Watching America’s democracy from Haiti

On the first Wednesday of the new year, the world was shocked as protestors broke into the U.S. Capitol in Washington. This was the first breach of the Capitol building in over 200 years. The significance of this riot in a country that is a bastion for democracy cannot be denied, and global media coverage and interest followed accordingly. Yet, for many Haitians these events felt remarkably familiar.

America’s TV commentators made vague references likening the events in Washington to contexts across the globe, “banana republics” with authoritarian regimes. Parallels drawn – correctly or not – were mostly with non-democratic countries. But the most fitting parallel would be Haiti, America’s neighbour to the South and fellow electoral democracy. In 2019, its own legislature was attacked – one in a series of chaotic assaults to our democratic institutions.

Since ending dictatorship in 1986,our democratic structures and practices have been deeply flawed. Riots have become standard practice when political groups disagree with government policies, and we’ve seen mobs storm our cities to demand the resignation of the elected President.

Democracy is something to be protected and strengthened, it is not assured, and it is not a catch-all. Recent circumstances in the U.S. have brought to the fore greater recognition that it is a highly nuanced system of governance which needs to be constructed in a way to ensure its continued success and survival. American democracy is defined by fundamental principles of the rule of law, representative government and equality, outlined in the Constitution of the United States. The U.S. Constitution divides the federal government into three co-equal branches: the legislative, executive and judicial, ensuring a balance of power and response to actions of the other branches. This original construct, despite challenges of late, have proven out. Unlike in the U.S., the Haitian Constitution creates an imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches, causing unending dysfunction. Because of this, since 1987 Haiti has seen 25 Prime Ministers come and go, and five Presidents have been constrained to govern the country by executive order without a parliament because required legislative elections did not take place on time. Apart from bringing the country to a recurring deadlock, our Constitution effectively undermines its own democratic ambitions.

As Americans take stock of their democracy, so too do we in Haiti. Earlier this year, a process began to break the cycle of instability and political violence: reforming the Constitution. If accomplished, this will finally provide a framework for a functioning representative democracy. President Jovenel Moïse has set the wheels in motion, assigning an independent advisory committee to produce a draft new Constitution that places the rights of citizens at its centre. The executive branch will be strengthened, meaning that a small minority in the legislature will not be able to stall the political process, and legislative elections will be held on time. The people once again will have a say in who their elected leaders are, and those leaders will have a real chance to deliver for the public that elects them in what currently remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The new Constitution will be the people’s constitution. It will be put forward for consultation with representation from a wide range of civil society and political organizations. Then, it will be put to a vote in a national referendum. The updated Constitution, as envisioned, will set a new precedent for democratic governance in Haiti.

2021 has the potential to be a brighter year, a page turned, for two important democracies – the first two republics of the Americas, in fact – the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, and Haiti, the world’s first Black republic.

Bocchit Edmond
Bocchit Edmond
Haiti’s Ambassador to the United States