5 years after devastating earthquake, Haiti struggles with old demons

Posted at 8:19 AM, Jan 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-02 15:48:44-05

The freedom bell stands in the pantheon just outside the grounds of a razed presidential palace, quietly serving as a symbol of the fight for social justice in an unequal and divided society.

More than two centuries after it was sounded to announce slavery's abolition, fueling the Haitian Revolution, the call for equality by the country's impoverished black masses still rings hollow.

Now, opponents of President Michel Martelly are invoking Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a revolutionary hero who proclaimed the world's first black republic, to decry government abuses and give a voice to their struggle. The new battle line is as much about race and class as access to wealth and power.

Five years after its most devastating earthquake, a century since the 1915 U.S. occupation and on its 211th anniversary, Haiti risks returning to its tumultuous past.

A pre-electoral crisis looms. Municipal and legislative elections are postponed. And uncertainties surround Jan. 12. That's when Haitians will commemorate the more than 300,000 earthquake dead while they watch to see what happens in this nation of 10 million as the terms of most members of parliament expire.

This week, Martelly, the chief judge of the Supreme Court and the heads of the two houses of parliament signed a political accord in hopes of averting the crisis. But the tentative agreement, which calls for extending the terms of parliament's lower chamber until April 24, 2015, and senators until Sept. 9, 2015, is based on an electoral law being passed before Jan. 12.

If no law is approved, Martelly will rule by decree.

"As Haitians, we wouldn't like to have a Jan. 12 that arrives with difficulties, and aggravates Jan. 12, 2010," said Leon Brutus, 74, attending Mass inside the temporary structure of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, which was destroyed by the earthquake.

The political stalemate, while nothing new, is exacerbated by Haiti's post-earthquake reality: The influx of millions in foreign aid and government construction contracts — granted mostly to foreign companies — have not stimulated the economy as much as many had hoped, and Haitians are feeling the aftershocks.

"People are hungry," protester Ericq Cherry, 48, said during a recent anti-government demonstration.

Hunger is sprouting resentment and deep frustrations that are being tapped by those leading the increasing, and often violent, street mobilizations against Martelly. He is accused of not only dragging his feet on elections, but also of corruption and of trying to be a de facto dictator.

Opponents say Martelly and ormer Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, a casualty of the growing discontent, are trying to "recolonize" Haiti by putting foreign interests above national concerns as they grant lucrative mining contracts and development deals to foreign companies.

A former singer, Martelly built his popularity on songs with populist sentiments. Now as a president fighting for political survival, he is accused of exacerbating the fragile class and color division with his governance style.

"He never misses an opportunity to tout his family's riches while the Haitian people languish in abject poverty," Attorney Andre Michel, a leader of the Patriotic Movement of the Democratic Opposition group said about Martelly, whose spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

"The excess, the taste of profit, the carnival sprees, corruption of the political and economic elites who have more light skin people, brings back old demons that go back to slavery and our history," said Michel, whose client has made corruption charges against Martelly's wife and son. They have denied the accusations.

Assad Volcy, an opposition leader in the newly formed PititDesalin, Children of Dessalines, platform, said turning to Dessalines, a former slave, isn't about skin color but about changing the mentality in a country, where, according to a recent World Bank poverty report, 20 percent of the population holds 64 percent of the wealth.

"This minority has been exploiting the country since the death of the nation's father," Volcy said. "What is worse today is they want to be in direct control of the political space by electing senators and deputies."

Volcy said invoking Dessalines is a reminder that Haiti "is being governed by the children of those who assassinated Dessalines."