Haiti's Political Paralysis

Thirty days after the inauguration of Haitian President Michel Martelly, the quake-ravaged country faces a deepening sense of unease as its economic and environmental travails are joined by mounting evidence of political stalemate.

While Martelly, a performer-turned-politician, seems almost as if he’s still campaigning for office, dashing from one public event to the next, issues pivotal to Haiti’s prospects for stability and prosperity remain unresolved.

“Martelly has discovered that the job was tougher than he thought,’’ said Daly Valet, publisher and editor-in-chief of Le Matin, a Port-au-Prince-based newspaper. “He’s a president who wants to do some things, but he doesn’t have the opportunity and institutional framework to do it, so he’s trying to grab everything that can make him look good.’’

Martelly’s administration faces severe short-term challenges, including a looming fuel and food crisis, hurricane season, the start of the school year and a surging cholera epidemic in the countryside. Public investments continue to languish, unemployment hovers above 70 percent, hundred of thousands remain homeless, and the International Monetary Fund has lowered its growth projections for this year to 8.6 percent from 10 percent. Thursday, a week after 28 people died in flooding, Haitians were warned to prepare, yet again, for heavy rains.

“People are going to get more and more frustrated as the rains fall and as hope that was generated by the promises of the election and the inauguration seem to be dissipating in ‘politics as usual,’ ” said Mark Schneider, a longtime Haiti observer with the International Crisis Group. “Haiti needs a government in place to work together on resettlement and on reconstruction and it needs it now.’’

Instead, there are disquieting signs of political paralysis:

• Martelly has no government, and the prospects that parliament will approve his choice for prime minister, Daniel Rouzier, are uncertain.

• The president has mishandled his relations with the influential Haitian diaspora, the vast population of Haitians living abroad, which had seen his election as a chance for greater influence on their homeland.

• Martelly’s policy toward the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the principal U.S.-backed vehicle for reconstruction, is in doubt, following contradictory statements about its future from his team.

The biggest problem facing Martelly concerns his nomination of Rouzier, a 51-year-old U.S.-educated entrepreneur, as prime minister. Despite vigorous lobbying on Rouzier’s behalf by former President René Préval, whose political coalition holds a comfortable majority in both chambers of parliament, Rouzier’s supporters realize his prospects remain uncertain.

“They have good reasons to be concerned. I don’t think the Martelly team knows exactly what to do and how to handle the relationship with the parliament,’’ Valet said. “At the parliamentary level, they are eager to collaborate with Martelly, but they feel that Martelly’s people are pretty arrogant and they don’t want to play traditional politics.’’

At the moment, a parliamentary commission charged with reviewing Rouzier’s qualifications is expected to present a report early next week. The commission has raised issues about missing documents and relative technicalities, prompting fear that its members are trying to obstruct the nomination. This has made for a confusing situation fueled by distrust, with Martelly recently going so far as threatening to dissolve parliament.

With no new government, foreign donors are withholding more than $140 million in aid.

In addition, relations with the Haitian diaspora have soured. Suggestions by both Martelly and Rouzier to do away with the cabinet-level Ministry of Haitians Living Abroad, and a recent effort to tax overseas Haitians to pay for education have outraged members of the Haitian-American community.

Meanwhile, the fate of dual nationality — which is avidly supported by the diaspora and foreign governments as a way to encourage investment from abroad–remains unresolved. It had been approved shortly before Martelly took office, but he annulled the change as part of a parliamentary maneuver over constitutional reform, infuriating overseas Haitians.

The Club of Madrid, a group of former world leaders, recently called on Martelly to make every effort to resolve “the current standstill on the constitutional reform.’’

On Thursday, angry Haitians called into a local Haitian radio station in Miami complaining about efforts by Martelly to have the diaspora contribute to his education plan by paying $1.50 on remittances and a surcharge on phone calls into the country.

“Martelly’s government appears to have a lack of cohesion in regard to its policies on the diaspora, and the mood in the diaspora is negative. There is a sense of malaise,’’ said Jean-Robert Lafortune, head of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Miami. “The way he’s doing it without a dialogue, this is what’s causing the problem.’’

Finally, Martelly and his team have cast doubt on the future of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the international body co-chaired by former U.S. president Bill Clinton that was created after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. The mandate of the commission, which was forced to postponed its June meeting because of the lack of a government, expires in October. It was supposed to handle more than $5 billion in aid, but has so far received only 37 percent of the money that was promised. Martelly’s people have been quoted making contradictory statements about the efficacy of the commission, prompting questions about his commitment to it.

On Wednesday, Martelly, who has been the target of criticism over his entourage of controversial ex-police officers, released an assessment of his last 30 days. He said he refused to be “discouraged’’ by the roadblocks that were standing in the way of his choice for prime minister and called on Haitians to support his choice.

He also claimed 15 accomplishments since taking office May 14, including the extension of Temporary Protected Status by the U.S. government. TPS was recently granted to Haitians by U.S. authorities to let them live and work temporarily in the United States freely. “Many people can claim credit for TPS, but I don’t truly believe this is one victory he can claim,’’ Lafortune said.

Peter Hakim, of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, isn’t surprised by the signs of impasse. “It always seem to me there is too much optimism every time there is a turning point in Haiti,’’ he said. “The assumption that Haiti is going to work like other countries is just that: It’s an assumption we keep making over and over again. And we tend to get it wrong each time.’’