Monday, May 4, 2009

Hope on the Horizon

Haiti Starts Over Again


Close your eyes and imagine you are the new prime minister of a poor Caribbean country. Yours is not a run-of-the-mill, low-income nation but one so destitute that last year the Associated Press reported that children were being fed cookies made of "dried yellow dirt" to relieve their hunger.

There are few roads connecting markets; electricity and potable water are luxuries; gang violence, corruption and drug trafficking have overwhelmed the justice system and crimes go unpunished. To make matters worse, remittances from the U.S. have been hard hit by recession.

For decades tyrants have ruled your country, first from the right and then the left. Now a young democracy is budding and the desperate masses are depending on your government to bring about order and the conditions for economic opportunity. Where do you start

Haitian Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis

For Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, this is not a parlor game but the real-time question she has had to think about every day since taking office in September. Last month, Ms. Pierre-Louis joined Journal editors for lunch in New York to explain her government's priorities. I expected to hear a plea for foreign aid. But the PM surprised me by talking about the sanctity of contracts, the importance of attracting investment, and the woes caused by a broken judiciary.

Talk up hope for Haiti and most people think you are naïve. The country has none of the cultural norms that conventional wisdom says are required to construct democratic institutions. Plus, it's flat broke.

All true. Yet things didn't have to get this bad. They did because when Haitians had a shot at democracy in 1990, they instead got a despot named Jean Bertrand Aristide. During the time he ran the country as a strongman, Haiti had a contract with a U.S. telecom company called Fusion. Its board included Joseph P. Kennedy II, who was a friend of Aristide and invited the Haitian to his second wedding. The board also included a number of Democratic Party honchos. Fusion's contract allowed it to carry long-distance calls to Haiti Teleco, the state-owned monopoly, at less than 25% of the Federal Communications Commission settlement rate at the time.

All we know is that while Fusion was racking up the discount minutes on one of the region's busiest telecom routes, Aristide terrorized his nation, both as president and as the power behind President René Preval. President Bill Clinton, who had restored the Aristide presidency after a coup d'etat, tolerated the abuses.

Telephone revenues were one of Haiti's few sources of hard currency. But when Aristide was driven from the country in 2004, the interim government opened Teleco's books and allegedly found that the company had been rifled, according to a lawsuit filed in South Florida. Haiti had to start over from scratch. Mr. Kennedy has since moved on to working with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in the oil business.

Haitian tradition holds that the country needs foreign aid to get back on its feet. Ms. Pierre-Louis does not disagree. The main reason for her trip to the U.S. was a "donors' conference" where Haiti racked up $324 million in new pledges of assistance.

But the PM seems to also understand that the aid bucket is leaky at best. At the Journal she talked up private investment as the key to a meaningful reduction in misery. "We need investors," she said, "because we need to create jobs. And to get investors, whether they are from the private sector in Haiti or international, they have to have confidence." She insisted that any change in fixed-line telephony laws would stress competition.

Like Mr. Preval, who is president again, the PM hails from Haiti's left. George Soros was a big giver to the grass-roots organization she ran previously, and she was once an Aristide ally. But she broke with him over his use of destitute youths to carry out his political violence.

Now as PM she emphasizes public security, which has improved since Aristide left; kidnappings dropped sharply last December. She proudly recounted to me her decision to remove a wealthy developer from the prime government land he had invaded to build slums. This makes her different. Enforcing the rule of law is not the usual practice of anyone in Haiti who wants to have a political career.

Another unpopular goal on the PM's agenda is confronting drug-trade corruption in the judiciary and politics. Citing Haiti's recent seizure of $1 million in cash, she says, "Imagine what you can do with that much money in Haiti." The drug problem, she notes, undermines equality before the law, and Haiti needs U.S. help in fighting back.

Ms. Pierre-Louis may need help too. She doesn't have a political base, Bill Clinton is showing renewed interest in Haiti (not good), and powerful local interests want her out. She might survive if those who truly care about Haiti realize that her defeat would be a grave loss for her country. Hopefully this includes the U.S., which has enormous influence in Haiti and also should want to see the Western Hemisphere's poorest country get off its knees.

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Anonymous said...

Hope is coming. Thanks Ms. Prime Minister for your courage and persistence.

Anonymous said...

Hope is coming. Thanks Ms. Prime Minister for your courage and persistence.