“The presidency had nothing to do with what happened: in any way, shape or form,” became the most notable sentence in President Michel Martelly‘s anticipated speech, following his medical visit in the United States. That statement caught the nation by surprise because apparently, everybody except the president knew who ordered Deputy Arnel Belizaire’s arrest. Therefore, most people expected the gun slinging, self-proclaimed straight shooter to return to Haiti and claim responsibility for the unconstitutional acts. Instead, a born-again president surfaced at Toussaint Louverture Airport, attempting to strike a conciliatory tone and mobilize religious communities to start a seven-day prayer to help the country out of its latest self-imposed mud pit.
Reacting to Martelly’s speech, some people called him a demented coward, a liar and many other derogatory names. Opponents wanted the president of a nation to openly admit to persecuting a citizen who disagreed with him or disrespected him, especially a sitting deputy whose constitutional protection was explicitly and unambiguously expressed. However commendable, noble or entertaining a Martelly confession would be, that strategy would amount to nothing more than political suicide, a lethal weapon in the hands of vindictive parliamentarians who threatened to impeach him. Complete denial, however, placed the burden of proof on the legislative branch and his accusers who would have to, through legal and judicial avenues, establish the element of guilt. Absent any physical evidence clearly placing inked orders at the end of Martelly’s fingers and/or tangible testimonies corroborating his involvement, the president had nothing to do with the arrest.
The absolute denial strategy was not without consequences, however. It revealed a weak administration with a bunch of renegade Ministers who either conspired to destroy President Martelly or undermined his authority with little respect for him or the office of the presidency. If the president is not running the country, who is? It is difficult to envision any government official with that much influence to mobilize all the armed units that carried operation Belizaire. Many people perceived the consequences from denial worse than admitting guilt, calling the Martelly administration irresponsible and unstable. Even more dangerous, the president’s strategic approach might cause a long-term erosion of trust in public institutions he swore to change and protect. Regardless of the vector of analysis, the “Belizaire Affaire” benefited no one:
- Not the actors who fled like defeated warriors who underestimated the strength of their opponent.
- Not the presidency that has lost the respect and trust of the population: fans or opponents.
- Not the parliament exposed, humiliated and left vulnerable and lethal.
- Not the Judicial branch proved gullible, dependent and a tool of repression.
- Most certainly not the country, its people and future generations who will pay the real price of those actions.
The nature of this abysmal failure perhaps helped explain the logic behind Prime Minister Garry Conille’s latest damage control initiatives, beginning with his media tour and governmental retreat last week. The new Head of Government walked a very thin line answering tough questions from reputable journalists from various mediums. Although it proved difficult to dislodge perceptions and dismiss prevailing theories that invaded the public sphere since the incident, many observers agreed that the mere attempt at shifting the public’s attention to precarious realities of daily living was commendable.
During his media tour, Conille called the Haitian press a strong ally, signaling a rupture with Martelly’s antagonistic media approach, even welcoming criticism and promising government transparency. An information center would be created to make information transfer more accessible to all mediums. Beyond acknowledging the media’s right to information as a legitimate gatekeeping function, Conille’s actions also signaled a fundamental understanding of the media as an unavoidable partner in rebuilding Haiti. Therefore, reestablishing a working relationship with the national press was not only a key strategic move for Conille, it was also an important factor in reinforcing the freedoms afforded the press by the Constitution while puncturing a hole in the authoritarianism theories projected by Martelly’s approach to governance.
The prime minister also seized the opportunity to put a procedural and judicial frame around the crisis and any eventual resolution. Framing the ongoing conflict as a democratic process could help deflate some tensions. He in fact argued that conflicts were the norm in contemporary democratic societies, and in such cases, finding out the truth and real perpetrators should be the proper course of action. This was a power play for Conille as it was a bailout for Martelly whose claimed innocence was dubious. Changing how the population perceived the incident also implied the inquiry commissions should follow the paper trail before assigning blame. Without signed documents implicating the president himself, his denial of responsibility would hold true. Informal meetings, phone calls, and verbal commands would remain speculative unless recorded on a tangible medium. In addition, Conille’s parallel investigation into the matter could discredit that of the senate, although credibility remained a huge obstacle for his government.
The governmental retreat did not only delay the senate’s investigation, it also gave government officials implicated in Belizaire’s Affair ample opportunities to come up with a coherent, logically consistent message before testifying on the senate floor. More importantly, Conille’s promised to deliver his government’s agenda for the next 12 months could change the conversation back to the country and its urgent needs. Delaying the senate’s investigation results would also allow the population to chew on Conille’s new plan for a few days before legislators could detonate their political bomb, exposing vulnerable government officials. Furthermore, the retreat signaled that there were more pressing priorities than the current unproductive crisis.
The House of Deputies remained, to a large extent, the unknown factor; however, should Prime Minister Conille’s inventive initiatives materialize, they could have an adverse effect on the lower house’s announced fury. With practical rebuilding plans on the foreground, the population might compel Deputies to be lenient and constructive in their vindication. Whether late or not, Conille’s damage control could save Martelly major headache and establish his authority as the new Head of Government, manifestly different from the impulsive leadership the country grew weary of over the past six months.