Government and Politics

Haiti Table of Contents

WHEN IT SECURED ITS INDEPENDENCE from France, Haiti moved to the forefront of political history. The Haitian Revolution took place at the same period as the American and the French revolutions, and Haiti was one of the first nations to abolish slavery. In some ways, however, Haiti's political development lagged behind that of other nations. Its government functioned like a protostate compared with the more modern systems that evolved in other states. Authoritarianism, typical among archaic states based on monarchy and despotism, characterized Haiti's political history. Haitian governments historically had lacked well-developed institutions, elaborate bureaucracies, and an ability to do more than maintain power and extract wealth from a large peasant base. Haiti's rural areas, where the majority of the population lives, traditionally has benefited least from government expenditures, and they have suffered for the past 500 years from virtually uninterrupted military domination.

In the late 1980s, the Haitian political system was in a profound state of crisis, which became acute during the waning months of 1985 as swelling popular unrest led to the fall of the Jean-Claude Duvalier government on February 7, 1986. After Duvalier's fall, a series of short-lived governments ruled the country.

In retrospect, the post-Duvalier period may be viewed as a transition to consolidation of longer-term control over the Haitian state by one (or more) of several competing political factions. In mid-1989, however, the political situation continued to be in a state of flux; many claimants to power competed with each other, while Haiti's public institutions languished. Even Haiti's armed forces, the country's most powerful institution, suffered from factionalism, corruption, and a general breakdown in the chain of command. Pressure to overhaul the political system mounted. To a significant degree, the political crisis of the transitional period pitted regressive Duvalierist elements, who advocated complete or partial restoration of the ancien régime, against popular aspirations for change.

The spectacle of five successive governments between February 1986 and September 1988 reflected the nation's political instability. This period witnessed the election of a constituent assembly, the popular ratification of a new constitution, repeated massacres of citizens exercising their political rights- -such as the right to vote in free elections--and battles between army factions. The succession of governments included the decaying, hereditary dynasty of the Duvaliers; the military-civilian National Council of Government (Conseil National de Gouvernement--CNG) led by Lieutenant General Henri Namphy, that underwent several changes in membership, leading to a reduction in the size of, and the civilian representation in, the government; a four-month civilian government headed by President Leslie F. Manigat, who rose to power because the armed forces rigged the election; another government headed by Namphy as military dictator, originating after a coup against Manigat; and the replacement of Namphy by Lieutenant General Prosper Avril in yet another military coup. Threats from army factions and opposition from the old Duvalierist right wing continued to plague the Avril government.

This apparent instability, however, tended to mask underlying political continuities. Before the fall of the Duvaliers, the last crisis of succession in Haiti had taken place in 1956-57, when President Paul Magloire attempted to extend his constitutional term of office. During the period following Magloire's overthrow, five governments rose and fell within the nine-month period prior to the accession of François Duvalier to the presidency. There were also battles between competing army factions during this period. From a longer perspective, the postDuvalier period resembled the nineteenth century in Haiti, when transitory governments held power between relatively long periods of stability.


For more information about the government, see Facts about Haiti.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress