Urban Dominance, Rural Stagnation

Haiti Table of Contents

A sharp administrative division existed between rural and urban jurisdictions. The capital city dominated the urban sector. National political institutions and decisions focused on Port-au-Prince, and they were far removed from the lives of most Haitians. References to the "Republic of Port-au-Prince" reflected this reality. The political system affected all Haitians, but changes in government generally had little direct impact on the lives of rural Haitians.

Data from 1984 suggested that the government spent about 65 percent of its revenues in Port-au-Prince, a city with roughly 20 percent of the nation's population. In effect, taxes levied in rural areas paid the salaries of a privileged group of city dwellers.

Foreign assistance also tended to exacerbate rural-urban differences. About 40 percent of all public foreign aid benefited Port-au-Prince.

In rural Haiti, the army was the government. The official role of the armed forces was national defense, but most members of the military carried out police functions. Perhaps the most influential presence was that of the denim-uniformed corps of 562 rural section chiefs (chefs de section) and their assistants. People commonly referred to the section chief and his corps of assistants as leta (the state), although the section chiefs constituted more on auxiliary corps and were not members of the regular army.

The rural section chiefs were usually recruited from a small class of landed peasant families known as gro neg (big man) or gran abitan (large peasant). These families generally had other economic interests in addition to farming, including grain speculation, moneylending, and various forms of commerce. Appointments of section chiefs were usually based on political ties, factional alliances, and bribes. In many cases the positions were inherited.

The role of section chief involved much more than conventional police functions. As the sole government representative in rural areas, the section chief levied taxes and fines, mediated disputes, and served as a civil registry. These responsibilities placed the section chief in a powerful political and economic position. He was well situated to collect bribes; rural police refused to provide services to citizens who did not make special payments to them. The virtual absence of competing power brokers buttressed the section chiefs' positions. The 1987 Constitution set up rural government councils in an attempt to curb abuses by section chiefs and to mediate the interests of rural citizens in the political process. These councils, however, were also subject to graft and corruption.

Centralized authority in the presidency contrasted with the decentralized exercise of authority by local government officials. Port-au-Prince provided no policy direction for local governments, and it did little to monitor them. Few funds were made available to local governments for expenses other than salaries. Certain local officials, such as section chiefs, exercised absolute power within their local jurisdictions. They did not depend on salaries for their income; in a sense, they purchased from the state the privilege of collecting revenues by virtue of their authority and their power to grant favors.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress