By Ilio Durandis
Reading Milton Friedman’s book, Free to Choose, the concept of a “climate of opinion” as a tool to help shape policies could be just what the doctor ordered for the upcoming year for Haiti. Friedman argued that in the case of the United States and some European countries, the climate of opinion at a particular time would drive politicians to enact policies that support such opinions. From this analysis, the questions that come to mind are what the current climate of opinion is in Haiti and how have previous climates of opinions shaped the Haiti that we have today.
There goes an aphorism: Say it, until you believe it. In fact, the first time I heard it, I could not make much sense of it. But as I kept repeating it to myself, it started to make sense. The more you say something, the more you start to believe in its becoming a reality. For example, we see religious people do that all the time. They put their faith in praying to a higher power, until they believe that everything that happens to them is because of their prayers. The same could be said of athletes, politicians, teachers and others. The truth is that opinion matters. And when enough people buy into a certain opinion, all the potential that it entails can suddenly turn into what I would call the “kinetics of opinion” or the power of opinion to become policies. In the case of Haiti, a climate of opinion could shift poverty into progress by helping to establish the policies that can serve its population.
In 1986, Haitians thought they were on their way to better days after the toppling of the brutal Duvalier regime. At the time, the climate of opinion was to get rid of the dictatorship, and eventually democracy and progress would flourish. An attractive and easy concept in the imagination, but the implementation proved much more ferocious.
Indeed, here is a brief synopsis of the past 25 years in Haiti: seven presidential elections, two successful coups d’état. The post of Head of State had switched hands 13 times between nine individuals, and it’s almost a norm not to hold parliamentary elections on time. The sovereignty of the country has also been compromised, with one US invasion in 1994 and two United Nations peace missions (1995 and 2004.)
Giving the dynamics, or lack of stability, on the political front over the last 25 years, it is no wonder that the climate of opinion has not been able to gather enough momentum, let alone have any real impact on national policies that could have turned the hope of 1986 into a much more tangible and concrete change for the people. Some might argue that most Haitians are worse off today than they were on the eve of Feb. 7, 1986, the day Duvalier went into exile.
The lack of tangible progress of the Haitian society over the last 25 years has led to this neo-climate of opinion, being promoted primarily by the new government, that opening the country to foreign investors must be the way to create a modern economy and eventually uplift the average Haitian to a modern middle-class.
In the first instance, immediately after the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier in 1986, the climate of opinion was led by a populist movement that democracy woulld be by the people, for the people and supposedly of the people. The people were in charge to construct their own opinions, without any clear guidance. Leadership was mostly absent, and those who came forward to lead did so without laying out any clear vision of where they wanted to take the country. We had a country operating on rumours in the streets, and those in power were making back-door deals with foreign governments and entities, as they opened the country to globalization policies at the detriment of the peasantry.
In the late 1980s and for most of the 1990s, the inflation rate skyrocketed. The country stopped producing enough food for its population. Importation of all sorts of goods became en vogue, and living standards went from bad to worse. The failure of that period, in term of national policies, could be traced directly on a poorly constructed climate of opinion.
With the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the unequivocal leader of the masses, the poor majority finally felt they had conquered political power, but the economic ruling class would not buy into their opinion of wealth redistribution and better living and working standards for all. The Haitian intelligentsia has always been timid and mostly absent in making their voices heard.
The last dagger in the belief that the poor could govern and expect better came on the night of Feb. 29, 2004, with the removal of Aristide from power en route to South Africa. That era of populist platforms is now considered a failure, because it failed to deliver significant policies in favour of the very people it was supposed to uplift.
Between 2004 and 2006, a period of transition, insecurity and economic redirection ensued. An interim government was installed to organize free and fair elections. That same government took advantage of the then-political vacuum, and enacted some very bold moves that would further open the country to foreign investors.
The climate of opinion has shifted from when the people wanted and demanded better living and working conditions to their government’s exercising policies that would be more entrenched with the benefit of the foreign investors.
Under the reign of Rene Preval from 2006 up to the moment, where a colossal earthquake changed everything, the Haitian people were very much absent from any real discourse pertaining to their own future.
After a brief period of political upheaval, when the people took the streets against the rise of food prices in 2008, and two prime ministers later, things seemed to have gotten back to some kind of normalcy.
Jean-Max Bellerive was approved as Prime Minister to succeed Michele Pierre-Louis, who lasted less than a year in that same post. Shortly thereafter, we saw the United Nations nominate former president Bill Clinton as a Special Envoy to the country. The UN-militarized mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) seemed to have had an indefinite mandate. A new era in climate of opinion was clearly taking center stage.
The earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, as destructive as it was, made one thing clear: Haitians no longer control their destiny, and the forum where opinions were being debated was no longer in the hands of the people. A Google search of news articles on Haiti from January 2006 to June 2009 revealed about 35,500 results as compared to 153,000 results from June 2009 to today. This is just one example of where and how opinions are being debated. Nowadays, it is not far-fetched to read about an upcoming Haitian policy or news, such was the case with this year’s elections results and the document about the Haitian army remobilization, in the New York Times or CNN before anyone in Haiti even knows about them.
What is in the best interest of Haiti and Haitians is not necessarily being articulated or coming from the average Haitian. With the election of Michel Martelly, it is now en vogue to solicit more foreign investors to come and save the Haitian economy. This current government is even promoting a shift from aid to investment.
Regardless of their intentions, such policies are being executed without a national dialogue. For the most part, this new trend is being pushed by Haiti’s foreign minister, Laurent Lamothe, who wants Haiti’s foreign policy to be an avenue to solicit foreign investments into the country and for all ambassadors to play a key role in achieving this goal.
We are now at an intersection, where a very tiny minority is controlling the climate of opinion, and with tools like social media websites, they are mounting a very successful campaign to execute policies that may or may not be advantageous for the country in the long haul—but without a doubt the vast majority of Haitians living in Haiti have no idea what is happening within their own country.
The politics of the exclusion of the majority continues. In the name of development and reconstruction, the hard questions are not being asked. Most people are keeping to themselves, hoping this new path will work and that at the end the Haitian people will also be a beneficiary. If history is any guide, governing effectively in a democracy cannot be done by denying a seat at the table to the very people who would be most affected.
The populist opinion of the 1990s might not have achieved its goals, but in the wake of the biggest natural disaster to ever hit the country, it is not advantageous to continue with policies that will further alienate and marginalize the vast majority of the people. We must promote a climate of inclusion and diversity of opinion, where everyone, regardless of social, educational and economic status, can be a part of the progressive change that must take place in Haiti.
Maximum power in the hands of a few, regardless of how well-intentioned they might be, has the potential to lead to maximum corruption. It is time for Haiti to have a climate of opinion that matches its glorious and prideful history. People from all walks of life of society must come together to define the Haitian ambition for this century and beyond, and eventually that collective cohesiveness of opinion would lead to the policies that could, once and for all, irreversibly alter Haiti’s horizon towards the path of progress, harmony, and communal love.
Ilio Durandis, a Caribbean Journal contributor, is the founder of Haiti 2015, a social movement for a just and prosperous Haiti. He is a columnist with The Haitian Times.