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In 2008, Haiti entered a period of turmoil when the parliament forced out Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis amid rising food prices and then rejected president Rene Preval’s two initial nominees to replace him. Michele Pierre-Louis was ultimately approved as a compromise candidate in September. In the fall, Haiti was struck by a series of tropical storms and hurricanes that left more than 700 people dead.
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 held power for most of the next eight years. Under international pressure, the military in 1987 permitted the implementation of a French-style constitution, which remains in place today.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular former priest, was first elected president in 1990. He was deposed and exiled by a military triumvirate after only eight months in office. While paramilitary thugs terrorized the populace, the ruling junta engaged in blatant narcotics trafficking. The United States and the United Nations imposed a trade and oil embargo, and in 1994 the United Nations authorized a multinational force to restore 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, but his support began to fracture when international observers questioned the legitimacy of the balloting. Aristide retained the backing of the more radical Lavalas Family (FL) party, but the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD), a leftist coalition that had supported 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, Preval won about 89 percent of the vote, with a turnout of less than one-third of eligible voters. 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 voted back into the presidency 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 with nearly 92 percent of the ballots followed similar results 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’s second term as president was undermined by business elites and opposition groups who banded together to oppose him. Furthermore, foreign donors had cut their aid programs in 2000when a standoff between Aristide and his opponents delayed the elections, and poverty had worsened. An armed revolt, led by a combination of political gangs and former army officers, threatened the president’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 faced with the possibility of a violent ouster, he was spirited out of the country in a plane chartered by the United States and deposited in the Central African Republic. He initially protested the circumstances of his departure, but eventually accepted exile in South Africa.
Aristide’s sudden resignation was 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. In March 2004, a commission of elder statesmen announced that Gerard Latortue, who had been in exile in the United States, would become the country’s new prime minister. Meanwhile, the UN peacekeeping force gradually expanded beyond the capital and was renewed with troop contributions from Brazil and other Latin American countries. The force eventually reached 9,000 troops and civilian police, and the United Nations extended its mandate several times.
Following multiple delays due to disorganization and a worsening security environment, Haitian electoral authorities finally held presidential and legislative elections in February 2006, with a second round of parliamentary elections coming in April. Despite initial turbulence when some polling stations opened late, the voting was 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 Preval won a second term with 51 percent of the vote, triumphing over at least 33 other contenders, but his newly organized Lespwa party failed to win a majority in either house of parliament. Lespwa captured just over a third of the Senate seats and a quarter of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
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. The newly elected lawmakers embraced an active role in discussing policies, but generated no concrete legislative proposals during the year. In December 2006, municipal elections were successfully held, along with a final round of voting to decide a handful of unresolved parliamentary races. Security improved the following year after UN forces cracked down on gangs in the capital.
Haiti entered a period of turmoil when the parliament forced out Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis amid rising food prices in April 2008 and then rejected the president’s two initial nominees to replace him. Michele Pierre-Louis was finally approved as a compromise candidate in September. Also during the year, the ranks of parliament thinned as members’ terms in office expired due to ongoing delays in holding new elections. In the fall, Haiti was hit by a series of powerful storms and hurricanes that killed more than 700 people, virtually destroyed the major coastal city of Gonaives, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. With the country’s stability appearing increasingly fragile, the UN Security Council extended the peacekeeping force’s mandate until October 2009.
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, a National Assembly composed of the 30-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. Many lawmakers remain sorely short of financial and administrative resources, and the parliament itself has played a largely reactive role in government, either opposing or accepting initiatives from the executive branch.
The legislature is currently divided among several small parties, with no single faction holding a majority. Most parties are driven by personality or support from a particular region. President Rene Preval’s first-round election victory in 2006 helped to sweep many candidates from his untested Lespwa party into the parliament, but the party’s grassroots support was not very substantial.
Endemic corruption continues to hobble Haiti’s political and economic development. A number of lawmakers elected in 2006 have reportedly been involved in criminal activities, and they sought parliament seats primarily to obtain immunity from prosecution. Haiti was ranked 177 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. Preval identified the fight against corruption as a major priority, demanding full disclosure of financial records for top government officials. Hundreds of police officers suspected of corruption were purged from the force. The government showed greater accountability during 2008, principally due to the leadership’s willingness to work with a range of political groupings, although the alliance that secured Preval’s election in 2006 showed signs of fissure during the year.
Freedom of speech and the press has been constrained by the absence of a viable judicial system and widespread insecurity, but violence against journalists, though problematic, remained reduced in 2008. 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 press, most Haitians lack access 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, but has evolved to become more inclusive in recent years. There are five television stations; while satellite television is available, most Haitians cannot afford it. In 2008, the few stations carrying news or opinion programming expressed 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 non-state actors if they express their views openly. In August 2007, Haitian journalists formed an independent commission to push for faster investigations into the unsolved deaths of the eight journalists killed since 2000.
The government generally respects religious and academic freedom. However, the absence of an effective 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. Unions are too weak to engage in collective bargaining, and their organizing efforts are undermined by the country’s high unemployment rate. However, in 2008 Haiti’s peasant groups coalesced around protests in the face of food shortages and became increasingly active in pressuring their elected representatives to respond to the needs of the country’s rural population.
The judicial system continues to be corrupt, inefficient, and dysfunctional. It 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. In 2008, Amnesty International estimated that Haitian authorities are holding at least 2,000 people without charge, mainly due to poor judicial functioning.
The HNP increased from 5,700 officers in 2006 to more than 10,000 in 2008, though the force was still far short of its target of 15,000 officers. The police force virtually collapsed during the 2004 uprising and is only slowly evolving into a cohesive organization. Haiti’s current police chief is well respected and has made important strides in purging corrupt officers and training new recruits. The UN peacekeeping force has helped to establish a minimum level of security in some parts of the country, but the HNP remains unprepared to take over in the peacekeepers’ absence.
The trafficking of drugs and people remained a serious problem in 2008. There is widespread violence against women and children in Haiti. Up to 300,000 children serve in restavec (“live with,” in Creole), a form of unpaid domestic labor with a long history in the country.