Is Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid suffocating democracy in Haiti? A growing number of informed observers, both in Haiti and in the United States, think so. They contend that the former secretary of state’s political ambitions are having a profound effect on the Haitian electoral process.
The island’s deeply flawed elections — held last August and October, backed by over $33 million in US funding — triggered massive political unrest this past January.
Coming on the heels of Michel Martelly’s disastrous presidency, the elections spotlight how badly Clinton’s attempts as secretary of state to direct Haitian politics have backfired. The unrest caused the final round of balloting to be suspended and sent the US State Department into damage-control mode.
The department’s overriding — though unofficial — concern over the past year has been to finish Haiti’s elections before the US general election campaign begins in earnest this summer. It desperately wants to keep the results of Clinton’s involvement in Haiti out of the media glare.
Michel Martelly has been aptly described as a Haitian version of Donald Trump. Brash, uncouth, and unapologetically reactionary, Martelly used his celebrity as a popular konpa singer (known as “Sweet Mickey”) to power his rise to the presidency in 2011.
While in office Martelly earned a reputation for corruption and authoritarianism. He wooed foreign investors with the promise that post-earthquake Haiti would be “open for business,” and surrounded himself with the children of Duvalierists and shady underworld figures known to be involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping.
For four years, Martelly declined to organize elections, appointing mayors directly and allowing parliamentarians’ mandates to expire without elected representatives to take their place. He jailed and intimidated political opponents, repressed anti-government demonstrations, and, at the very end of his term, revived the disbanded and much-despised Haitian Army.
By January 2015, Haiti’s parliament was dysfunctional and Martelly was ruling by decree. Under pressure from growing street protests against the return of one-man rule, Martelly grudgingly agreed to organize elections.
Openly declaring his intention to establish a twenty-year political dynasty, he selected Jovenel Moïse, a politically unknown agricultural entrepreneur, as his successor. In August and October of last year, Haitians went to the polls to elect representatives at all levels of government.
Neither election would meet any reasonable democratic standard. Widespread violence, disorder, and stuffed ballot boxes characterized the August elections; in October, hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes, cast using party accreditation cards sold on the black market, completely skewed the results.
These perversions of the democratic process were compounded by historically low turnout rates and corruption scandals within the electoral council itself, which further undermined the elections’ credibility. In both the legislative and presidential races, Martelly and his allies predictably came out on top.
“Even by Haitian electoral standards, this was brazen robbery,” said Henry “Chip” Carey, a political scientist who has observed numerous Haitian elections since the 1986 fall of the Duvalier dictatorship.
Despite the election fiasco, the United States (and the other wealthy nations) were enthusiastic, declaring them “a step forward for Haitian democracy.”
The small European Union (EU) and Organization of American States (OAS) observer missions rushed to approve the vote, claiming that the “irregularities” and “isolated” acts of violence had not affected the results.
Elena Valenciano, head of the EU’s electoral observation mission, did not even wait for the polls to close before declaring that the August election day had unfolded in conditions of “near total normalcy.”
Shortly before the October vote, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Haiti to reaffirm US support for Martelly’s stewardship of the process. As former Haiti expert for the US State Department Robert Maguire lamented, the international powers’ “objective seem[ed] simply to be able to check an ‘elections done’ box.”
But most Haitian observers denounced the elections, and Haitian citizens proved unwilling to accept the low democratic standards set by donor countries. Confronted with the outright theft of their elections, hundreds of thousands of Haitians rose up against what they called an “electoral coup d’état.”
Street protests surged after the October balloting, culminating in January’s angry and disruptive demonstrations. Protesters demanded the establishment of an interim government and an independent election commission to verify the vote.
At the peak of this crisis, former Brazilian diplomat Ricardo Seitenfus made an intriguing allegation: he charged that Haiti’s electoral calendar had been subordinated to the US election cycle. Meeting popular demands for a verification process would require time, much more time than Martelly had left in his mandate.
But American diplomats Kenneth Merten (who served as ambassador to Haiti under Clinton from 2009 to 2011) and Peter Mulrean were demanding that the elections be completed without delay and pressuring opposition candidates to drop their boycott of the final round scheduled for January 24.
Merten and Mulrean insisted that the United States simply wanted constitutional deadlines respected — a laughable claim given how little respect US policy has historically accorded to Haiti’s constitution.
Seitenfus has another explanation for their hostility to an independent investigation of the elections or the establishment of any kind of transitional government: “They want to quickly elect a president in Haiti in order to not make any waves, so that Hillary Clinton’s campaign goes smoothly.”
The reason for the haste, Seitenfus argues, is that Clinton is to blame for both Michel Martelly’s disastrous presidency and the present crisis of Haitian democracy. During the 2010–11 elections, Clinton was determined to see Martelly elected.
His pro-business outlook made him the ideal candidate to lead Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction. But, according to official (though strongly contested) results, he did not win enough votes in the first round to advance, so Clinton threw the full weight of the State Department behind her favored candidate.
Clinton’s team exploited every pressure point: cutting off aid, denying visas to top government officials, even plotting a coup against then-president René Préval. In January 2011, Clinton, with the help of behind the scenes pressure from Haiti’s business elites, persuaded Préval to bump Martelly up to second place and into the next round, where he would win the presidential runoff.
“Since Ms. Clinton was deeply involved in the decisions of 2010–11, if things have started badly, they must finish well,” notes Seitenfus, who, as the Organization of American States (OAS) special representative in Haiti, saw these strong-arm tactics firsthand. Seitenfus’s critique of US electoral influence made him a minor celebrity among Haitians, but cost him his OAS post.
The renegade diplomat is not the only one pointing the finger at Clinton. Many other analysts agree that the United States has unduly influenced the international response to the current elections, out of concern for her campaign.
“What international community? In Haiti, it doesn’t exist,” a disgusted diplomat remarked to Swiss journalist Arnaud Robert. “It is the United States that decides, in particular the Clinton couple who simply want to save face before the elections.”
Members of Haiti’s powerful elite agree: “I do not see it going longer than the US election, for obvious reasons,” a member of the Private Sector Economic Forum, a powerful group of Haitian businessmen, said. “They can’t afford this not being solved by the full US election. If Clinton is still in the process . . . they don’t want Haiti in the news, so they want it solved by summer.”
Robert Maguire concurred. “Keeping Haiti off the front page” is a major concern for US policymakers, “even more so with US presidential elections approaching.”
The Sweatshop Model
Sweet Mickey’s presidency is only part of Clinton’s dismal history in Haiti. Jonathan Katz, who covered Haiti for the Associated Press before, during, and after the 2010 earthquake, argues that America’s rush to get past Haiti’s tumultuous elections stems from Clinton’s ongoing involvement in the failed reconstruction efforts.
“Instability in a place where she and her husband have planted a big flag would hardly help her campaign,” he notes.
Throughout her term as secretary of state, Clinton made Haiti one of her top foreign-policy priorities. She and her chief of staff Cheryl Mills closely managed the internationally financed effort to rebuild Haiti after the quake. Bill Clinton pitched in as co-chair of a commission tasked with approving reconstruction projects.
As Clinton wrote in her memoir Hard Choices, rebuilding Haiti was “an opportunity . . . to road-test new approaches to development that could be applied more broadly around the world.”
Wielding an unparalleled level of influence over massive flows of public, private, and philanthropic capital, the Clintons set out to turn their slogan — Haiti “built back better” — into reality.
As Katz told the Washington Post: “There’s nowhere Clinton had more influence or respect when she became Secretary of State than in Haiti, and it was clear that she planned to use that to make Haiti the proving ground for her vision of American power.”
In retrospect, the Clintons’ bold, new vision for Haiti looks more like a mirage. The “new” approach was the same old “sweatshop model of development,” pursued by the United States since the Duvalier days, in a slick new package, and it had the same disastrous results.
A multi-million dollar industrial park the Clintons promoted as Haiti’s economic salvation was a flop on its own capitalist terms, generating only one-tenth of the promised sixty thousand jobs.
Meanwhile, mammoth new slum areas have sprung up north of Port-au-Prince, a testament to the mind-boggling decision to prioritize building luxury hotels for foreign tourists, NGO workers and businesspeople over permanent housing for the over one million Haitians made homeless by the quake.
Six years later, there is no hiding the fact that the Clintons have not helped many ordinary Haitians. Hillary Clinton would prefer to ignore this unflattering reality as November approaches. Katz notes:
By now I’d imagine she was expecting to constantly be pointing to Haiti on the campaign trail as one of the great successes of her diplomatic career. Instead it’s one of her biggest disappointments by nearly any measure, with the wreckage of the Martelly administration she played a larger role than anyone in installing being the biggest and latest example.
Perhaps most troubling from the Clinton campaign’s perspective: the tiny handful of players who did profit from Haiti’s reconstruction includes several members of her inner circle, like Tony Rodham (Hillary’s brother) and Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, a fact that Peter Schweizer and other Republican critics delight in pointing out.
Today, Clinton and her political managers prefer not to talk about Haiti at all. When Katz asked how her experience in Haiti shaped her foreign policy, a campaign spokesperson declined to comment, saying Clinton would address that “when the time comes to do so.”
Judging by her campaign website — which touts many of her foreign policy endeavors but makes no mention of Haiti — that time has still not come.
In fact, the time for Clinton to account for her embarrassing entanglements in Haiti may not come at all. There was a brief uptick in national media coverage during the January election protests, but Haiti has, for the most part, stayed out of the headlines, which is exactly where Clinton wants it.
President Martelly’s departure (without an elected successor) has defused a potentially explosive situation, at least for now. And with the minor exception of Hillary’s efforts to block a 2009 minimum wage increase, Clinton’s challenger Bernie Sanders has ignored her ignominious record in Haiti to focus on inequality, health care, and other domestic issues.
But Haiti’s simmering electoral crisis is far from resolved. The interim government that took over in February faces growing hostility from Martelly and his allies — including paramilitaries who claim to represent the re-mobilized military.
A verification commission, convened against American wishes, is currently reexamining the election results for fraud: the United States and other international donors have responded by cutting off all non-humanitarian aid. The commission’s findings are due at the end of the month, and could be the spark that once again sets Haiti aflame.
Dismayed by the vehement international opposition to the verification commission, Antiguan diplomat Ronald Sanders warned that the search for an easy exit from Haiti’s election troubles could backfire.
“There can be no ‘quick fix’ in Haiti,” wrote Sanders in a recent editorial. “Indeed, it is the urge for quick fixes in the past and the desire to wash hands of the country that has kept it in constant turmoil and retarded its chances for long-term political stability and economic growth.”
Whether or not US officials heed Sanders’s warning, the underbelly of Clinton’s much-vaunted foreign policy experience is plain for all to see.