I thought I did good this past weekend. I signed on to a petition that a colleague forwarded to me, requesting public expression of support for Michele Pierre-Louis, President René Préval’s nominee for the post of Prime Minister in Act 3 of Haiti’s ongoing political leadership vacuum crisis. (For a recap of Act 1 and Act 2, please see the following story). Apparently good intentions are not good enough. They can lead one astray. I got raked over the coals by a dear monkonpè (colleague, friend, comrade-in-arms, etc.) who proceeded to tell me how much I had erred in signing on to something backed by a weak strategy, particularly since this was first and foremost a human rights issue. He was absolutely right. Let me explain.
Michele Pierre-Louis is the Executive Director of the Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL), a non-profit foundation operating in Haiti since 1995 and funded mainly by the international financier Georges Soros. Under the umbrella of the Open Society Institute (OSI), he has established several foundations around the world to promote democracy, civil liberties and societies that welcome and adhere to the idea that where there is an open society freedoms rule and help spur economic and social development. OSI is led by Aryeh Neier, who was a founder and Executive Director of Human Rights Watch before becoming President of the Institute. I have had the privilege of working with Mr. Neier when he managed Human Rights Watch. He initially sought my counsel and support in setting up the Soros-funded foundation in Haiti and identifying its leader amongst an array of prospects. Pierre-Louis has been the one and only Director of FOKAL since its inception. She was selected because, simply put, she was the best qualified of all the candidates at the time. And she has managed the foundation well since. When we have had occasion to refer to the Haiti initiative, Mr. Neier has regularly indicated to me that the Haiti foundation produced the least anxiety as he globetrotted around the world troubleshooting the ills that plagued Soros’ various foundations.
Préval’s opponents have seized on the nomination — and the Haitian President’s intriguing silence since then — to launch a full-scale assault on Pierre-Louis’ sexual orientation, moral core and fitness for the position. Blows below the belt have been the norm rather than the exception. They have not questioned her qualifications, reviewed, analyzed and critiqued her record. Innuendos, half-truths, convoluted associations are the tools they have used. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who torpedoed Senator John Kerry’s 2004 bid for the US presidency could learn one thing or two from this band of losers who feed on popular misconceptions and exploit the functional illiteracy that plagues even Haiti’s so-called elite.
No wonder people who know better have felt outraged enough to issue an appeal to decency in the political debate.
That’s the problem with the response, said my monkonpè: an appeal is not a petition; an appeal can fall on dead ears, a petition is a call for action directed at a specific entity: it has a specific target. In this case, it falls on the Haitian parliament to consider the nomination and vote it up or down. So the petition, if this was one should have been addressed to the Haitian MPs. Politics is not a gala dinner: you don’t get judged by how well you behave, you win or lose based on your ability to offer a strong offense, not a weak hand.
He is absolutely right. In my defense, I responded that I tried to frame the debate in human rights terms and so urged the petitioners to do so: everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or preference is entitled to seek higher office and to serve their country to the best of their ability. But that did not go down well with the petitioners who chose to frame it in terms of sexual discrimination, i.e. that a woman was being denied the opportunity to lead a government because she was, simply put, a woman. In other words, they chose to walk away from the opportunity to elevate the debate, and bring along the mostly disenfranchised Haitians who suffer from the instability of a political vacuum that is taking its toll on impoverished Haiti. Unfortunately Haiti has had two women leaders since 1990:
- Ertha Pascal Trouillot, a Haitian Supreme Court Judge was picked in 1990 by Haiti’s political leaders to lead an interim government that for all practical purposes delivered free and impartial elections with the help of the United Nations.
- Claudette Werleigh served as Prime Minister for about 4 months from November 1995 to February 1996. She is now the Secretary-General of Pax Christi International.
The “petition” was released publicly on July 1, 2008. You can see it here in French. About 150 Haitians living in the Diaspora have signed on to it so far. It will probably gather more signatures by the end of this week. But the petition is not a petition: it is an appeal. Neither the Haitian Senators and House Members, nor President Préval are being held to account in this debate over Ms. Pierre-Louis’ moral core and qualifications. She is left to twist in the wind while an impoverished Haitian society looks at a frightening descent into chaos.
There are a few lessons one can draw from this:
- Think hard before you act: don’t let emotions drive your actions
- Identify your target audience, the people you want to influence
- Figure out the underlying principles that drive your action, or your urge to act
- Figure out how you can rally support, grow and develop a movement that will take the campaign to the next level.
Last but not least even the best and most seasoned strategists can be led astray by run-away emotions or pragmatic considerations (“it’s urgent that the “petition” be signed immediately so that it can be released in the wild first thing Monday morning”).
We don’t yet know how Act 3 will end. Let’s hope that the appeal will hit the mark despite its flaws. Let us indeed hope that members of parliament still look to thought leaders for guidance. And let us hope that President Préval rises to the challenge of inspiring popular support for progressive change as his nominee requested of him when she accepted to have her hat thrown into the ring.