Haiti shows why toxic leaders often end up ruling in dangerous places

A police officer watches protests by residents in the Lalue neighborhood who are upset with growing violence in Port-au-Prince on July 14. Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated on July 7. (Matias Delacroix/AP)
A police officer watches protests by residents in the Lalue neighborhood who are upset with growing violence in Port-au-Prince on July 14. Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated on July 7. (Matias Delacroix/AP)

This weekend, we learned that the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was allegedly orchestrated by a Florida-based doctor who wanted power for himself. Now, with the president dead and the doctor arrested in Port-au-Prince, Haiti finds itself in familiar territory: on the precipice of a violent upheaval as a power struggle plays out between ambitious, ruthless men vying for the nation’s top job.

There’s a hidden story here — one that is rarely discussed when countries such as Haiti keep repeating their tragic cycle of ruthless intrigue and political violence. And it helps explain why countries such as Haiti so often end up with toxic, destructive leaders.

Power tends to attract corruptible people everywhere. Liberal democracies do sometimes elect Machiavellian narcissists. But their destructive impact is watered down because they’re more constrained by institutions — and because more incorruptible people are willing to enter the political fray in places where it’s safe to do so.

The problem for Haiti isn’t just that it’s a country of broken institutions. It’s also that broken men are often the only ones willing to seek power wherever presidents have a reasonable chance of being killed, exiled or jailed when they lose power. When entering politics becomes physically dangerous, most rational, well-intentioned people exit the political system. It’s too risky. What’s left to fill the vacuum are mostly power-hungry risk-takers. As a result, the only people who still crave power in dangerous political systems are those least suited to wielding it.

Poor and volatile countries like Haiti therefore find themselves in a catch-22. To fix its broken political system, Haiti needs politicians who are drawn to serve — but deadly political systems such as Haiti’s mostly attract power-obsessed politicians with an urge to dominate, no matter the consequences.

That’s bad news for Haiti’s political future in the aftermath of last week’s assassination. Already, talented Haitians have been prone to avoiding politics. Many even leave the country in search of better, safer opportunities. As a result, even fewer good potential Haitian leaders will enter the political fray. The country’s chronic brain drain almost certainly just got markedly worse.

In the United States, the end of a presidency usually sparks the beginning of a cushy life: designing a presidential library, raking in millions in memoir sales, and a quiet retirement with an occasional diplomatic aid mission to countries (such as Haiti) that suffer terrible natural disasters. The same isn’t true in many countries. As I’ve found in my research, becoming president in a poor, volatile country is a dangerous gamble that often ends badly. For example, between 1960 and 2010, more than 4 in 10 presidents in sub-Saharan Africa exited power into exile, in handcuffs or in a casket.

Holding power in Haiti has always been similarly perilous, with recent presidents being overthrown in coups, forced into exile or, like Moïse, murdered. In one particularly violent period, Haiti’s leaders met their end “exiled, exiled, bombed and blown up, imprisoned, exiled, executed, exiled,” and, particularly gruesome, “dragged from the French legation by an angry mob and impaled on the iron fence surrounding the legation and torn to pieces.”

Who looks at that disturbing track record and thinks: “Sign me up!”?

As I argue in my forthcoming book, “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us,” the unfortunate answer is that a history of political violence targeting leaders causes more ruthless, power-hungry men — even psychopaths — to seek power in the future.

To want executive power in a country where presidents get gunned down in their homes by mercenaries, you usually need an unquenchable thirst for power, a streak of irrationality or — most often — a little bit of both. Psychopaths are perhaps the most likely to pursue such dangerous political jobs, as psychological research consistently shows that psychopaths rarely believe risks apply to themselves.

Countries such as Haiti are therefore stuck with a vicious cycle of toxic leadership worsened by political violence. Because it’s dangerous to become president, the potential pool of candidates is narrowed to those who want to rule for the wrong reasons. Then, once in power, even comparatively decent rulers end up clinging to power ruthlessly, because they know that losing power could cost them their life, their livelihood or their freedom. As they overstay their welcome to the dismay of the public or rival factions, they make political violence — in the form of a coup or assassination — more likely. The process then repeats itself, getting worse each time.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to breaking that cycle. But for Haiti to move forward, one lesson must be learned: The country will keep repeating its violent history until talented Haitians can believe it is safe to enter the world of politics and public service. Creating that confidence should be a top priority for Haiti’s fragile government — and the international community — in the aftermath of last week’s assassination. It will be a herculean task. But to get better leaders, Haiti must make it safe to lead.

Brian Klaas is an associate professor of global politics at University College London, where he focuses on democracy, authoritarianism, and American politics and foreign policy. He is the co-author of "How to Rig an Election" and the author of "The Despot's Apprentice" and "The Despot's Accomplice."

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