The Failed State That Keeps Failing: Quake-Ravaged Haiti Still Without a Government

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Former U.S. President and UN special envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton, second right, and Haiti's President Michel Martelly, second left, walk through the gardens of the National Palace, to a news conference in Port-au-Prince , Haiti, Thursday Sept. 8, 2011. (Ramon Espinosa-AP

Haitian President Michel Martelly announced a Presidential Advisory Council for Economic Growth and Investment this week. It’s got big international names – Bill Clinton, Wyclef Jean, Mohamed Yunus, to name a few – and a big mandate to harness international investment for destitute, earthquake-racked Haiti. So why isn’t it drawing big cheers? Maybe it’s because one more big international group, like the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission (IHRC) that was formed in the wake of last year’s devastating quake, only seems to highlight how hopeless Haiti’s own domestic government still looks.

Next Wednesday, Sept. 14, marks four months in office for Martelly. That’s a third of a year, more than 120 days – and yet he still hasn’t been able to form a government. Some cite his inexperience and populist arrogance – Martelly won last March’s presidential run-off by a 2-to1 margin, but this is the first elected office the former carnival singer has ever held – while others point to an obstructionist parliament full of establishment hacks who can’t accept an outsider head of state. Either way, Parliament has rejected his first two nominees for Prime Minister, one in June and one last month, and it’s not certain he’ll get his third, Garry Conille, approved. Haiti observers fear that the PM dysfunction, on top of Haiti’s usual dysfunction, threatens to stall the already sluggish reconstruction of the western hemisphere’s poorest nation.

It’s no surprise that Martelly and the Haitian Parliament are butting heads. Despite his landslide victory, the establishment INITE party that Martelly toppled has the strongest presence in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Still, given the critical administrative role prime ministers play in Haiti’s government, few expected a stalemate that makes even Washington look like a bastion of adult compromise. Most analysts chalk up the failure of Martelly’s first PM nominee, entrepreneur Daniel Rouzier, to the parliament’s petty urge to show Martelly who’s boss. But they blame the second bust on Martelly, whose choice of Bernard Gousse – a former Justice Minister widely accused of persecuting supporters of former leftist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide – reminded Haitians of Martelly’s reputed admiration for Haiti’s former Duvalier dictatorship.

Conille, 45, is considered a more able as well as palatable choice. After the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, which ravaged Haiti and killed more than 200,000 people, Conille was a top aide to former U.S. President Bill Clinton in the latter’s role as special U.N. envoy to Haiti. Clinton is also the co-chair of the IHRC, and since Haiti’s Prime Minister fills the other co-chair position, many believe Clinton and the U.S. pushed for Conille’s selection. Conille, a U.S.-educated technocrat, does U.N. development work around the world, including Africa. As a senior western diplomat in Port-au-Prince told me, “We’re encouraged in Conille’s case because there was good dialogue between Martelly and Parliament [about him] beforehand.”

Still, there could be roadblocks, the most serious being the fact that Conille’s international work has kept him from living in Haiti for five consecutive years, a constitutional requirement for the Prime Minister post. But his backers say he should get a waiver in this case given that it was his U.N. responsibilities that kept him out of Haiti. As a result, many are hopeful that the parliament could approve Conille by as early as next week. “It’s hard for me to believe they’d be cynical enough to let the [rejection] nonsense continue,” one Haitian-American analyst tells me.

(See “More Whoa! in Haiti: Did the Ruling Party Manipulate Election Results?”)

But if it does, it will be hard to blame Martelly this time – and easier to conclude that Haiti’s venal political elite is more interested in thwarting an upstart President than it is in getting Haiti’s recovery back on track. That process needs a Prime Minister: he not only co-pilots the IHRC with Clinton, but is the government’s de facto reconstruction director for everything from desperately needed temporary housing for the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still living in squalid tent camps, to the just as urgent agricultural jumpstart and universal education projects that Martelly has pledged to champion. While the latter effort languishes without a PM to guide it, for example, about half a million youths are still on the streets as a new school year begins, perpetuating Haiti’s poverty cycle.

Having a credible Prime Minister for the long-term is also key to retaining the confidence of international reconstruction donors – who have yet to deliver half the $4.58 billion in grants due by the end of this year, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, Haiti is still wrestling with a cholera epidemic – and this past summer it plummeted from the world’s 11th-worst failed state to the fifth-worst on the Washington-based non-profit Fund For Peace’s Failed States Index. The four just ahead of it: Somalia, Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Martelly and the Haitian Parliament of course don’t aspire to join those nightmare nations. But they better start proving it.