With the February election of René Préval as its new president, Haiti, poorest of countries in the Western Hemisphere, may now have some chance to move into the future with greater hope for peace and economic advancement. Although the election itself was marred by irregularities, Mr. Préval was clearly the winner in an election involving over 30 parties. Among the pressing challenges he now faces is the need to bring them together in a partnership that will bridge the divide separating political extremes.
But other challenges also face the new president. Gangs, for example, have been the cause of much of the violence that has wracked Haiti. Many urban gang members are teenagers. Jobless and lacking education, they have only weapons as their tools of trade. Older gangs in the provinces include former members of the military, and they too have been responsible for acts of violence. Disarming and demobilizing both forms of gangs is a recognized priority. Only then can these youths and other impoverished Haitians hope to earn a livelihood in legitimate ways and be reintegrated into society. Part of the violence, and the corruption that has accompanied it, stems from drug trafficking. The drugs come largely from Colombia, and are then sent on to the United States and Europe, where demand remains high. Stemming their influx represents yet another challenge.
The United Nations continues to play a crucial role in guaranteeing some level of security through its peacekeeping forces. The U.N. Security Council has extended their stay for six months. That six-month period, though, may have to be extended again and again before U.N. forces can leave a country that has been torn by violence for so many years. The Haitian justice system must also be strengthened and made more accountable for human rights violations. Human rights abusers have in many cases been accorded virtual impunity from prosecution. Human Rights Watch, citing the Haitian police for having left many crimes uninvestigated, gives the example of a former police chief, Guy Phillippe, who was responsible for the summary executions of dozens of gang members.
Disarming and demobilizing gang members will require massive levels of job creation in order to provide them with realistic alternatives to the lives they have led so far. Job creation aimed at them and other vulnerable groups could be combined with the needed rebuilding of Haiti’s infrastructure. Main roads are in such poor condition that traveling even relatively short distances can take many hours. After decades of neglect, moreover, the environment itself has become seriously degraded, a situation that has driven down productivity and with it the incomes of the many people who exist on little more than a dollar a day. Jed Hoffman of Catholic Relief Services told America that Haitians who attempt to scratch out a precarious living from the land find it impossible to lead lives of dignity. Instead, they struggle with such high levels of poverty that malnutrition is just one of the inevitable results.
Basic education represents another pressing need. Mr. Préval has said that every child ought to be in school. At present, however, an estimated 40 percent of those who should be in school do not attend. For these goals, and for economic revival, a long-term commitment on the part of the international community is essential. Only international assistance will enable Haiti to move from its present condition as a so-called failed state, one unable to provide for the education, health and security of its people. At the very least, its external debt should be forgiven.
Given its wealth, its position as a world power and its proximity to Haiti, the United States has a major role to play. One of the ways it could help involves trade preferences. In a statement on Feb. 21, Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ International Policy Committee, said that Congress ought to move stalled legislation that would grant meaningful trade preferences to Haiti and thereby create thousands of new jobs. In particular, he added, the United States should make it possible for the once-active apparel industry to resume its place as a significant provider of employment in Haiti.
In his statement, Bishop Wenski notes that the people of Haiti have taken an important step in electing a president. But he goes on to emphasize that the United States and the international community must take additional steps to accompany the Haitian people as they walk the long road to...democratic and economic revitalization. If these steps are indeed taken, the journey on that long road will have begun on a note of hope.