisphere, ranking at or near the bottom on life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty, and literacy. In the view of many foreign and local observers, Haiti represented the closest example of a failed state in the Americas, but the election of the Preval government presented a window of opportunity to reverse that perception. In one positive sign, Haiti in 2006 rejoined the Caribbean Community after two years of estrangement.
Haiti is an electoral democracy. In 2006, citizens changed their government in the most credible elections since 1990. The country’s 1987 constitution provides for a president elected for a five-year term, an elected National Assembly composed of the 27-member Senate and the 99-member Chamber of Deputies, and a prime minister appointed by the president. Senators are elected for six-year terms and deputies for four-year terms. There are no legislative term limits, but the president cannot serve consecutive terms.
In order to serve in the lower house of Parliament, a citizen must be a native Haitian who has attained 25 years of age, has a clean criminal record, has resided in the electoral district for at least two years, and owns at least one property in the district. The Chamber of Deputies has the power to impeach the president with a two-thirds vote. Senators must be native-born Haitians who have attained 30 years of age, and have resided in their districts for four consecutive years prior to elections. The Haitian legislature is currently divided among several small parties with no single party holding a majority. President Rene Preval’s first-round victory in 2006 helped to sweep a large number of candidates from his Lespwa party into Parliament, but the party’s grassroots support was not very substantial. The functioning of the legislature is adversely affected by a lack of adequate meeting space, the absence of trained professional staff, and poorly developed institutional norms.
Transparency International ranked Haiti at the bottom of the list of 163 countries surveyed in its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech and the press is constrained by the absence of a viable judicial system and widespread insecurity, and violence against journalists is common. International observers find that media outlets tend to practice self-censorship to avoid violent retribution for critical reporting. There are a variety of newspapers, including the two French-language papers Le Matin and Le Nouvelliste with a combined circulation of fewer than 20,000 readers. The weekly newspaper Haiti Progres is published in French but offers one page of Creole-language news and one page in English. While opposition to the government can be found in the written press, most Haitians lack access to such publications due to illiteracy and poverty. There are 275 private radio stations, including more than 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 has traditionally been strongly biased in favor of the government. There are five television stations, and while satellite television is available, it has a minimal impact as most Haitians cannot afford it. The few stations carrying news or opinion programming express a range of views. There is no official censorship of books or films, and access to the internet is unrestricted, but Haitians fear violence from nonstate actors if they express their views openly.
The government generally respects religious and academic freedom. However, the absence of a functional police force means that there is little protection for those who are persecuted for their views.
The freedoms of assembly and association, including labor rights, are not respected in practice. Haiti has rich civil society traditions at the local level, but many of its formally organized civil society groupings have been co-opted by political and economic elites for their own gain. Unions are too weak to engage in collective bargaining, and their organizing efforts are undermined by the country’s high unemployment rate.
The judicial system continues to be corrupt, inefficient, and dysfunctional. The legal system is burdened by a large backlog of cases, outdated legal codes, and poor facilities. Moreover, official business is conducted in French rather than Creole. Prison conditions are harsh, and the ponderous legal system guarantees lengthy pretrial detentions. Amnesty International estimates that Haitian authorities are holding some 2,000 people without charge, including 100 political prisoners. Former prime minister Yvon Neptune, who had been jailed on dubious charges by the interim government, was released by Preval in 2006.
The Haitian National Police (HNP) force increased from 4,000 officers to more than 5,700 officers in 2006 according to UN figures. The HNP virtually collapsed during the 2004 uprising and is only slowly evolving into a cohesive organization. Police have been accused of using excessive force and mistreating detainees, and claims of corruption are frequent. The HNP has been used against antigovernment protesters, but it is too disorganized and poorly equipped to be an effective instrument of state repression. Police brutality has been on the rise, and there is credible evidence of extrajudicial killings by members of the HNP. The UN peacekeeping force has helped to establish a minimum level of security in some parts of the country, but much of Haiti remains ungovernable.
In 2006, ongoing urban violence in the Port-au-Prince slums of Cite Soleil and Bel Air hampered efforts to carry out the new elections. Mob violence and armed gangs pose considerable threats in urban areas more generally. Private security forces that carry out extralegal searches and seizures are flourishing. The trafficking of drugs and people is a serious problem.
There is widespread violence against women and children. Up to 300,000 children serve in restavec (“live with,” in Creole), a form of unpaid domestic labor with a long national history.