Democracy is hard work. It requires deliberative processes to ensure all voices are heard, the slow work of consensus-building around ways forward, and the challenging tasks of implementing agreements. It often requires overcoming powerful special interests and corrupt actors with the tools and authorities to entrench their own power. It also often fails, which is why we see democratic backsliding and resurgent authoritarians around the world.
Imagine a group that has overcome all these challenges to forge a true democratic process and reach a political agreement to transition to a real democracy. Imagine achieving this in the wake of a devastating hurricane, a presidential assassination, and decades of corruption and human rights violations. That’s exactly what the Commission for a Haitian-Led Solution to the Crisis did, against all odds: a bottom-up, inclusive process that outlines a legitimate path back toward democracy in Haiti. More than 900 groups, representing millions of Haitians across the political spectrum, have endorsed the commission’s agreement, and today commissioners are working diligently to implement it.
You might assume that such a powerful example of democracy in action would get a star slot at a “summit for democracy.” Unfortunately, the Biden administration missed its opportunity to highlight it.
Last week, hundreds of world leaders were invited to join the White House for the first Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering of governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector. The summit fulfilled President Biden’s campaign pledge to “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.”
More than 100 countries made the invite list. Haiti’s de facto government did not, which is the right call given its poor track record. Indeed, Haiti under the Michel Martelly, Jovenel Moïse, and Ariel Henry regimes has been a textbook case of “a nation that is backsliding.” Yet Haiti’s civil society representatives from the commission also did not make the list, despite the impressive achievements of the commission and the lessons these representatives could share with others struggling to build democratic governance in their own countries.
The Commission for a Haitian-Led Solution to the Crisis is a model for how civil society organizations and representatives can work together to overcome differences of political opinion and policy preference to create a blueprint for a democratic transition. The proposal they came up with is nothing short of extraordinary. It proposes an interim government, nominated by various sectors to ensure representation, to lay the groundwork for elections. It sets goals for strengthening institutions ahead of elections, which is critical to rebuild long-eroding voter participation and ensure that elections are truly free and fair. And it contains provisions that would protect the process from corrupt interests and influence, such as preventing commission members from holding leadership positions. Ironically, just two days after the Democracy Summit, democracy on the ground in Haiti took another leap forward with the formal installation of a National Transitional Council, a body representing all sectors of civil society designed to pave the way for an interim government.
This is exactly the kind of citizen-led process that can lead to sustainable, inclusive, and democratic governance. We know that civil society plays a critical role in holding governments accountable and in driving change in democratic transitions. When we listen to voices on the ground and follow their lead on policy decisions, we get better outcomes that are more likely to create lasting change for good.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration and its international partners are not taking the commission’s work seriously. Countries like the United States tend to default to the entity in power when we engage with fragile states. In Haiti, the US government has supported undemocratic and kleptocratic political leaders who further corruption, gangsterization, poverty, and violence in Haiti and do nothing to create the conditions for sustainable peace, security, and prosperity.
Change is long overdue. The House Haiti Caucus — which I founded and cochair with Democratic US Representatives Val Demings of Florida, Yvette Clark of New York, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — is demanding that change start right now. Instead of reflexively supporting a handful of elites, US policy, we believe, must focus on the great expanse of organizations that have come together to find a bottom-up, authentically Haitian way back toward security, the rule of law, and authentic democracy.
Listening to Haitian civil society leaders and following their lead will not only benefit the people of Haiti, who deserve to live in a free, safe, and open society, but it would also bring sustainable peace and help create a reliable partner to tackle shared regional challenges like migration and climate change. Similarly, it would increase prosperity in the Caribbean region by growing trade and expanding opportunities for US businesses.
Strengthening democracy must start at home and with our closest neighbors. The Biden administration must change course and get to work to ensure that the efforts of Haiti’s civil society lead to real change for Haitians and serve as a beacon for those struggling to nurture democracy around the world.
Democratic US Representative Andy Levin of Michigan is founder and cochair of the House Haiti Caucus and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.