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One of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, Haiti in recent years has struggled with problems ranging from near-constant political upheaval, health crises, an annual barrage of hurricanes. and the worst earthquake in the region in more than 200 years.
The quake that struck on Jan. 10, 2010, reduced much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, to rubble. A study by the Inter-American Development Bank estimated that the total cost of the disaster was between $8 billion to $14 billion, based on a death toll from 200,000 to 250,000. That number was revised in 2011 by Haiti’s government to 316,000; the government has never explained how it arrived at its death toll figures.
An estimated 375,000 people remain displaced, with a maximum of 66,620 living in camps, according to a U.S. government report. International donors promised Haiti $5.3 billion at a March 2010 donor’s conference. But reconstruction involving better buildings and roads has barely begun. Officials’ sole point of pride six months after the earthquake — that disease and violence had been averted — vanished with the outbreak of cholera.
In March 2011, two conservative rivals faced off in a runoff election for the presidency. In April, it was announced that Michel Martelly, a performer with the stage name Sweet Micky, had defeated Mirlande H. Manigat, a former first lady and college administrator who was the top vote getter in the initial round of voting in November 2010.
In the campaign, Mr. Martelly eschewed the skirts, underwear and other outlandish outfits of his musical career in favor of tailored suits and serious talk of reforming agriculture, streamlining the delivery of humanitarian aid and restoring law and order by bringing back the military, which was disbanded more than a decade ago after a history of human rights and political abuses.
Now, he faces the challenge of speeding the rebuilding of a country that, long before the quake, was the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and one if its most politically unstable.
Haiti is heavily reliant on foreign humanitarian aid, dispersed among hundreds of nongovernmental organizations that operate in effect as a shadow government. It also relies on United Nations peacekeepers for security. In addition, Mr. Martelly will have to share power with a prime minister picked by Parliament, where the party of his predecessor, Rene Préval, is strong.
The Duvalier Legacy
Haiti occupies an area roughly the size of Maryland on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Nearly all of the 8.7 million residents are of African descent and speak Creole and French. The capital is Port-au-Prince.
The country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, with four out of five people living in poverty and more than half in abject poverty. Deforestation and over-farming have left much of Haiti eroded and barren, undermining subsistence farming efforts, driving up food prices and leaving the country even more vulnerable to natural disasters. Its long history of political instability and corruption has added to the turmoil.
In 1791, Haiti became the world’s first black republic and the first independent nation in the region after it won independence in 1804 in a slave revolt against Napoleonic France. Its history has been shaped by profound political disarray, chaotic rule marked by corruption and brutal repression and, beginning in 1915, a two-decade occupation by the United States. Haiti’s most infamous leader was François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, who was elected president in 1957, beginning a long rule known for venality and human rights abuses. His son Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled from 1971 until he fled in 1986 but not before looting the treasury in another Haitian tradition. What followed was another period of alternating civilian and military regimes.
Regime Change and Free Elections
In 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president after winning 67 percent of the vote, but he was overthrown shortly after taking office in a violent coup leading to a three-year period of military rule that ended only after the intervention of a United Nations force led by the United States. While the 1995 election of René Préval, a prominent political ally of Mr. Aristide, was widely praised, subsequent elections were plagued with allegations of fraud, including the 2000 restoration of Mr. Aristide to his old post.
Over the following years, violence spread throughout the country as the government cracked down on opposition party leaders, holding power in part with the aid of extra-legal gangs. In February 2004, after groups opposed to the Aristide government seized control of cities and towns throughout Haiti and closed in on the capital, Mr. Aristide resigned and fled to South Africa. United States-led armed forces under the authority of the United Nations Security Council were sent to Port-au-Prince to bring order and oversee the installation of an interim government. The United Nations has spent some $5 billion on peacekeeping operations since 2004.
In 2006, Mr. Préval was re-elected president amidst allegations of impropriety.
Despite bouts of optimism brought on by the implementation of a new constitution and the first peaceful transfer of power between two elected presidents in the nation’s history, Haiti’s politics in the post-earthquake era remain as tumultuous as ever.
The Return Duvalier and Aristide
In March 2011, days before the election, and despite warnings from President Obama that his return could cause yet another tumultuous political development here, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-exiled former president of Haiti, returned home from exile in South Africa.
Mr. Aristide became the second major figure in Haitian history to return in recent months.
Political Instability and Natural Disasters
Since 2008, Haiti’s situation has worsened dramatically.
It has staggered under the double whammy of food riots, government instability and a series of hurricanes that killed hundreds and battered the economy — all of this before the deadliest earthquake in the country’s history.
The January 2010 earthquake left the country and its densely populated Port-au-Prince in flattened, its poorly constructed buildings and shanties destroyed or seriously compromised and the government broken. Upwards of 250,000 lives were lost.
More than 3,000 school buildings in the earthquake zone were in shambles; hundreds of teachers and thousands of students were killed. Some schools may never reopen, leaving vast numbers of children languishing in camps or working in menial jobs, struggling to sustain themselves.
The United States and Its Tone
Humanitarian aid from around the world has streamed into Haiti. The United States, which has a history of either political domination or neglect in its backyard, has tried to strike the right tone, coordinating relief efforts and pledging financial aid.
Since 1994, Haiti has resurfaced in the American conscience only during times of crisis: the Aristide meltdown; and after four devastating storms in 2008 that wiped out most of the country’s food crops and damaged irrigation systems, causing acute hunger for millions.
In the aftermath of the January earthquake, the United States was among the largest single donors, committing $1.15 billion on top of the more than $900 million already spent.
Pledges added up to nearly $5.3 billion over two years, and a total of $9.9 billion over three years or more, according to Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general. But the very size of the outpouring raised questions about whether the commitments would be met and how fast the financial support could help salve the needs of the Haitian people.
Hopes Fade for a New Haiti
By May 2010, the hope that a more efficient, more just Haiti might rise from the rubble was giving way to stalemate and bitterness. Haitians complained that the politically connected were benefiting most from the scant reconstruction work and that crime was returning. Meanwhile, unproductive politicians and aid groups struggled with temporary refugee camps that looked more permanent every day.
Parliament was essentially disbanded; power rested with Mr. Préval, his cabinet and a reconstruction commission led by the Haitian prime minister and former President Bill Clinton. Haiti’s first election since the January earthquake took place in late November 2010, characterized by disorganization, voter intimidation, the ransacking of polling stations and fraud.
Even before the polls closed, 12 of the 18 presidential candidates had called for the election’s cancellation. In early December, following an election in which polling places were ransacked and ballot boxes stuffed, the country’s electoral board announced that Jude Célestin, seen as Mr. Préval’s hand-picked successor, and Mirlande Manigat, a former Haitian first lady, had won the first round of voting. Michel Martelly, a singer with an impassioned following in the streets of Haiti’s bedraggled capital, came in third.
The results set off violent protests that shut down the capital and spread outside the city. Mr. Préval, whose popularity has fallen as the pace of rebuilding from the January 2010 earthquake has slowed, to accept who said Mr. Célestin had not earned a spot in the runoff because of tainted results.
Both Mr. Martelly and Ms. Manigat were considered relative conservatives, particularly on law-and-order concerns.
Mr. Martelly promised an anticorruption crusade, to eliminate what his campaign has identified as $900 million in “wasted money” in the Haitian government, and a back-to-the-land program to revive agriculture. Mr. Martelly, who was briefly in the Haitian Army in his youth, has also discussed restoring the feared military in a role akin to the National Guard in the United States.
Copyright 2011 New York Times