Six days after the earthquake that ravaged Port-au-Prince, opinion among the Haitian population is unanimous: Haiti, these days, is a country with no government.
Yet a semblance of government is, in fact, active in Haiti during this time of crisis. After the collapse of the presidential palace and most other state buildings, authorities which survived the quake have been meeting in the offices of the Criminal Investigation Department, close to the airport.
“They’re trying to organise a response and coordinate international aid, but what they are doing is having only minimal impact on the ground,” explains Philomé Robert, reporting from Port-au-Prince for FRANCE 24.
The Haitian police, totally absent in the days immediately following the quake, has returned to work, patrolling the capital’s streets this past weekend. But if they find anyone pillaging they can’t detain them for long, as there is nowhere to lock them up.
Ever since the quake struck, Haitian President René Préval has been mostly silent. He has given no official orders and has yet to address his people. A state of emergency was declared only on Sunday, five days after the earthquake.
Haiti’s power vacuum
The situation is not surprising, according to Pascal Buléon, research director at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research. “Before the catastrophe, the Haitian government was already in a state of extreme decline. Today there is a power vacuum, but that’s almost what the usual situation is. There is no state,” Buléon told FRANCE 24.
The situation in Haiti is leading specialists like Buléon to wonder how Haiti, lacking effective leadership and political institutions, will be put back together once the emergency has passed. Who will direct the reconstruction of cities? What role will be played by the United States, Europe and the United Nations? What balance will the international community and Haiti find between interventionism, humanitarian relief and respect for Haiti’s sovereignty as a nation?
A conference, scheduled for January 25 in Montreal will seek to tackle these questions and others. Several politicians have suggested placing Haiti under a transitional UN administration, as was done with Kosovo in 1999.
A ‘semi-internal affair’ for the US
Meanwhile, the US has taken the reins of the international response to the disaster in Haiti. It has, most notably, the crucial responsibility of overseeing Port-au-Prince’s airport. “The Americans have already done more than they would have done for any other crisis,” Buléon says. “Their approach is different from the one they took after the [Asian] tsunami in 2004. They have assumed a particular political responsibility, because they consider Haiti to be in their zone of direct influence. It’s nothing new. For Washington, it’s a semi-internal affair.”
In an unusual political display, US President Barack Obama appeared on Saturday with two of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is widely remembered as disastrous. Only one year after his inauguration, Obama, facing criticism for his record so far, has called for American unity in supporting the people of Haiti.
In light of the considerable humanitarian effort organised by the United States, Europe, for its part, is trying to define its role in the international response. Tensions flared on Saturday between Paris and Washington over the management of the airport in Port-au-Prince.
“European countries are perceived as former colonial powers, but also benefit from a certain sympathy because they represent an alternative to America,” Buélon explained. “Europe can do a lot in the effort to reconstruct Haiti and restore the foundations of its society.”
While an internationally coordinated effort guided by the UN seems to be the surest way to go about helping Haiti get back on its feet, the country’s future looks difficult for now.
“Haiti’s most serious problem is the haemorrhage of its citizens,” Buléon explained. “A lot of devoted, capable people have left the country. There’s no internal structure when it comes to education or justice … organised crime and gangs are also extremely powerful. There are therefore no short-term solutions. The horizon will not be seen for another generation at least.”
For some experts, however, the catastrophe is an opportunity to rebuild the country from scratch. As Jordan Ryan, the head of the UN’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, told AFP, “The key to a successful reconstruction lies in an optimal coordination between aid and the direct implication of Haitians.”