Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Political System: Haiti’s 1987 constitution establishes a semi-presidential system of government that divides power among a president, who serves as chief of state; a prime minister, who serves as head of government; a bicameral legislature (the National Assembly); and regional assemblies.

Haiti traditionally has had a strong presidency. The president serves a five-year term and may not serve consecutive terms. The cabinet, composed of the prime minister and the 15 ministry heads, advises the president, serving at his pleasure. The president shares power with the prime minister, who is nominated by the president and approved by the legislature. The 83-seat Chamber of Deputies and 27-seat Senate form the Haitian legislature, known as the National Assembly. Popularly elected deputies serve four-year terms. Senators serve six-year terms, with one-third of the body being elected every two years. Each department elects three senators. Members of both houses are directly elected and may serve consecutive terms.

The 11-member Supreme Court (or Court of Cassation) operates at the apex of Haiti’s judicial system. At the lowest level, justices of the peace issue arrest warrants, adjudicate minor offenses, mediate disputes, and take depositions. Courts of the first instance hear more serious or complicated cases. Appeals from the courts of first instance go before one of the country’s 30 appeals courts. The Supreme Court serves as the final arbiter on legal and constitutional questions. A separate court in Port-au-Prince handles labor issues.

Administrative Divisions: Haiti has nine departments: Artibonite, Centre, Grand’ Anse, Nord, Nord-Est, Nord-Ouest, Ouest, Sud, and Sud-Est. Before leaving office, President Aristide signed a bill creating a tenth department, but the measure has been awaiting publication since November 2003 and thus has not yet become law.

Provincial and Local Government: Below the federal level, Haiti has a complicated and decentralized system of regional and local governance. Haiti’s nine departments are divided into 41 districts, which are further divided into 133 municipalities (called communes). Further dividing the municipalities, 565 communal sections (sections communales) exist⎯roughly equivalent to towns in the United States. Regular elections occur on each level. The communal sections elect a representative council; each of the municipalities elects both a three-member municipal council and a municipal assembly. At the department level, the democratically elected departmental assembly passes legislation, and the departmental council (chosen by the assembly) enforces it.

Judicial and Legal System: Haiti’s constitution calls for an independent judiciary to interpret the country’s laws, which are based on the Napoleonic Code. The criminal code dates to 1832, although some amendments have been made. The constitution guarantees defendants the right to a fair public trial, including the presumption of innocence and the right to be present at trial, to present witnesses and evidence in their own defense, and to confront witnesses against them. In practice, however these rights are often denied. Moreover, the government is not required to provide free counsel, and many Haitians cannot afford representation on their own. The judiciary, like most of the government, suffers from widespread corruption. Threats of violence often render judges and juries unable to make impartial decisions. Bribes not only sway judges but also taint potential witnesses. In addition to corruption, the judicial system suffers from shortages of both funding and qualified personnel. The combination of corruption and inefficiency has resulted in a serious backlog of criminal cases and an overflow in the country’s jails. Nearly 80 percent of incarcerated men and women still await their initial trail, despite some effort in 2005 to reduce pretrial detention.

Electoral System: All Haitians 18 years of age or older have the right to vote. According to the constitution, elections should occur in Haiti at least every two years, to fill the presidency, legislature, or local offices. Violence, however, has made this schedule impossible since 2004 and at previous times in Haiti’s history. Presidential elections are to be held every five years, but few presidents have reached the end of their terms. Coups frequently have upset the electoral schedule. Elections to choose a new president and parliament were held in Feburary 2006.

Electoral law requires that legislative candidates receive more than 50 percent of the vote in order to win office during the first round of elections. If no candidate for a seat wins more than 50 percent, a run-off election occurs. Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Provisoire⎯CEP) oversees all electoral activities. Although nominally independent, the CEP is routinely subjected to political manipulation by the party in power. During the February 2006 elections, the CEP was widely criticized for its initial decision to count an unusually large number of blank ballots, which would have denied René Préval the majority needed for a first-round victory. Facing international criticism and domestic protests, the CEP later reversed itself and declared Préval the first-round winner. The second round of the parliamentary elections was held on April 21, 2006, without incident.

Politics and Political Parties: Numerous political parties—most of them small—field candidates in elections. Some parties aspire to have broad influence but are unwilling to bend from their single-issue focus. Others exist merely as fronts for ambitious individuals. The smaller Haitian political parties often form alliances and coalitions. President Aristide’s Lavalas Family (Fanmi Lavalas⎯FL) party continues to receive a large measure of support. A broad alliance of democratically minded parties known as the Democratic Convergence (Convergence Démocratique⎯CD) provides the most distinguishable opposition to FL. Other umbrella coalitions attempting to unite smaller parties include the Alliance for the Liberation and Advancement of Haiti (ALAH), Grand Center Right Front Coalition, and Haitian Greater Socialist Party (Grand Parti Socialiste Haïtien⎯GPSH).

Although the army disbanded in 1995, former military personnel remain a political force. Many former officers participated in the opposition movement that led to President Aristide’s ouster. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church continues to exert influence on the political scene. During the Duvalier dictatorship of the 1980s, political parties and trade unions were crushed, leaving only the Catholic Church to represent the interests of those oppressed by the government. Since that time, the church has become less political but remains a potential political advocate for opposition groups.

Mass Media: As in many developing countries, radio reaches the widest audience in Haiti. Estimates vary, but more than 300 radio stations are believed to broadcast throughout the country. Talk show programs serve as one of the few ways in which ordinary Haitians can speak out about politics and the government. A law passed in 1997 declares the airwaves to be the property of the government, but at least 133 unlicensed radio stations operate freely. In addition, there are 50 community-based stations throughout the country.

Television is available only to a minority of relatively wealthy households. Two television stations serve approximately 42,000 households that have television receivers. Satellite stations from foreign countries are available in Haiti, but only to those with the expensive equipment necessary to receive them. Haiti’s three French-language newspapers have a total circulation of less than 20,000. Small, Creole-language newspapers are printed irregularly.

Foreign Relations: Multinational organizations have long played a role in Haiti’s development. Presently, United Nations (UN) peacekeeping troops operate in Haiti. In 2004 the UN Security Council authorized the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which provided troops and police personnel to Haiti for an extended duration. Additionally, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have funded many improvements in Haiti’s economic infrastructure, education system, and health care network.

In large part as a result of its proximity, the United States has shown a prolonged interest in creating economic stability and functional democracy in Haiti. During the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915−34), U.S. Marines developed many laws and practices that still exist in the country. The United States serves as Haiti’s primary partner for both exports and imports and, in 1994, took an active role in restoring President Aristide to power. In 2000 President Bill Clinton signed legislation suspending economic aid to Haiti based on U.S. government concerns over the legitimacy of parliamentary elections and an absence of accountability practices. Most U.S. and international aid was restored in July 2004.

Haiti’s ties to its neighbors grew stronger during the 1990s. Relations with the Dominican Republic, which traditionally had been strained by border disputes and the perception that the Dominican police mistreat Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic, improved. A visit by President René Préval (1996−2000) to the Dominican Republic in 1996 was followed by a meeting between President Aristide (2000−4) and the Dominican president, Hipólito Mejía, in 2002. The countries agreed on a “free-trade zone” to provide jobs for Haitians and labor for Dominican companies.

Since 2000, trade has increased among all Caribbean countries. In 2002 the Dominican Republic was second only to the United States in trade with Haiti. Additionally, Haiti conducted significant trade with Trinidad and Tobago. In another significant step, Haiti achieved full membership in the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) in 2002. However, after President Aristide fled Haiti in 2004, Caricom refused to recognize Haiti’s interim government because of concerns that Aristide may have been pressured to resign through antidemocratic means. Some Caricom member states began normalizing relations with the interim administration of President Boniface Alexandre during 2005, and the organization welcomed the new Préval administration.

Membership in International Organizations: Haiti was an original member of the United Nations (UN). Haiti maintains that membership and supports many of the UN’s specialized agencies. Haiti also belongs to the International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Organization for Migration, World Health Organization, and World Trade Organization. Regionally, Haiti has membership in the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP Group), Inter-American Development Bank, Latin American Economic System, and Organization of American States (OAS). Haiti’s membership in the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) was suspended following Aristide’s resignation in 2004. Some Caricom members reestablished relations with Haiti, but the organization withheld full recognition until elections were held in February 2006.

Major International Treaties: Haiti is a party to many significant treaties, including international agreements on agriculture, customs, genocide, human rights, intellectual property, labor, and nuclear non-proliferation. Haiti is a signatory to numerous environmental agreements, including those on biodiversity, climate change, desertification, law of the sea, marine dumping, marine life conservation, and ozone layer protection. Treaties to which Haiti has withheld support include agreements on biological weapons, chemical weapons, conservation, and gas warfare.


Armed Forces Overview: After years of military interference in politics, including dozens of military coups, Haiti disbanded its military in 1995. Haiti’s National Assembly created a new civilian police with the help of the United States and the United Nations. Yet, to date there has been no official constitutional amendment to abolish the military. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has been authorized to complete the disarmament and demobilization of any remaining militias.

Foreign Military Relations: Without its own military, Haiti relies heavily on United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces. The multinational force has been responsible for quelling riots and preparing for democratic elections. Before UN forces arrived, a multilateral force made up of troops from Canada, Chile, France, and the United States helped stabilize the country under the interim leadership of President Boniface Alexandre.

External Threat: Haiti has no obvious external threats. Tensions have long existed between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but the current border has been fixed since 1936.

Defense Budget: In 2003 Haiti’s civilian security budget totaled an estimated US$26 million.

Major Military Units: None.

Major Military Equipment: None.

Military Service: None.

Paramilitary Forces: None.

Foreign Military Forces: In June 2005, the United Nations Security Council authorized a reinforcement of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)—from 6,700 troops and 1,600 civilian police to 7,500 troops and 1,900 civilian police—to provide security during the run-up to national elections in February 2006. On June 6, 2005, the UN military force launched a coordinated series of operations against armed gangs in Port-au-Prince. By February 2006, 21 nations had contributed military personnel, and 31 nations had contributed police personnel to MINUSTAH. Brazil was the largest single contributor of military personnel with 1,200 troops. From February to May 2005, the U.S. Southern Command carried out a humanitarian mission in Haiti entitled “New Horizons 2005.” The task force built schools, drilled wells, provided preventative health services, and set up temporary housing for orphaned children. Troops from all branches of the U.S. armed forces participated.

Military Forces Abroad: None.

Police: Other than the temporary United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) force, the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale d’Haïti⎯PNH) is the only security force in the country following the disbandment of the Haitian military. According to the U.S. Department of State, the PNP is an “officially autonomous” civilian force headed by a director general whose activities are overseen by the minister of justice and the secretary of state for public security within the Ministry of Justice. The PNH has an estimated 2,000 personnel. Specialized units are dedicated to crime response (SWAT), crowd control in Port-au-Prince, security in the Ouest Department, and presidential security. Although officially part of the police force, the Presidential Security Unit operates with its own budget and administration.

During President Aristide’s second term (2000−4) political appointees took over many key positions in the PNH. In many instances, these appointees lacked security experience and compromised the political neutrality of the force. After Aristide fled the country, the interim president removed 200 corrupt and inexperienced officers in an effort to improve the PNH’s effectiveness. New training ensued to teach police officers how to balance security and human rights concerns. However, numerous problems limit the PNH’s effectiveness and reliability. Former military personnel exert considerable influence within the police force, and some have begun to push for the reestablishment of the Haitian army.

Since its inception, the PNH has suffered from mismanagement, corruption, and a lack of funding. MINUSTAH has helped make up for the shortfalls of the PNH since it arrived in Haiti in 2004. Many security operations have been undertaken jointly by the PNH and MINUSTAH. Nevertheless, rampant crime and gang violence continue to be the most immediate problem facing Haitian authorities.

Internal Threat: Crime and militant activity are the most serious internal threats in Haiti. Security forces focus on these issues rather than on external threats. Amnesty International reports that the efforts of the United Nations (UN) and Haiti’s police force have largely failed to curb violent crime in the country, especially in the capital region. The organization estimates that, in Port-au-Prince, an average of 100 persons per month were murdered in 2004. Amnesty International asserts that perpetrators act with virtual impunity because the police and courts are corrupt and ineffective. The U.S. Department of State has issued numerous travel advisories warning U.S. citizens of the potential for looting, blockades by armed gangs, and violent crime including kidnapping, carjacking, and assault. The U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince frequently has imposed a 5 p.m. curfew on its employees.

In addition to isolated incidents of violent crime, Haiti has a large organized crime network. Former members of the armed forces have formed armed brigades and claim that the government owes them remuneration for their role in ousting President Aristide. Drug traffickers also operate in the country. Haiti has become a major transit point for cocaine entering the United States and Europe. Officials in the United States estimate that 8 percent of the cocaine entering the United States travels through Haiti. Additionally, a legacy of political corruption and tainted elections has led to a pattern of violent political protest.

Terrorism: Haiti has no known terrorist groups operating within its borders. Although violence and crime are rampant, there have been no reported terrorist attacks in Haiti. The U.S. ambassador to Haiti has called the political violence in the country the work of “terrorists” but only in reference to strongmen carrying out violence with the approval of Haitian politicians.

Human Rights: According to its constitution and written laws, Haiti meets most international human rights standards. In practice, however, many provisions are not observed. The government’s human rights record is poor. Arbitrary and political killings, kidnapping, disappearances, torture, and unlawful arrest and incarceration are common unofficial practices, especially during periods of coups or attempted coups. Prisons are overcrowded and unsanitary. Although the constitution mandates an independent judiciary and the right to a fair trial, prolonged pretrial detention remains a serious problem. Because the court system and its records are poorly organized, it is impossible to determine the percentage of prisoners being held without trial.

The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally has respected these rights. Many journalists, however, practice a measure of self-censorship in order to protect themselves from retribution. During the second Aristide administration (2000−4), some reports contend that members of the press were killed for supporting opposition movements. The government does not censor radio, television, or the Internet. Security forces frequently have ignored the constitutionally mandated right to assembly and organization. The Haitian government generally has respected religious freedom in the country.

Haiti’s constitution does not contain specific language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, language, age, or disability. Although some working standards are intended to protect women, few resources exist to ensure enforcement. Abuses against women and children are common. Rape, although illegal, rarely results in prosecution of the perpetrator. Haitian law excuses a husband for murdering his wife if the wife is found in an adulterous affair. The Haitian government contains a Ministry of Women’s Affairs but lacks the resources to address issues such as violence against women and harassment in the workplace. In addition to suffering from chronic malnourishment and a lack of educational opportunity, many Haitian children also suffer physical abuse. Few statistics regarding the wider problem of child abuse have been collected. Trafficking of children also is a significant problem. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 Haitian children per year are trafficked to the Dominican Republic.

Index for Haiti:
Overview | Government


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