Three months after 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Caribbean nation of Haiti on January 12, international coverage have all but faded from the media. The death and destruction are distant grim statistics that attest to the scope and depth of this disaster, but it is the almost inert political leadership of Haiti that is going to be a major cause for concern as the recovery and rebuilding processes begin.
In my opinion the will of the international community to help Haiti rebuild bigger and better will be tested by and based on the efficiency and effectiveness of its political leadership, for now, led by President Rene Preval. Three months after the earthquake the Haitian political leadership is still weak, flaccid, ineffective and incapable of rallying and offering hope to the traumatized Haitian populace. It is struggling to organize and reorder Haitian society with the delivery of even basic amenities.
To be sure President Preval now coming out of his own trauma and slump appears to be again involved in directing the big reconstruction efforts now underway. But engagement in projects from a distance and behind the scenes suggests to Haitians that he's simply an expert, high- paid administrator when what they need and want going forward is an effective leader and president.
Haiti's woes are many and daunting. Without relying on economic hyperbole to make the point there is no doubt that before the earthquake Haiti was the "sick man, the basket case of the Western Hemisphere." In the aftermath of the earthquake the results tell the story: over 230,000 dead, 1.2 million displaced and structural and other damage estimated at $14 billion. Of all Haiti's disasters, natural and manmade, this has been the worst in the nation's history.
Indeed, the effects of the earthquake were amplified by the deep poverty that Haiti's experiences due to a nasty combination of political instability, endemic and instutionalized corruption, a polarized social structure, and a nation long bullied by the condescending actions of big powers. As the earthquake hit Haiti and left death and destruction in its wake, under President Rene Preval the nation has had the unenviable distinction of being the most destitute nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Matters remain complicated by the sheer breathtaking incompetence and lack of crisis management skills of President Preval and his government that has caused Haitians at home and abroad to wring their hands in exasperation. Up to now Preval has not demonstrated the kind of firm and decisive leadership that Haiti needs to marshal a badly traumatized nation and give millions of hopeless Haitians renewed hope in a future that can be better.
Haitians and the international community remember well that in the immediate days and weeks following the earthquake Preval remained in seclusion and was nowhere to be seen. It is fair to say that he too was deeply traumatized but Haitians expect their leaders to get up, dust of the grime off their backsides, and lead as they were elected to do. Not cringe and cower and abnegate their political responsibilities.
And when he did show up in public he looked as a broken rag doll scarcely able to pick himself up. For the international community as well as ordinary Haitians Preval was a monumental let down, a failure and an embarrassment to them at a time when Haiti desperately needed a firm and steady hand, He did not measure up, he did not make the cut.
Adversity does not make the man, so the saying goes. But it reveals him to himself. If weak cowardice will be the result; if strong resoluteness and firmness will be the outcome. The Caribbean has had its share of natural disasters but always these small nations' leadership has taken charge and moved to rally the community and provide strong capable leadership.
Just a few years ago the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada was literally destroyed by two powerful earthquakes. Ninety percent of the island's homes were destroyed. Its agricultural base was wrecked along with hospitals and other key infrastructure. The difference between Granada and Haiti is that Grenada was led by a strong, tough leader in the person of Dr. Keith Mitchell. Grenada rebuilt bigger and better and today there is very little to remind Grenadians and the world that after Hurricane Ivan and Emily struck the island looked like the garbage scattered by marauding dogs.
By contrast, Preval's invisibility gave the world the impression that while the earthquake was devastating to say the least the Haitian political leadership was in a state of rigor mortis. In the aftermath there were calls for the popular ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide who remains in exile in South Africa to return and take charge so politically inept was Preval and his government. The consternation is understandable given the fact that Preval did achieve some measure of success during his first term in office.
He did succeed in building more schools, creating thousands of new jobs, and settling some of Haiti's agrarian questions. Now Haiti, inspite of its recent woes, is expected to vote in presidential election in November 2010. Prior to the earthquake Preval's critics had accused him of fixing the Parliament so that he would be able to tinker with the Haitian constitution to get a third term in office.
The scheduled November elections may have to be postponed given the devastation of the infrastructure and the fact that using money for food, shelter and infrastructural development on politics might seem a bit obscene. There is ample displeasure with President Preval and the opposition forces are bound to argue that the nation needs a new, strong and capable leader if Haiti is to come out of this deep dark hole.
From Haiti's political opposition standpoint that is a valid argument given Preval's present weak disposition to leadership and the lack of support that he has both at home and abroad. It is an opportunity too good to pass up. Then there is the little but important question of who gets to control the billions of dollars that are expected to flow into Haiti for redevelopment and rebuilding.
A weak government is a great institution to perpetuate Haiti's historical kleptomania by government officials. A strong one may have great intentions but a built in culture of corruption is not going to disappear simply because of one earthquake. Hence the international community's dilemma how to help Haiti and make sure that public accountability and transparency is maintained while making sure that the neediest Haitians benefit from the financial bonanza.
In the end that will be the great big gorilla in the room. Not because Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake means that corruption perished in the disaster. If anything the weakness and fragile nature of the government makes corruption easier to practice and institute. The real test will be how to manage this corruption in a way that it does not completely take over the system and turn away the international community and squander all of the goodwill and sympathy that Haiti now has from the international community.