Protests in Haiti against President Michel Martelly seen over the weekend continued on Monday, as the impoverished country marked five years since the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and upended the lives of millions of Haitians.
Demonstrators in the capital of Port-au-Prince, some of whom lit tires on fire and clashed with riot police, are demanding that Martelly step down before his term expires in 2016.
Martelly, who was elected a year after the earthquake struck, has not called elections in three years. Opposition lawmakers have at times blocked parliamentary efforts to address the electoral crisis, claiming that Martelly's proposed solutions allow him to exert unconstitutional control over voting.
A third of Haiti's 30 Senate seats remain vacant. The terms of another third of the Senate and those of the entire House of Deputies are set to expire on Monday, possibly leaving Martelly to rule the country by decree. The president has taken to appointing local officials in the absence of countrywide polls, many of whom would otherwise be elected.
Despite a tentative agreement with opposition leaders that Martelly reached late on Sunday calling for elections later this year, it remains unclear if a constitutional crisis has been averted.
"The fight is really about having a fair process, one not unduly influenced by the executive branch," Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told VICE News. "Martelly has never said he will rule without any oversight. Instead he proposes some way of going towards elections that falls short of constitutional requirements."
Canconnan explained that many in Haiti are frustrated with the lack of international attention paid to the political situation. Only recently have the United States and the United Nations stepped up pressure and called for a brokered agreement.
In a statement, the US Embassy in Haiti said that if a political solution cannot be reached, the US government "will continue to work with President Martelly and whatever legitimate Haitian government institutions remain to safeguard the significant gains we have achieved together."
The resonance of Monday's deadline was particularly acute as Haitians marked the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, a cataclysm that continues to paralyze the country. The disaster ushered in billions of assistance — aid that critics say was necessary, but which was disproportionately allocated to non-governmental organizations and foreign contractors rather than directly to the Haitian government.
"Money was given in a way that undermined Haitian development in both the public and the private sector, and largely bypassed the government," said Concannon. "Five years ago there was a rhetorical commitment to strengthening government services, but that has not been matched in reality," he added. "They said the right things and then went back to providing money in an uncoordinated way."
At least 1.5 million Haitians were left homeless by the earthquake, and today some 85,000 remain housed in various tent camps. Many of those technically considered settled remain in ramshackle structures known as "lean-tos" constructed haphazardly in displacement areas. A recent report from Amnesty International found that tens of thousands of poor Haitians have been forcibly evicted from even these sites, and "the vast majority were not afforded any alternative locations where they could resettle."
"Many people who lost everything in the 2010 earthquake have faced renewed hardship as they are thrown out of their shelters and makeshift camps," Chiara Liguori, Amnesty's Caribbean Researcher, said in a statement. "Others face homelessness and destitution in the long-term as financial support programs from international donors begin to dry up."
The World Bank is similarly concerned about donor fatigue, and says that a decline in aid seen over the past three years "is expected to continue in the future." The pinch will likely inhibit capital investment and could lead to a cut in infrastructure goals — projects that are in many cases already inordinately expensive due to the high cost of importing goods to Haiti.
Basic services such as mental health — vital for those living with the stresses and trauma of the earthquake — also remain drastically underfunded. The country's justice system is similarly in shambles, as corruption remains rampant and unresolved questions over land ownership plague resettlement efforts and stymie businesses.
Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 60 percent of its 10.4 million people live below the paltry national poverty line of $2.44 per day. Per capita GDP, meanwhile, is only $820.
The December resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe had little effect on opposition demonstrators who have taken to the streets of the capital for weeks. Last month, as UN peacekeepers clashed with protesters, video emerged of a Jordanian member of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) firing at civilians.
The UN has had peacekeepers in Haiti since 2004, and suffered heavy casualties during the earthquake. It has since come under heavy criticism for failing to deal with a cholera epidemic that has been linked to the poor disposal of its untreated sewage.
Since the spread of the bacterial outbreak following the earthquake, cholera has infected more than 720,000 Haitians and killed more than 8,700 — a death toll higher than the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Last week, a federal judge in Manhattan dismissed a case brought by human rights groups on behalf of Haitian victims seeking to hold the UN accountable for transmitting the disease. Two other cases are still making their way through US courts.
The US government, citing its legal obligations, has represented the UN, which refuses to admit culpability and claims it enjoys immunity from prosecution — even as it issues calls for money to fund the public health response to the crisis.
The plaintiffs in last week's case sought damages and argued that the UN's immunity was void because it hadn't offered victims a means of seeking redress. That complaint was shot down by presiding Judge J. Paul Oetken, who ruled "the UN and its subsidiary body MINUSTAH are immune from suit."
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