When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, killing more than 200,000 people, former President Bill Clinton said that the reconstruction would provide an opportunity to “build back better.” Some $9.6 billion was pledged by the international community, including the US government. But nearly six years later, although about $7.6 billion has been disbursed, there is not much to show for it.
Hundreds of thousands of Haitians displaced by the earthquake remain without adequate shelter. USAID, the US State Department’s development agency, pledged to build 15,000 homes but has so far only delivered 900. Most US taxpayers’ money, it seems, didn’t get outside of the Beltway. Of USAID contracts, for example, more than 50 percent of payments went to contractors in the Washington, D.C. area, while only 1 percent went directly to Haitian companies or organizations. Everyone worries about money being potentially lost to corruption in the Haitian government, and so just a small fraction of the billions pledged went to desperately needed budget support. But the large-scale corruption, fed by lack of accountability, is much closer to home.
Haiti needs a government that can collect taxes, especially from the rich elite and companies that can pay them, and provide necessary services. This should have been the target of “building back better,” rather than foreign contractors. But the US government has never shown much interest in building a democratic, legitimate government in Haiti; quite the opposite in fact. In 1991, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a military coup. It was later determined that leaders of the coup had been paid by the US Central Intelligence Agency. In 2004, Aristide was deposed again through a multi-year effort by Washington, who took him out of the country and into forced exile for seven years.
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In 2011, Washington intervened once again by arranging for the Organization of American States (OAS) to reverse the first round results of Haiti’s presidential elections. This was done without a recount or even a statistical test of the sample of ballots examined, and independent research showed that there was no statistical basis for the decision. Now we are witnessing a potential repeat of the 2010-2011 elections. The legislative elections in August were plagued by fraud and violence, with only 18 percent of eligible voters participating and more than 20 percent of the ballots lost. On October 25, the first round of presidential elections was held, and although the violence was limited and voter turnout marginally higher, observers have raised serious questions about whether massive fraud occurred. Over 900,000 party monitors were given credentials that may have allowed them to vote at multiple voting centers. A black market in these passes was created, and with only an estimated 1.6 million total votes cast, it is easy to imagine the election being bought by the party with the biggest bankroll.
The votes are still being counted, and it remains to be seen if the authorities will try or even be able to screen for fraud. And will the US and its allies, who are paying for the elections, simply accept the result – as in the past – if their side wins?
In 1995, members of Congress led by the Congressional Black Caucus forced President Clinton to reverse the military coup that his predecessor’s administration had sponsored, temporarily returning democracy to Haiti. Members of the current Congress have written numerous letters to President Obama and lobbied the administration, even passing legislation, demanding accountability and a change of course that will allow for Haiti to have democratic, clean elections for a legitimate, functioning government. They will have to step up the pressure, as they did in the early 1990s, if they are to have an impact.