Global Doc: Hands Off

Author: Dr. Vincent DeGennaro Jr. ’02

Haiti has no president. Former President Michel Martelly finished his five-year term on February 7 and stepped down without an elected successor.

This country is passing through yet another electoral crisis, that’s for sure. The last presidential election in 2010 was a similar disaster: accusations of fraud with varying degrees of credibility, political stagnation and overbearing foreign intervention that made matters worse. The 2013 legislative elections never happened, so Martelly governed last year without a parliament. Much like the shutdowns we know in the United States, the opposition preferred to force the government off a cliff instead of compromising on elections they knew they couldn’t win.

This time around, accusations of fraud in last October’s presidential elections led to a stalemate — a runoff between the top two candidates that was first disputed and now postponed. Now, the parliament is ruling without a president.

The picture inside and outside Haiti is always different. I read what is said on the outside and live what happens on the inside. Peering deeply into Haiti’s politics, it isn’t hard to see American hands trying to shape outcomes as the U.S. government interferes and the media weighs in, often from a distance.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Miami Herald have all squarely blamed Martelly and his alleged autocratic style. I find the repression of democracy here not nearly what I have witnessed in Uganda and Rwanda, but condemnations of Haiti have been much stronger. In those African countries, journalists have been jailed or attacked. Political opponents are often chased into exile — and some have been assassinated abroad. In other restive countries, such as Burundi, political chaos leads to dozens of bodies on the street.

While there are some whispers of political imprisonments in Haiti, President Martelly has neither used violence against his people nor changed the constitution to remain in office.

Why, then, does the American media take such a harsh view? As with most things in Haitian politics, the answer is complex. The large Haitian populations in cities like Miami and New York certainly are advocating for their views, while in Haiti false accusations of fraud and bribery are at least as common as the actual acts themselves. Further, the political instability storyline dovetails with a larger narrative, first drafted over 200 years ago, that Haiti is different, exotic. It is pegged as a country in perpetual turmoil, besieged by natural disasters and poverty. That narrative conceals the United States’ outsized role in Haiti’s continuing cycle of poverty from some, and justifies it to others.

It’s also the story that sells. Last month, protesters pushed to derail the scheduled presidential run-off. Two tires burned in a Port-au-Prince street and the AP or Reuters picture of the day was tires burning amid chaos. What I see are largely peaceful protests with defined parade routes where violence is incidental and mostly aimed at property — nothing perpetrated against people. The point was made and the elections were postponed. The scene was more peaceful than Ferguson and Baltimore were during protests there last year.

The U.S. government’s involvement in Haiti’s affairs has a long history. The American military occupied the country from 1915 to 1934. (Did you learn that in your U.S. history class?) Our government came to support the later years of the Duvalier family’s dictatorship as a bulwark against communism. In 2004, then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide credibly accused the U.S. Marines of participating in a “coup-d’etat”when they put him on an airplane and flew him to South Africa, ostensibly for his own protection. In 2010, the United States and the Organization of American States recounted votes and moved Martelly from third place to a spot in the runoff that he eventually won. Now the U.S. State Department continues to back Martelly’s hand-picked successor, Jovenel Moïse.

With our media opposed to Martelly and our government supporting him, what are Americans to think?

Full disclosure, I have spoken to President Martelly on a dozen occasions. Two months after I arrived in Haiti in 2012, I was embroiled in a scandal myself and accused of being a Martelly stooge. A judge investigating Martelly’s wife and son on corruption charges died of a stroke in our hospital. Having never cared for him, I nevertheless upheld the patient’s confidentiality by not answering the news media’s repeated questions beyond public knowledge of the stroke.

Haitian journalists sought to establish whether the judge may have been poisoned by the president or his partisans. I upheld my ethical duty to maintain patient confidentiality. Coincidentally, the president had visited the hospital the week before and given me the pink bracelet worn by supporters of his party, which I absent-mindedly wore during the press conference. Coverage over the next few days centered on the American doctor helping to cover-up the assassination of a judge. American journalists still write unquestioningly about the death in terms of mystery and political intrigue, perpetuating the myths instead of doing their homework.

That said, here’s what I see: In the last five years, Haiti has opened four major new hospitals, built dozens of schools, upgraded tourist infrastructure, built Haiti’s first traffic overpass and paved miles and miles of roads. The money came from interest-free loans from Venezuela and critics claim money was skimmed off the top. While certainly possible, Haiti in my opinion is certainly in a better position than it was 10 years ago. The question is what this progress has cost the country, both in terms of the stability of its political and civil institutions and its foreign debt obligations.

Now Haiti’s parliament is stuck investigating claims of election fraud and attempting to corral political factions into an agreement on setting new presidential elections. The United States is in no position to lecture on political stalemates given our recent history of government dysfunction. In my outsider’s view, Haiti would be best served by a brief transitional government and its own investigation into the recent elections without further interference from the international community. Our neighbor must find its own path out of the crisis in order to build stronger institutions and avoid repetitions and to ensure the growth of a truly Haitian democracy.

Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and global public health specialist in the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine and works half time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blog.