Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Constitutions Do Matter

Brian Concannon Jr.

Boston Haitian Reporter

September, 2005

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dumarsais Simeus have a lot in common. Both were born outside the U.S., and came to this country as young men. Both rose to the top of their field through talent and hard work, amassing a fortune along the way. Both want to run for President. And both face a big obstacle on the way: the Constitution of the country where they would like to run- the U.S. for Schwarzenegger and Haiti for Simeus- prohibits their candidacy.

Mr. Simeus, the owner of Simeus Foods, one of America’s largest black-owned businesses and Mr. Schwarzenegger, the California Governor and movie star, are accustomed to overcoming obstacles, and both have a plan to overcome this one. But their plans are very different, which illustrates differences both between the two men and the different paths of the U.S. and Haiti.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s obstacle is Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution: “No Person except a natural born Citizen… shall be eligible to the Office of President.” Mr. Simeus has two problems, both in Article 135 of the Haitian Constitution: “In order to be elected President of the Republic of Haiti, it is necessary a) to be a native-born Haitian, and to have never renounced one’s nationality;” and “e) to reside in the country for five consecutive years before the elections.”

Mr. Simeus is a resident of Southlake, Texas, and does not claim to have resided in Haiti for the last five years. Although his residency clearly prohibits his candidacy, Simeus focuses on the more controversial “renouncing of nationality” requirement. He claims he has never renounced his Haitian nationality, despite taking on a U.S citizenship. But Haiti’s Constitution says otherwise: Article 15 prohibits double nationality, and Article 13 says nationality is lost through: “naturalization acquired in a foreign country.” So when Mr. Simeus swore allegiance to the U.S., he forfeited his Haitian nationality.

Mr. Simeus, Governor Schwarzenegger and their supporters make compelling arguments that their respective constitutional obstacles are poor policy choices. Over 12 million American citizens were born outside the country (including the governors of California, our largest state, and Michigan our 8 th largest), and excluding such a large group of people from the Presidency restricts our ability to choose the best person for the job. It may also make new citizens feel less than completely welcome.

Haiti has an inverse problem: hundreds of thousands of its people have left the country, fleeing violence and seeking opportunity over the last half-century. Many of these have taken advantage of their stay in wealthier countries to acquire not only citizenship but advanced educations and skills that are in critically short supply in Haiti. Restricting the participation of Haitians naturalized as citizens elsewhere restricts the amount of help that they will provide to a country that needs all the help it can get.

There are also reasonable arguments in favor of the constitutional protections. In both the U.S. and Haiti, some doubt that a candidate who has not spent a lifetime there would adequately understand the country’s issues and its people. Others fear that a chief executive who has sworn allegiance to or been born in another country might have divided loyalties. But for the time being it does not matter which of these arguments we find more convincing, because the U.S. and Haitian Constitutions, the supreme law of their respective lands, have decided the question. We may use the constitutions’ own procedures for amendment provisions we do not like, but until we do so those provisions are the law.

Mr. Schwarzenegger and his supporters are trying to amend the U.S. Constitution so that he can run later. They have set up a website, they run television commercials and they organize rallies to support amendments proposed to Congress (including one proposed by Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts). Their electoral strategy looks several years ahead, and they do not even discuss Mr. Schwarzenegger running without an amendment.

Mr. Simeus and his supporters are not organizing to amend Haiti’s Constitution, nor do they even discuss it. Their electoral strategy looks three to four months ahead. According to the Miami Herald, Mr. Simeus “argues that constitutional requirements don’t apply in any case, saying Haiti has been operating outside of the constitution since Aristide’s ouster in 2004.”

He is right about the country operating outside the Constitution for the last eighteen months- he could add most of the last 200 years to that. But unconstitutional rule is Haiti’s problem, not its solution. For most of Haiti’s history, the day after Election Day the losers started plotting to shorten the winner’s stay in office, regardless of the constitutional term. In between the country’s 33 coups d’etat and countless attempted coups, Presidents have spent most of their time and energy trying to stay in power.

In the U.S, by contrast, there have been no coups d’etat, and even the rare instances of presidential assassination have led to a peaceful transfer of power to the Vice President, not the assassin. The day after Election Day the losers start strategizing about opposing the winner’s political program through legal means, and organizing for the next election four years away. Presidents spend their time and energy implementing their program, usually to the benefit of the country as a whole.

Although there are many reasons why America is more stable and secure than Haiti, a look at the last two centuries or the last eighteen months shows that predictable and constitutional transfer of Presidential power is near the top of the list. It is hard to spend four (or eight) years under a President you dislike, but harder still to endure chronic instability and underdevelopment.

Mr. Simeus has the experience, resources and management expertise to help Haiti move forward. But marching into the National Palace over the Constitution’s dead body is not progress, it is a repeat of what has failed Haiti’s people over and over again for two hundred years. It is time to break with this past, respect the Constitution and give the Haitian people the stability that their brothers and sisters in America take for granted.

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Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. directs the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org.

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