In June, Haitian President René Préval nominated civil society leader, activist and economist Michèle Pierre-Louis Prime Minister. She's faced an uphill battle ever since, her confirmation threatened by widespread rumors about her sexual orientation.
The President, elected by popular vote, nominates the Prime Minister, but that nomination must be confirmed by Parliament. Last week, following the Chamber of Deputies (the Haitian Parliament's lower house), the Senate finally voted in favor of Ms. Pierre-Louis's nomination, after President Préval's first two choices had failed to pass muster.
Ms. Pierre-Louis is founder and current Executive Director of FOKAL, a non-profit funded in part by the Soros foundation that works for economic empowerment. Kiskeyacity author Alice Backer says Ms. Pierre Louis-‘s nomination was welcomed by those “tired of Haitian-style, male-dominated politics as usual.”
Not everyone was ready for such a change.
Jocelyn McCalla, former Executive Director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, summarizes the attacks against Ms. Pierre-Louis on her blog, JMC Strategies:
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.
In Martinique, le blog de [moi], noting that “this is apparently the first time that a question of a candidate's ‘morality’ became obstacle to his or her nomination” [Fr] writes:
Dans un premier temps, l’annonce du choix de l’économiste Michèle Pierre-Louis, fin juin, a donc été vue d’un bon oeil tant son implication dans la société civile semble faire d’elle un personnage incontournable de l’île. L’espoir de voir Haïti se sortir de cette énième crise politique n’était pas loin mais c’était sans compter sur certaines rumeurs…
Malversations ? Meurtres ? Corruption ? Proxénétisme ? Trafic de drogue ? Trafic d’organes ? Trafic d’êtres humains ? Que nenni… Elle vivrait avec une femme se murmure-t-il. Je décode ? Elle serait lesbienne homosexuelle. Un crime ? Non, pire: un pêché.
WK, a reader, responds:
M’enfin il ne faut pas voir la lez partout. :-P Je pense que c’est simplement l’équation femme de pouvoir=lesbienne.
One blogger had a slightly different take on morality's role in selecting politicians. Joseph Gerald Bataille, Jr. seems to suggest that questions about Ms. Pierre-Louis's private life were fair game, noting that “elected and appointed officials are subject to an assessment of qualification and personal morality (according to the constitution)” even though there is “absolutely zero evidence” of morality in the Haitian government.
So why all the ruckus now with all of the corruption that already exists in our government? Well, several years ago, Mme. Pierre-Louis allegedly had an affair, cheating on her husband with a woman. When confronted by her husband, she allegedly left him, choosing to break her marriage vow to continue her relationship with this woman. This treads on cultural and moral taboos that, in Haiti, go beyond the church.
I don’t believe that Haiti has ever seen such a fight for the personal morality of an official, but I believe that this battle opened the door wide for people to start really considering it. It will become a big issue in the next election, provoking the people to discuss all kinds of political and moral corruption.
Pierre-Louis's confirmation a victory for gay rights? Women?
Alice Backer decribes an outpouring of support online for Ms. Pierre-Louis among Haitian in the Diaspora, including a Facebook group, Soutenir Michèle Pierre-Louis, which organized a petition.
She reminds readers that Ms. Pierre-Louis is not “out,” and may or may not even be a lesbian. “My contacts in Haiti who support her feel like her private life is just that and should not be a factor here. If anything, this is a confirmation of the prized values of privacy and discretion in the national psyche rather than an explicit gay rights victory.” In other words, don't ask don't tell. Ms. Pierre-Louis's confirmation is less a victory against sexual discrimination or for gay rights, but rather a “triumph of discretion.”
Jocelyn McCalla was dismayed by one petition‘s attempt to make Ms. Pierre-Louis's confirmation a question of gender discrimination. She notes that Haiti has had two prominent woman leaders since 1990, Ertha Pascal Trouillot, a Haitian Supreme Court Judge who led the interim government that organized the elections before Aristide's first presidency, and Claudette Werleigh, Prime Minister for four months from 1995 to 1996:
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.
Guy S. Antoine agrees:
You are right. I don’t think that this is a case of misogyny or sexual discrimination. It’s sheer idiocy. On second thought, if it is not, then it must surely be calculated idiocy with the aim of masking ultra-reactionary impulses that seek to counter her life record of service to the disenfranchised or to settle accounts (read, inflict payback) for her political militancy in a recent past. Those who foolishly want to raise the issue of her sexual orientation should remember that Biblical texts also condemn adultery in no uncertain terms. On that score, how many presidents or prime ministers in our history would have been able to claim those pious moral standards? Would we still be looking in this third century since 1804 for the founders of a nation still to come to grips with the notion that somehow you must crawl before you can run (or even take baby steps).
Many bloggers made some allusion to the fact that while many were busy pouring over the details of Ms. Pierre-Louis's private life, the office of prime minister had remained vacant for months, all while Haiti was facing far more urgent issues than a public official's sexual orientation. JMC Strategies writes:
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported last week that tons of food aid sent urgently to Haiti a few months ago have yet to reach the poor. Haiti’s allies, fearing the worst after riots spread throughout Haiti last March and caused the government’s fall had supplied the relief assistance. Thus the food deficit remains as much a problem today as it was several months ago. Why hasn’t the country been aflame with riots? The answer may be in the fact that people are filling up their bellies with clay or mud pies. The manufacture and sale of this meal has emerged as one of the most profitable business venture in recent history (see this story in the Guardian).
Should Pierre-Louis become Prime Minister, she will have quite a lot on her plate.
Image of Michèle Pierre-Louis copyright Tequila Minsky 2008. Used with permission
Really great post, Jen – a very interesting read!
Mme Pierre Louis nou menm nan 10e depateman nou mande sekirite epi resla nan men papa Bon Dieu nan syel la mesi.
I see no reason for the plunge into her moral character to be received negatively. Haiti’s government, or lack thereof, has religious footings in the church which has proven to be an ally in policy reformation. This would be a natural concern therein.
Yet, in the state of the nation’s desperation for, “Change”, and better governance – her sexual orientation should not take presidency over her qualifications and governmental obligations.
Roosevelt and Clinton are two of the greatest terms that the U.S. has seen in terms and one cheated on his wife, while the other was a hard-boiled temper who loved drinking and was conservative though he was a democrat.
Jean-Pierre’s orientation may present an opportunity for officials to find self-empowerment outside of the church enabling them to work on a platform of reform in the country that does not require so much questionable mixing with church and state.
A new start may not be such a bad thing for Haiti.