Tinderbox Haiti: Could All Out Violence Be Too Far Behind?

Haiti's summer is getting off to an inauspicious and foreboding start. Summer is shorthand for the much feared Hurricane season for which a record 15 to 18 named storms has been forecasted. Summer is also coincident with the sixth anniversary of the much maligned UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti and ghosts of sovereignty violated. Now barely four months away from parliamentary and presidential elections, the Island nation is being weighed down by political uncertainty, rampant homelessness, stalled resettlement efforts, and growing lawlessness. The tinder, the kindling and the toxic ferment are all there and in abundant supply. The prospect of explosive violence is all too real and for that matter, staring us in the face. Consummated, such dour prediction portends that the hoped-for opportunity to reinvent Haiti may be lost since development and security cannot be divorced.

Haiti's present day Anocracy constitutes prime political tinder. The simple Creole slogan Aba Préval (Down with Préval, a reference to Haiti's president, René Préval) says it all. Daubed on any and all platforms, stationary or mobile, this shorthand catch-all epithet has come to encapsulate the myriad Haitian frustrations and fears. It does not help matters that Haiti is presently Parliament-less and that the Provisional Electoral Council -- the body entrusted with the upcoming elections -- has lost its credibility. Compounded by the apparent absence of political alternatives and the possibility of boycotted elections, the prospect of a smooth handover of political power is at best uncertain. With demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere becoming a daily occurrence, the sense of an impending political crisis is palpable.

Powerful social tinder is contributed by Haiti's 'temporary" tent and tarpaulin metro-mega-polises now home to more than 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs). Fast becoming permanent slums, this ever expanding shabby sprawl of crowded, storm-prone settlements, is often in the flood's path. Marked by deplorable conditions, these pockets of unimaginable human misery constitute powerful incubators of short-fused desperation and anger. An eruption into violent conflict may be just a matter of time. A similar outlook was recently articulated by Edmond Mulet, head of the UN peacekeeping force who said that

Tangible change must be felt by the men, women and children living in desperate conditions in the camps in order to avoid this discontent being transformed into social and political instability.

Mitigation of homelessness and the provision of more sturdy dwellings are Haiti's most pressing tasks. Whereas some IDPs could simply and immediately be moved back into existing "green" (structurally sound) homes, others require new hurricane-resistant transitional ("T") shelters. Progress has been slow on both fronts. A recent report by the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee concluded that "Plans for moving the displaced population out of tent cities and into more durable shelter, not to mention permanent housing, remain in early draft form." Hampered by lack of leadership, suboptimal donor coordination, flagging rubble removal, and customs delays, the reconstruction of Haiti appears to have stalled. Remarkably, the main hold up is the literal availability of land due to interminable unadjudicated squabbles between landowners and quake victims over property titles.

Haiti's summer has also been witness to an expanding crime scene. With most of Haiti's prisoners on the lam, the Zenglendos (Creole for violent criminal), the Chimères (Creole for ghosts), along with other armed gangs, have ratcheted up their activities. In a nation whose median population age is 20, whose unemployment rate exceeds 60%, and whose abject poverty rate tops 80%, prospects for future civility are glum. Murders, rapes, kidnappings, carjackings, and burglaries are daily fare. Street justice in its crudest form of lynching and burning has been on the increase. Travel warnings issued by the US Department of State strongly urge U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Haiti. Sadly, long suffering Haitians have seen it all and are all too familiar with the Creole proverb Konstitusyon se papye, babyonet se fe, that is, a constitution is made of paper, but bayonets are made of steel.

The road ahead is clear if difficult. Haiti's future is contingent on democratic elections, rapid resettlement of IDPs, and improved internal security. The November elections are just around the corner and as such require our utmost collective attention. The mere specter of embarking on a voter registration drive in the face of limited if any surviving governmental records is daunting. In that resettlement of a substantial number of IDPs in the very near term appears unlikely, immediate efforts should focus on the prompt construction of large communal evacuation (Hurricane-resistant) shelters. Enhanced security will require continued expansion of the Haitian National Police and steadfast support of the UN peacekeeping force for some time to come. Perhaps most urgent is the need in the rapid activation of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). Potentially Haiti's best hope, the IHRC, co-led by UN special envoy Bill Clinton and Haiti's Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, has the potential to centralize and coordinate Haiti's recovery plan. However, no progress can be expected if the international community does not live up to near-term pledges made ($5.3 Billion) of which only a fraction (2%) has been delivered. We hardly want to reaffirm a well trodden Haitian saying -- Neg di san fe -- People talk and don't act. We can do better than that.