As this article is being published, the brutal Haitian dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has just been arrested following his surprise arrival in Haiti. The Haiti Support Project of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century was among the many organizations and individuals, both international and local, who called for his arrest and condemned the acquiescence of the Haitian government and complicity of the international community in permitting “this criminal and thief to return to Haiti.”

The one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, was understandably consumed by how little progress has been made to alleviate the suffering of millions of people, and the lagging effort to rebuild the nation. From the perspective of the Haiti Support Project (HSP), nothing much has changed from the assessment we made during our delegation to Haiti in October of 2010. The communique we issued at that time offered the following observations: “Nine months after the earthquake, one has an impression of incremental but grossly insufficient progress in terms of crucial reconstruction challenges, particularly relocating displaced persons from the tent communities to permanent homes…The tent communities are the dominant reality as one travels throughout the city (Port-au-Prince). There is a sense of inertia which threatens to make these squalid dwelling places the new norm for hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti.”

Four months later, hundreds of thousands of Haitians are not only still stuck in the mud and slime of the tent communities, as predicted, but they are now exposed to a virulent outbreak of cholera which has already killed more than three thousand people. The news coverage, analysis and debate has largely focused on why people haven’t been moved to more secure and sanitary locations, and why so few homes have been built to create new and better neighborhoods/communities in the new Haiti. And, of course, there has been almost universal outcry that not enough of the billions of dollars raised or pledged by private relief organizations and the international community have reached Haiti, and that the money that has made it has had so little impact in terms of improving the lives of the people and developing the infrastructure of the new Haiti.

While these assessments are obviously important, I would like to focus on another dimension of the recovery/reconstruction effort that I believe is crucial to the long-term prospect of building the new Haiti: The class divide and the urgent need for enlightened leadership from the political and economic class. We addressed this concern in our October communique as follows: “There has been a failure to engage/mobilize the Haitian people, especially those languishing in the tent communities, to participate in the reconstruction process in a meaningful manner. This is potentially a huge lost opportunity to bridge social and political divides to build the new Haiti…HSP will continue to advocate for a comprehensive plan to tap the remarkable resiliency and energy of the Haitian people as a dynamic element in the reconstruction process.

One could make a case that, ever since the Haitian Revolution, there has existed a great divide between the masses of peasants, workers and the poor and the privileged economic elite that controls the vast majority of the land, wealth and resources of Haiti. This is largely true as well of the “political class” who have been sponsored or accommodated by the elite to run the affairs of state (often at the behest of external forces). For the political class the reins of government have provided access to resources and the opportunity to leverage their limited power to escape the fate of the masses of Haitian people who have perpetually lived in misery. This is not to say that there have been no enlightened leaders among the elite or the political class, but, by and large, the upper crust of Haitian society, with its appendages, has been self-interested, self-serving and self-aggrandizing to the detriment of the Haitian masses and ultimately the nation as a whole.

It is among the Haitian masses, those who have borne the brunt of the struggle for independence with their sacrifice and blood, that one finds an incredible energy, resiliency and will to fight for a better future. We witnessed this resiliency in the tent communities in the aftermath of the earthquake, where the people organized committees to govern themselves with virtually no help from the government or international agencies. It has been the masses, along with reform-minded and radical intellectuals and disaffected individuals from the political class who have consistently resisted dictatorship and authoritarianism in the quest for genuine self-determination, political and economic democracy. And at every turn the interests and aspirations of the masses have been deterred by the elite and political class (again, often at the behest of external forces).

If indeed a new Haiti is to ultimately rise from the ashes of the January 12, 2010 earthquake, this internal contradiction must be overcome. The class divide must be bridged and the enormous energy of the Haitian masses must become the central focal point for the creation of a just, humane and prosperous society. As has been the case in the past, the masses will continue to harbor legitimate suspicions of the intentions of the economic elite and a mistrust of a political class who have all too often failed to engage workers, peasants and the poor in the process of building a better nation. In fact, while the international community has often failed to do right by Haiti, it is also the case that the economic elite and political class have been characterized by incompetence, corruption and a callous disregard for the Haitian masses. While external factors are certainly a principal reason for Haiti’s underdevelopment, it is also true that the lack of physical and social infrastructure to serve the interests of the nation is a function of cronyism, mismanagement and ineptitude within the elite and the political class. For example, I can find no plausible reason why Haiti’s roads are chronically in a state of disrepair.

This must change. I would venture to say that most of Haiti’s leaders, past and present, including some of its worst dictators, revel in the glory of the Revolution as the signature event marking the identity of the nation. Pride in Haiti’s history and culture are never far from the lips of members of the economic and political class as well as the masses. But at some point in Haiti’s history, hopefully sooner rather than later, the question must be asked: How does pride in the past translate into a commitment to competence, incorruptibility and a vision and plan for the future, centered first and foremost on the needs of the dispossessed and the nation as a whole? What Haiti urgently needs is enlightened leadership from an economic elite and political class that realizes that their economic and political fortunes are inextricably tied to the uplift of the Haitian masses.

A recent article in The New York Times on the reconstruction in Haiti touted the fact that Denis O’Brien, the multibillionaire owner of Digicel, is investing his own money to rebuild the storied Iron Market in the main commercial district of Port-au-Prince. When it is completed, Mr. O’Brien will have spent some $12 million and employed hundreds of Haitian workers. However, Mr. O’Brien is a businessman and he is well aware of the upside of his investment. He says, “As a company, we’re more aligned to the masses than to the elites.” This is an excellent example of “enlightened self-interest,” an example that members of the Haitian elite should emulate. It is ironic that the example is being set by a non-Haitian! This is not to say that there are not enlightened Haitian business leaders in Haiti (HSP has relationships with some), but unfortunately they are a rare minority–the exception, not the rule.

During two major conferences on the future of democracy and development in Haiti convened by HSP at the height of the political crisis in 2005, time and time again we appealed to leaders from the economic elite and the political class to put national interest above narrow self-interest. We called for a “critical mass” of leaders to coalesce around the need for justice and reconciliation and a government of national unity. The key term is “critical mass.” As mentioned above, there have always been reform-minded leaders within the economic and political class in Haiti, and today there are certainly some very progressive, reform-minded, enlightened individuals in the elite and political class. However, there are three basic challenges which must be met: First, like-minded leaders must make a conscious decision to come together, to unite and combine their energies to become a major voice for bridging the class divide in Haiti; second, this core group must work to expand its ranks so that there is a critical mass of leaders working to build the new Haiti; and last but not least, as a matter of principle, practice and priority, enlightened leadership must connect with and actively engage the Haitian masses on a respectful basis to collectively build the new Haiti.

Let us hope that in the not-too-distant future a critical mass of leaders from the elite and political class will grow tired of the constant mocking of Haiti as the “poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere” and see it is in their best interest and the best interest of the nation to bridge the class divide. A critical mass from the elite and political class must join hands with the vast majority of long-suffering Haitian workers, peasants, women, youth and poor to forge a formidable force to create the new Haiti based on dignity, justice, social and economic rights for all within a vibrant democracy–a new nation that people of African descent and all humanity can be proud of as a beacon of hope and promise for oppressed people everywhere!

Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College, City University of New York. Dr. Daniels can be reached via e-mail at info@ibw21.org.