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Five Years After Earthquake, Politcal Ground Still Shaking in Haiti

With tens of thousands still displaced and political protest on the rise, the only thing assured for western hemisphere's most impoverished nation is more struggle ahead

A demonstrator holds up an image of Haiti's former President Jean Bertrand Aristide that reads in Creole; "February 7, 1991 Jean Bertrand Aristide first elected president of Haiti," during a protest calling for the resignation of Haiti's President Michel Martelly in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015. (Photo: AP/Dieu Nalio Chery)

On the five-year anniversary of a devastating earthquake—and despite a last-minute political settlement reached Sunday designed to curb steet protests and political unrest—the people of Haiti remain engaged in high-stake battles against a series of inter-related crises, including democratic upheaval, housing shortages, public health worries, and ongoing economic problems related to self-determination, poverty and pervasive joblessness.

On January 12, 2010 a powerful earthquake struck the Haitian capital of Port-Au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 people, injuring hundreds of thousands more, and leaving an estimated 1.5 million homeless or displaced. Five years later—though billions of dollars in reconstruction money has been spent and progress made in some areas—the nation continues to struggle. In addition to the destruction caused by the earthquake, a subsequent outbreak of cholera (introduced by UN soldiers responding to the disaster) claimed the lives of more than 8,000 Haitians, proving that quality sanitation, access to clean water, and overall public health systems remain lacking.

According to critics of the earthquake response effort by the United States and others, too many mistakes were made and too little has been done to secure a recovery that puts the needs of the Haitian people ahead of western interests and short-sighted economic policies. Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, argues that the international community, including the United Nations and key western nations, must take much of the blame for the lack of progress in key areas.

"This is a shameful milepost for the international community, as so many urgent needs in Haiti remain a full five years later," Weisbrot said. "Countries such as the United States, France and Canada share a particular burden for these failures, since these countries have trampled upon Haitian sovereignty and sidelined Haitian institutions throughout the country’s history."

Weisbrot's colleague at CEPR, research associate Jake Johnston said the the words "scandal, profiteering and tragedy" best described the story of Haiti since the 2010 quake. "Certain contractors got tens of millions for housing that they didn’t deliver," Johnston explained. "While authorities have still been able to claim success by pointing to how fewer people remain in [temporary] camps... many of these people were forcibly evicted from the camps, often with no place to go. The displacement crisis continues; it is just hidden now."

Relating to the cholera epidemic, which is not over, the Haitian people were dealt a blow last week when a U.S. court threw out a lawsuite filed by human rights groups against the United Nations. The suit was seeking compensation for Haitian victims of the outbreak, which was unleashed by Nepalese troops serving the UN mission.

Meanwhile, as Haiti has tried to regain its footing in terms of housing and health, the nation has also been embroiled in a deepening political crisis as President Michel Martelly has faced a growing call to resign amid accusations of authoritarianism.

A briefing paper issued last week by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) offered a thorough analysis of recent events. According to the group:

Haiti’s elections have been delayed for many reasons, but the principal roadblock has been the lack of a constitutionally-mandated electoral council to oversee the election process. The failure to hold timely legislative elections, and the ensuing difficulties in reaching a quorum in the Senate, has effectively allowed President Martelly to rule without legislative oversight for most of his term.

An agreement was, in fact, reached by Martelly and some opposition groups on Sunday. However, as Al-Jazeera reports, the deal does little, if anything, to end the crisis:

Haiti's President Michel Martelly and some of the country's opposition parties have struck a deal to hold new elections by late this year, aimed at defusing a political crisis that had the nation on edge.

However, Haiti's most hardline opposition party, Fanmi Lavalas, was not part of Sunday's last-minute agreement, which came shortly before the mandate of the sitting legislature in the impoverished Caribbean nation was to expire on Monday.

The leftist opposition party controls the majority of anti-government protesters and also key seats in parliament.

Al Jazeera's Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from Port-au-Prince, said the agreement struck by the president and parts of the opposition "was a deal perhaps in name only".

"Trying to stem the unrest, Martelly played what might have been his last card and announced that a deal with some opposition parties had been reached," Elizondo said.

Protesters accused Martelly of tacitly allowing the legislature to expire in order to rule by decree, while he accuses the opposition of blocking an electoral law that would allow a vote.

The IJDH said the immediate establishment of new electoral councils could pave the way for transparent elections, but that the outcome is anything but assured.

In a recent essay published in Haiti Liberte, analysts Travis Ross and Roger Annis described how the recent political turmoil in Haiti is very much related to popular dissatisfaction with the post-earthquake era, but also has deeper historical roots. They explained:

Three factors are driving the protest movement — Martelly’s march towards authoritarian rule since coming to power in May 2011, the ongoing MINUSTAH occupation, and the failed record of earthquake reconstruction.

Although two presidential elections have been held in the years following the 2004 coup against Aristide, both Presidents René Préval and Michel Martelly have been dominated by and essentially subservient to imperialist powers. This weak state was dramatically symbolized by the partial collapse of Haiti's iconic century-old presidential palace in the earthquake. It could not be salvaged and has been razed.

Right after the quake, the U.S., Canada, and Europe rushed Haiti into a election which they brazenly meddled in to establish even stronger neo-colonial rule. A two-round presidential election in November 2010 and March 2011 brought Martelly to the presidency, but only after the Organization of American States (OAS) intervened and illegally changed the outcome. The largest political party in the country — Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas — was excluded, producing the lowest voter turnout of any polling in the Western Hemisphere’s history. The election was entirely financed from abroad.

President Michel Martelly finally managed to get his long-time business partner Laurent Lamothe named as prime minister, and the two declared Haiti “open for business,” meaning that foreign, sweatshop factory investment was to be Haiti's economic salvation, complemented by foreign aid and charity. Public sector intervention to tackle housing, healthcare, education, and other emergency needs was eschewed.

Martelly was a close ally of the extreme right-wing that twice overthrew Aristide in 1991 and 2004. He honored former tyrant Jean-Claude Duvalier, who was driven out of Haiti by a popular uprising in 1986 and was content (and permitted) to live in France until his embezzled funds ran out and he returned to Haiti in January 2011.

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