Haiti, Constitutions

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Haiti, Constitutions

Haiti has had about twenty constitutions, both real and nominal, many illustrating the apt creole proverb: "A constitution is paper; a bayonet is steel." A common characteristic of most of them has been a strong president and a weak legislature.

The first constitution, Autonomy and Independence (Toussaint, 1801), written ten years after independence from France, gave France suzerainty and provided for forced labor. The second (Dessalines, 1805) abolished slavery "forever," separated church and state, applied the word "black" to all Haitians, and prohibited foreign ownership of land. The third (Pétion's first, 1806) is modeled after that of the United States. The fourth (Christophe, 1811) created a nobility. The fifth (Pétion's second, 1816) granted the president his office for life. The sixth (Riché, 1846) empowered the joint chambers to elect the president. The seventh (Domingue, 1874) concentrated all power in the presidency. That of 1889 (Hyppolite) revised the previous constitution of 1879 (Salomon) and served as the basis of government until the U.S. occupation.

The Constitution of 1918, written during the U.S. occupation by Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, cancelled the prohibition of foreign ownership of land and added individual democratic rights. The eleventh constitution (1927) increased the powers of the president, as did that of 1932 (Vincent).

The constitutions of the postoccupation and Duvalier era were the thirteenth (Magloire, 1950), a liberal one written by the scholar-diplomat Dantès Bellegarde that provided for female suffrage beginning in 1957, and the fourteenth (Duvalier, 1957), which increased the powers of the president and excluded foreigners from retail trade. Duvalier's second constitution (1961) reduced the legislature to one chamber and increased the powers of the president. Duvalier's third, which was the sixteenth constitution, made Duvalier president for life, authorized him to choose his successor, and changed the flag's colors.

"Baby Doc" Duvalier's first constitution, the seventeenth (1983), combined a set of progressive social goals with new presidential powers of appointment and new power over the legislature. Baby Doc's second (1985) provided the legislature with new powers, created the position of prime minister, and permitted political parties (a public-relations response to U.S. pressure, approved by a fraudulent referendum).

The first constitution of the post-Duvalier era, that of 1987, restored the two-chamber legislature, reduced the powers of the president by dividing the executive authority between president and prime minister, created a permanent electoral council, removed the new force publique from direct control of the president and minister of the interior, prohibited for ten years the participation in government of "any person well known for having been … one of the architects of the dictatorship and of its maintenance during the last twenty-nine years," provided many basic human rights, recognized Creole (Kreyol) as the national language, legalized vodun, and recognized no state religion. It was approved by a free and popular referendum.

President Leslie François Manigat was removed by General Henri Namphy, who became president, dissolved the legislature, and abolished all constitutions. Namphy in turn was removed by General Prosper Avril, who restored the nineteenth constitution, except for thirty-eight articles.

General Avril was forced out in 1989 and he was replaced by supreme court judge Ertha Pascal-trouillot, who became provisional president in 1990 under article 149 of the constitution. (This article provides that if the office of president is vacant, the chief justice or a member will become acting president until elections are held.) In free elections, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a leftist priest, was elected president; he was inaugurated in February 1991. While president, Aristide took advantage of article 295 of the constitution, which authorized him for a six-month period "to proceed to carry out any reforms deemed necessary in the Government Administration … and in the Judiciary." He gave some provocative speeches threatening the elite "bourgeoisie" and the military; the latter overthrew him in late September. The Organization of American States (OAS) responded by approving economic sanctions against the military government of General Raoul Cédras to bring about Aristide's restoration. The United Nations joined the OAS in 1993 and joint efforts were made to negotiate a settlement. An accord was reached in July, providing for the selection of a prime minister (Robert Malval), lifting of sanctions, political amnesty, and Aristide's return. The accord could not be implemented once the military reneged although sanctions were strengthened. In June 1994, the military government, acting under article 149, inaugurated Supreme Court Chief Justice Émile Jonassaint as provisional president. President Aristide was restored to power in late 1994.

See alsoAristide, Jean-Bertrand; Bellegarde, Luis Dantés; Duvalier, François; Duvalier, Jean-Claude.


James G. Leyburn, The Haitian People (1941), esp. chap. 13.

David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (1979), esp. chap. 2.

Brian Weinstein and Aaron Segal, Haiti: Political Failures, Cultural Successes (1984), pp. 51-54.

James Ferguson, Papa Doc, Baby Doc: Haiti and the Duvaliers (1987), esp. pp. 80, 83-85, 156-158.

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Haiti: The Breached Citadel (1989), pp. 44-46, 123-126, 139-140.

Additional Bibliography

Samedy, Jean-Baptiste Mario. De la démocratie en Haïti: culture, régime politique et idéologies contre le développement. Ottawa; New York: Legas, 2002.

Stotzky, Irwin P. Silencing the Guns in Haiti: The Promise of Deliberative Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

                                      Larman C. Wilson