Beyond the poverty statistics and the kidnapping numbers, the signs of Haiti's miserable failure as a country are literally littered across the capital: the rats squirming across the piles of garbage that festoon the streets; the bloated corpse of a dog lying on the roadside in an upscale neighborhood; the kids paddling through fetid green water in the slums of Cite Soleil.
Port-au-Prince is a city where, in one all-too-typical week, the talk of the town was a 12-year-old boy who had become a contract killer, murdering two people for $30 a head. The same week, a teacher and five children were abducted, ransomed and returned for $50,000 -- and it was a cause for celebration. They were lucky to live and lucky to have negotiated down the price from $200,000.
This is a country where there is nostalgia for strong, even if bloody, leadership. Many Haitians cite the corrupt and murderous Duvalier regime as the best government in living memory. Several I spoke to said they yearn for the return of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the second-generation dictator who fled to France in 1986; they believe he would restore order and some semblance of prosperity.
And it was here, on a five-hour stop in the capital, that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently sent out this appeal in anticipation of elections now scheduled for December: "Throughout history, people have fought for the right to vote. Some have indeed died for the right to vote. There is no more powerful weapon in the hands of a citizen than the vote. And so to the people of Haiti, I urge you to use that powerful weapon, the vote, in the days ahead."
Rarely has a truism sounded so glib. From the top down, the Bush administration has a tendency toward the airy use of the word freedom. No doubt, free and fair elections are a good thing. But in Haiti, democracy has the ring of a false promise.
For the vote in Haiti is not a powerful weapon -- at least, not powerful enough. The government's revenues last year were $330 million. That's what Rice's State Department spends every 10 days, what Ohio's schools spend in a fortnight, what New Line Cinema spent to produce and distribute two-thirds of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. This year's budget, including foreign assistance, is $880 million. In a country of 8 million people, Haiti's paltry budget means that the next president will have about $100 to spend on each person, dispensed through a corrupt and incapable bureaucracy, not to mention a lawless and often violent police force.
The victor in Haiti's elections later this year will not inherit a poisoned chalice as much as an empty one.
To be fair to Rice, she pushed the right buttons and avoided political land mines on her brief visit to Port-au-Prince. She pressed the current Haitian government of Gerard Latortue to address promptly the cases of political prisoners such as former prime minister Yvon Neptune and the populist priest Gerard Jean-Juste, both languishing in a breezy suburban jail. She encouraged supporters of Fanmi Lavalas, the party of exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to vote. And she made a point of calling, twice, for inclusiveness in the elections, a subtle reference to the fact that Dumarsais Simeus, a Haitian American who made his millions in the food processing business in Texas and now wants to run for president of Haiti, had been ruled ineligible to stand as a candidate. Haiti's supreme court has since ruled him back in.
But from here, the Bush administration's singular faith in the transformational power of democracy seems misplaced. Haiti's elections look like a mere prelude to disappointment. "I am not optimistic," Rotchild Francois Jr., a highly regarded Haitian journalist, told me a couple of weeks ago, nipping out between news bulletins at Radio Metropole. "We have seen a lot of presidents. A lot of prime ministers. We want democracy in Haiti, but the problem is the economic situation. The government just does not have the money."
He voices a well-grounded, weary pessimism, which echoes around Haiti: Jean-Juste, the Aristide acolyte currently suspended from the priesthood, warns darkly of a popular backlash against any election that excludes Lavalas. Amaral Duclona, a gang leader in Cite Soleil, shrugs off the elections and the authorities who have abandoned the slum to bloody gun battles in the broad light of day. Andy Apaid, one of the country's wealthiest businessmen, says simply: "We are in a very, very serious hole."
Even Juan Gabriel Valdes, the top United Nations official in Haiti, takes a fatalistic view of the presidential contest that the international community is working so hard to make happen: "We will have the election, but the country will not be very different the day after. What we would like is to build a consensus around the priorities."
Reports on the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere provide reams of grim statistics: four out of five people live on $2 a day, nearly three out of four are unemployed and almost half the children are malnourished. Kris Kristofferson's music may get little play in the Caribbean, but it would be hard to find a country where his words ring truer: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."
Even in relatively affluent neighborhoods, where the homes are well kept, the roads in front of them are as potholed as the surface of the moon. Private property is valued; public spaces are somebody else's problem. If Haitians expect to get little from their government, they seem willing to give even less.
Low expectations in government are well-founded. The roll call of dictators, kleptocrats and populist agitators who led the country in the past 50 years bequeathed Haiti a police force of thugs and a government bureaucracy of crooks and incompetents.
Looking out over the smoky sprawl of downtown Port-au-Prince from inside the white-washed confines of the U.N.'s headquarters, one senior official in the international community's effort to save Haiti told me: "This is part of our schizophrenia: We are required to work with a government that is corrupt, to support a police force we cannot trust."
The problems, like the garbage, just seem to pile up. Take the trash, in fact. The Haitian government has neither the trucks to cart away the rubbish nor incineration facilities to destroy it. They don't have the tax revenue or the capacity to borrow to pay for the clean-up facilities. The junk contaminates the water supply, which only makes more people in the slums dependent on the water supplies controlled by the gangs. The gang leaders get stronger as a result, using their water wealth to buy more guns and making more areas off-limits to the nonexistent government services.
Given these giant challenges and puny resources, it is a wonder that 54 people registered as candidates for the presidency. (Thirty-three have been approved to run.) The fact that there are so many would-be presidents points to another frailty: Haiti has more than 100 political parties and therefore, in effect, none. In such circumstances, in any democracy, the government would struggle to salvage its people and its economy. It is certainly hard to see how the polls will live up to the Bush administration's promise. "This electoral process can change the course of history for Haiti," Rice said on Haitian radio. "It can make for so much better future for the Haitian people."
Elections in Haiti are not risk-free. By definition, a political campaign is a divisive, polarizing event. Countries with sound institutions and a functioning civil society quickly recuperate after the national argument is over. Not so Haiti. The country was on the precipice of civil war last year over the elections that Aristide allegedly stole in 2000. For the time being, U.N. forces have held the violence at bay and created a fragile stability.
This year's polls are also pregnant with resentment. The supporters of Aristide's populist Lavalas party have multiple grounds for a sense of exclusion. Aristide, under investigation for corruption, is in exile in South Africa, while his number two, Jean-Juste, is accused, but not formally charged, with giving his blessing to the kidnapping and brutal murder of a prominent journalist.
Not holding the elections is not an option. Haiti needs a national government with the legitimacy of a public mandate. And that means elections must take place soon, with a peaceful transfer of power by Feb. 7, the date required by the constitution. (The elections have now slipped into December, the second slippage caused largely by the logistical problems of registering voters and running an election in a state without infrastructure.)
Valdes, the thoughtful Chilean overseeing nearly 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers and other personnel, has a sober view of the elections: They need to happen. The U.N. should not allow for a "hit and run election" that marks the end of international engagement. Nor can the world wait for "Haiti to become a country of citizens, for Haiti to become Belgium," before holding elections. Echoing the deep differences between the Bush administration and the United Nations, Rice talks of turning points, Valdes talks of a long-term process. Referring to the timeline for a U.N. presence in the country, he says: "We have to think about Haiti in decades, not years."
The Bush administration is all too quick to mistake freedom for progress. Elections are plainly not a cure-all; they may not even be that meaningful if government has no capacity to govern.
This is not to breathe new life into the White House's favorite straw man -- the idea that some people, let's call them "Europeans," believe that others, let's call them "Arabs," are not suited to democracy. Haiti, the fabled first black republic, has enjoyed two centuries of independence and, intermittently, democracy. There is no shortage of free speech on the French side of Hispaniola.
Instead, it is to say that Haiti is a case for nation-building, not mere liberation. It is a task for a development-minded administration, not one single-mindedly focused on democracy. Another Haiti crisis will not be far off. It is in America's interests to be looking well beyond the election to the less newsworthy, less Manichaean business of road construction, power generation and clean water distribution. The priority is not freedom, it's the garbage.
Author's e-mail: email@example.com
James Harding is a former Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times. He is now based in Mexico City and writing a book about the export of American-style politics.