By Garry Pierre-Pierre | The Conversation
When Haiti’s constitution was ratified in 1987, the country was emerging from a decades long dictatorship. The writers vowed then to make sure there would be no opportunity for the country to slide back into another authoritarian regime.
One of the first clauses written was term limits. A president cannot serve two consecutive terms and can only hold office twice. The Constitution was so laden with clauses aimed at the Duvalier regime that some critics felt it was too emotional and lacked legal vision to guide the country as it transitioned to a democratic system.
The slogan of the day was “Makout pa la dann” or “No Makout in it.” I was amused because at that point, Makoutism was so systemic and ingrained in the fabric of Haitian society that to expel Makouts would have been to cast aside more than 75% of the population. We had become zombified under the Makout system.
Now, here we are taking another revision of the Constitution, and this time it is even messier than the last rodeo. President Jovenel Moïse decided a couple of years ago that it was time to revisit the clauses in the Constitution and make it a fairer and better legal roadmap for the country and its citizens everywhere.
The government has been emphasizing that under its proposed revision, the Diaspora would finally get its rights restored by lifting legal restrictions that forbade them from being able to vote, running for office themselves and owning property.
You’d think there wouldn’t be much of a pushback from something like this. This sounds terrific, I would argue. Well not quite.
A DOA referendum
This referendum is dead on arrival. Even within PHTK, as the ruling party is known, there is no unanimity. The U.S. State Department doesn’t support it. The opposition doesn’t think much of it. The population loathes it. The Diaspora doesn’t know much about it.
According to former Chamber of Deputies member Jerry Tardieu, what Moise is proposing will appear in electoral laws and not be codified in the constitution, which renders them meaningless.
“In both form and substance, the process that led to the drafting of this new constitution is causing problems,” Tardieu wrote in an opinion column. “It leads us towards chaos and instability especially as it aims to put all the powers in the hands of a president-king to the detriment of the legislative and judicial powers.”
If the former representative of Petion-ville is right, this referendum is as stiff as a used rubber band. Furthermore, the most profound changes revolve around the presidency and its power. There are clauses about impeachment. You can’t impeach the president if he violates the law. He can only be reprimanded. You can’t hold him or her accountable on so many fronts.
And to think, back in 1987, Haitian constitutionalists went through pains to ensure that dictatorships would ever be repeated in our history.
While those accusations have been bandied about loudly on the streets of Haiti’s cities, I believe that this referendum is a ruse for the current regime. It is a blatant effort to buy themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card meant to inoculate them from any past or current grift committed. Donald Trump would be proud and envious of them. But more on that in another conversation.
A losing battle
The reality is that few people would dispute that the constitution needs an upgrade and adapt to fit the 21st-century realities and beyond. At the time of the 1987 writing, the emotions were raw.
Now, the central question remains why this constitutional review is so controversial. To begin with, there is a lack of transparency. The government is playing defense and as the saying goes, “If you’re playing defense, you’re losing.” They are losing.
It begs another question: Are Haiti’s current political woes the result of a weak constitution or due to weak governance. You can draft the perfect constitution, but without good governance, it will go to waste. If you’re dishonest or devious, you can game the best system.
In November 2019, I was in Haiti reporting on the then-upcoming 10-year anniversary of the earthquake, which has now come to define Haiti in the eyes of the international community. I interviewed a young activist who was instrumental in organizing some of the protests that locked down the country.
I asked him what’s the end game for his movement and his thoughts about this country’s future. He told me that the country lacked good governance and that Haiti’s centralized form of government is unsustainable. There are no governors, the country is broken into 10 departments (which are like states in the U.S.), so there is no one controlling local budgets. Decisions are handed down from the capital.
He said a system under which a governor can make decisions for his or her department would be more manageable because accountability would rest on local officials who would manage their own budget. Under this system, he told me, departments would compete, and the competition in turn, would lead to a better country where decisions are not dictated from the lords of Port-au-Prince.
He does make a cogent argument.