He is one of the country’s most well-known politicians, but newly installed Prime Minister Evans Paul is seen by many as little more than a figurehead for a government that appears to be drowning in a sea of political and economic troubles. On a political radio talk show on Radio Caraibes, a Haitian journalist recently called him a lifeless “rag doll,” demanding that he “shakes himself off and man up.”
“I don’t sense there is a prime minister in the country,” Jean Monard Metellus told listeners before directing his comments to Paul, a friend and former radio host and playwright known by the nickname K-Plim (KP). “I don’t think your dream is to die with a line on your [résumé] that simply said ‘Prime Minister.’”
Paul, a veteran politician and democracy combatant, is at the height of power as Haiti’s latest — and President Michel Martelly’s third — head of government.
But the de-facto way in which he got there — he was tapped by Martelly in December and parliament dissolved last month before giving its constitutionally required blessing — has both friends and foe wondering: How long will he last? Is he capable of rising to his biggest political challenge yet — steering Haiti to credible long overdue elections?
“I’ve always carried out difficult battles,” said Paul, 59, a former presidential candidate and long-time leading figure in Haiti’s fractious political opposition. “I’ve never had it easy; it has always been in the context of dictatorship, repression, beatings, hiding, aggression. I’ve always been a victim of these because I’m always fighting in a difficult landscape.”
While the elections remain the priority, Paul says he wants to return some dignity to Haiti while making the public administration more responsive. Don’t expect him, however, to continue with former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe’s Gouvènman An Lakay Ou town hall-like meetings that crisscrossed the country — and even made it to Miami.
“It cost a lot of money and resembled more of a media show,” Paul told the Miami Herald. “The state doesn’t need to run its affairs in the public sphere. I would like to create something called ‘the Listening Government,’ a call-in system where someone can report something they don’t like or get information.”
Whether Paul is allowed to accomplish this remains unclear. While he rose from humble beginnings to become mayor of Port-au-Prince in the 1990 election that brought former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, his managerial skills are limited, say critics. Most of his tenure was spent in hiding, surviving attempts on his life after Aristide’s September 1991 ouster in a military coup.
“He’s in a very precarious situation,” said Robert Fatton, a long-time Haiti expert. “I would have understood had he been able to get a certain number of people in the cabinet but apart from [Social Affairs Minister] Victor Benoit and two or three others, this is essentially the same group of people … with a figurehead, Evans Paul as prime minister.”
Last month, Haiti logged more than 80 demonstrations countrywide as striking public school teachers demanded higher and back pay; students staged demonstrations demanding teachers return to classrooms and others barricaded the gates of the agriculture ministry, refusing to let a newly-appointed minister take office.
On Wednesday, anti-government demonstrators, many of them Aristide loyalists, took to the streets in a new round of street protests demanding Martelly’s resignation. The renewed protests came a day after unions representing bus drivers announced that a fuel strike, which had paralyzed the capital Monday, was being temporarily lifted because the government agreed to additional cuts in pump prices to bring them in line with the global drop in oil prices.
But while the 32 cents and 21 cents reductions in gasoline and diesel, respectively, might help ease tensions, Haiti’s already deeply-indebted treasury can ill-afford the reductions, some economists say. More than three years of fuel subsidies have created a $400 million budget deficit at a time when government projects are stalled in the face of dwindling credits from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe discounted oil program.
Paul said “it’s too early for people to start criticizing. They need to wait and see how I am going to govern.”
One sign of Paul’s weak hand, and that Martelly might be a much more clever politician, came as the new Cabinet was sworn in. Martelly had tried to appoint a discredited former high-ranking police officer to a top post. In 2000, Paul was among those who denounced corruption and drug trafficking in Haiti’s National Police under Aristide. Asked about the appointment, Paul pointed out that it wasn’t made. The appointment was rejected not because of Paul’s objections but because of international pressure.
“I have a problem, too, when it is the [international community] that decides who is good and who isn’t good,” Paul said. “I think it’s a weakness of the Haitian state that needs to be resolved.”
While Paul lacks a political base or a parliament to give him leverage over Martelly, observers say he does have at least one trump card: his resignation or firing would plunge Haiti deeper into crisis.
“What we have now would look like child’s play,” Fatton said. “There would be a massive crisis because there is no one to replace him at this point. The confrontation would get nasty.”
Long before he rose to prominence as Aristide’s campaign manager in the 1990 presidential election, Paul was a militant in the popular rebellion that helped overthrow the Duvalier dictatorship.
After dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s downfall, Paul became Haiti’s uncontested grassroots leader, credited with all that occurred — good and bad — during the country’s tumultuous transition to democratic rule.
“I spent six years of my life off and on in hiding,” said Paul, who with former Senator Turneb Delpe recruited the former priest as a candidate for the National Front for Change and Democracy.
He and Aristide would soon part ways. In February 2004, Paul was a key figure in Aristide’s second presidential ouster. His insistence on Aristide’s departure even after the latter accepted to designate a prime minister from the opposition to break a political stalemate, led to a breakdown of the negotiations being brokered by the Caribbean Community, and eventually opened the way for Aristide’s ouster. Two years later, he unsuccessfully ran for president.
Paul says his history as an agent of change is what gives him legitimacy today to help lead Haiti out of its current crisis.
“I’ve chosen another step in the engagement I’ve always had where I always posed the problems. Today, I’ve put myself in a position where I can resolve the problems,” he said.
Still, as a member of the presidential commission that called for Lamothe’s removal as part of a series of recommendations to calm Haiti’s worsening political tensions triggered by repeatedly delayed parliamentary and local elections, Paul has come under criticism for going against his own recommendations. The report called for a consensus prime minister who would emerge out of negotiations between Martelly and the opposition.
Delpe, the former political ally who today is pushing for Martelly’s removal and for Haiti to be run by a transition government, said while he’s baffled by Paul’s decision to share power with the president, he isn’t surprised.
“What’s happening here, it has happened before and it will have the same results,” said Delpe, a member of the Patriotic Movement of the Democratic Opposition (MOPOD) coalition.
In 1999, when then-President René Préval found himself ruling by decree after dissolving parliament, Paul agreed to share power with Préval. The political accord didn’t last and a crisis soon ensued after the contested May 2000 legislative and local elections that saw Aristide’s return to power and then his 2004 ouster.
“For me, Evans should have learned from the experience he had with Préval,” Delpe said. “These things aren’t going to take the country anywhere, especially with a guy like Martelly, who is at the head of a country but doesn’t respect anyone or any institutions.”
Delpe notes that as an early member of MOPOD before he left to negotiate a political agreement with Martelly, Paul coined the slogan, “Deliver or Desist.”
“He understood then that Martelly had to resign,” Delpe said.
Paul said his old friend is entitled to his opinion.
“Delpe has chosen the streets while I’ve chosen to try and bring the streets to the negotiating table,” he said. “All of the demands they had in the streets, all of them were in the presidential commission’s report and they all make up the government’s program today. Can the streets solve the problem? I think the streets can agitate the problems and the State resolves the problems.
“If Martelly has the courage to say, ‘There are things I can’t do, come help me do them,’ I believe we need to have the grand courage to come help him with all humility,” he said.