06 June 2023
The new Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Haiti, Ecuadorian María Isabel Salvador, presents her point of view on the serious situation of this country and the difficulties in holding elections

The author of the following interview authorizes its publication in any media.

By Javier Valdivia (*)

At the beginning of March of this year, the Secretary General of the United Nations Organization, Antonio Guterres, appointed her as his Special Representative at the head of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH). A month later, the Ecuadorian María Isabel Salvador disembarked in Port-au-Prince to begin her difficult mission.

In a country anchored in ungovernability, kidnappings, economic stagnation, and extreme poverty, every minute counts. The former Ecuadorian foreign minister, who replaced Helen Meagher La Lime as head of BINUH, will have to put 25 years of political, diplomatic, and managerial experience to the test to convince Haitian leaders that their country urgently needs to get back on track.

The new head of the UN mission in Haiti responded to the following questions:

Armed gangs, violence, impunity, corruption, state fragility, violation of human rights... What is your priority in Haiti?

My priorities are given by the Security Council which, in turn, are shaped by the priorities set by Haitians themselves.

Although all the challenges that you mentioned are in some way reflected in our mandate, I believe that supporting Haitian efforts to fight gang violence remains absolutely crucial to restoring democratic governance, strengthening political stability, and establishing a path to social and economic development.

Security and stability are the key enabling factors to address the other significant challenges that Haiti faces.

The UN insists on a military intervention in Haiti, but there is reluctance among several key countries and the opposition of an important part of Haitian society to carry out this plan. What do you think is the way out of this matter?

A specialized international force was first requested by the Government of Haiti in October 2022 and subsequently conveyed by Prime Minister Ariel Henry to the UN Secretary-General. While Haitians may have diverse views about many issues, it is quite clear that the insecurity caused by gang violence is the top priority concern across all sectors of society.

There is also a wide consensus about the insufficient capacity of the Haitian National Police (HNP) to address gang violence on their own. The HNP needs external operational support and, indeed, a survey conducted by a national civil society organization in January 2023, showed that most Haitians agree with this idea.

Of course, some States may be hesitant to deploy their security forces abroad for several reasons. However, it is important to understand that the violence in Haiti poses a serious threat to Haiti itself but could also have an impact on countries in the region and beyond. It is in everyone's interest to provide a more robust support to Haiti.

Under the current conditions, do you think it is feasible to hold elections in Haiti? What do you think it should be done for Haiti to elect its authorities?

Although the final decision about the date of the elections rests with Haitians themselves, it is evident that the current conditions are not conducive to hold inclusive, peaceful, and credible elections.

Haitians from different sectors agree that elections should take place as soon as security conditions and logistical preparations permit, and the Security Council reflected this view.

Therefore, concrete security improvements and the establishment and adequate functioning of the Provisional Electoral Council – the national institution in charge of organizing the elections – are critical for Haitians to elect their authorities.

The United Nations can display a list of important successes in its assistance to Haiti, but must deal with another list of some terrible failures. What will be different under your management that will convince the population that the UN is looking to help Haiti?

Actions speak louder than words and I hope that the work that I do – and that every man and woman who works in the UN does – will show Haitians that we are here to do everything we can to help Haiti.

The challenges that the country is facing are daunting, so it is important to understand that the situation will not change overnight. However, I am determined to contribute to efforts that are owned and led by Haitians themselves and that move the country forward step by step.

In doing so, I am also committed to engaging with the countries of the region to seek their views and support. It is important that we learn from past mistakes and shortcomings and, going forward, that we continue to support Haiti through more innovative and effective ways.

According to your extensive experience, what has happened to Haiti that has made it impossible for that country to move forward at the same pace as others in the same region?

Haiti has been affected by an extraordinary combination of multidimensional challenges. To understand the present, we must dig into the past. It is important to remember that Haiti is the first free from slavery independent black Republic in the world, dating from 1804.

Unfortunately, authoritarian governments, external interventions, the breakdown of its economic resources, corruption, added to natural disasters, a vulnerability to the effects of climate change and the threat of gang violence, have led the country to a social and economic crisis, chronic insecurity and governance problems that have eroded the capacity of national institutions to function effectively and respond to needs of the population in an adequate manner.

But the fact that Haiti has struggled to prosper does not mean that it is condemned to remain in this situation. Indeed, the UN's presence in the country means that Member States believe that concerted international efforts can help Haiti to address the challenges that it is facing and reach its full potential.

(*) The author of this interview is a journalist based in Miami. He is an expert in Haiti. He was a deputy editor-in-chief of the Dominican newspaper Listín Diario and correspondent for the Chinese State Agency Xinhua in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He is collaborator and Haiti's regional vice-president of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).