Interview with Claudette Werleigh


Claudette Werleigh was Foreign Minster of Haiti during the momentous years 1993-94 when UN troops intervened, bringing an end to military dictatorship, and restoring the elected government.

In November 1995, she was appointed Prime Minister after her predecessor clashed with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide over the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. Under Werleigh’s leadership, the government halted the privatisation process demanded by the Bretton Woods institutions. In response, the International Monetary Fund suspended promised loans, sparking a political crisis that was only partially resolved when the new President, Rene Preval, took office in February 1996.

Preval appointed a new Prime Minister, and his government undertook to implement a neo-liberal economic strategy in return for massive loans from the international financial institutions. However, opposition to this strategy in the Parliament, and from the new anti-neo-liberal party of former President Aristide, has created a political deadlock that has left Haiti without a functioning government for the last eighteen months.

Since Prime Minister Rosny Smarth resigned in June 1997, several candidates nominated by President Preval as a successor have been rejected by elements within the Parliament. In addition, five ministries are leaderless, the results of Senate and local council elections in April 1997 have not been recognised, and further elections for another third of the Senate and all the Deputies in the Lower House of Parliament have been postponed until some time next year.

Now out of political office, Claudette Werleigh has looked on with exasperation and growing despair as the Lavalas coalition has splintered, the Parliament has fallen into disrepute, and the electoral process has come to a complete standstill.

“The deadlock has gone on too long but I think that it will only be broken when there is the political will to do so on the part of the political parties involved. There is conflict between institutions (the legislature and the executive), and there are conflicting political and personal interests. Until we realise that the people are suffering and put these interests to one side, then the situation will go on.”

Werleigh is critical both of the lack of leadership provided by President Preval, and the lack of popular participation in the political arena. “I think that the President, who has the authority to make political institutions work properly, should call on all the parties involved to find a way out. He has had discussions, but the results have never been made public. I think it is time that concentration on that little political group ends, because it is not only the parties that are concerned with what is going on, there is civil society too. Although the people are so fed up that they might say ‘let’s get rid of Parliament altogether’, I do believe that there should be a way for people to participate in the resolution of the crisis.”

The widespread antipathy towards the electoral process, reflected in a paltry 5% turnout in the last elections in 1997, leads Werleigh to believe that a continuation of the political crisis could cause serious damage to Haiti’s democratic fabric. “The government is telling people that, despite the deadlock, the situation is not too bad – they say that inflation is under control, and that the gourde is maintaining its value against the US dollar – but the people are finding it hard to feed themselves…I am afraid that the people don’t feel concerned with elections, they don’t feel that the Parliament makes any difference. Maybe we will go back to a time without a Parliament and, while at the moment there is no threat of dictatorship from Preval, that would be a bad message to the country for the future.”

Werleigh’s hopes rest with the people and their organisations. “If the people could participate (in devising a strategy), we could develop a consensus.” She envisages a “more permanent role for grassroots and labour organisations, not only to say what they want but also what they have experienced in their field. I am sure, for example, that the MPP and Tet Kole peasant movements know about the situation in the areas where they work, for example about which properties are lying unused, and together with agronomists they could work (on a strategy) and feed into, and participate, in government.”

Asked whether she thought this form of popular participation was possible, Werleigh contrasted her experiences working with grassroots organisations, notably during the years 1976-87 when director of the Catholic development organisation, Caritas, with those as a government minister.

“I have seen the incredible tasks that poor, illiterate, people have been able to achieve in the field of social and political analysis. I am convinced that we could do something using radio, not only to inform people but to provide training. I believe it would be possible in three to five years to educate everybody to primary school level. Not like at the moment where children receive an education that they might not be able to make use of right away, but something more focused on what they need to survive and develop.”

As Prime Minister in 1995-96 she tried to get such a scheme off the ground but was thwarted by the lack of understanding and will on the part of the rest of the government apparatus. As a result of this experience, she says she “realised that our actual structures are not geared for participation, they are not for the people. It is a top-down, not a horizontal system. I believe that change in Haiti can only come when we change the actual structures. We have tried one way for two centuries, but now we are the poorest country in the Americas with the most malnourished people in the Americas It is time to try something else.”

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