WASHINGTON — A former justice minister with a “God awful” reputation as Haiti’s top law enforcement official was tapped Wednesday to lead the quake-battered nation as its next prime minister.
Bernard Gousse, a 52-year-old lawyer, was named by Haitian President Michel Martelly before Martelly left on a three-day visit to Spain, his fifth foreign trip since his May 14 inauguration. Hours later, in unusual haste, Haitian senators — who must confirm the selection — asked Gousse to submit his documents.
The choice has sparked outrage among some parliamentarians, who repeatedly warned Martelly in meetings this week that Gousse was an unacceptable choice and his nomination would be rejected. Haiti watchers also struggled to understand the selection. Some wondered if it was a tactic to re-appoint caretaker Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who is opposed by some in Martelly’s camp, or if he’s seeking to use Gousse’s nomination — and possible rejection — to blame parliament for paralyzing the country.
“This is a risky strategy that can easily backfire as Martelly could be portrayed as intransigent and incapable of compromise,’’ said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “Moreover, without a functioning government, the country’s reconstruction cannot really begin and this could lead to serious political instability and unpredictable outcomes. Ultimately, this is a dangerous gamble that may generate a crisis of governability.’’
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Gousse declined to speculate on his chances, telling The Miami Herald by telephone from Port-au-Prince, “the process has just begun.’’
“We have to wait for the final vote but I will work and meet with every political group,’’ he said. “This is a parliamentary regime so we have to deal.’’
Gousse was appointed minister of justice and public security in 2004 during the interim U.S.-backed government. He resigned a year later amid mounting international pressure over his handling of security and the prolonged imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. His tenure was viewed as an utter flop, according to cables obtained by WikiLeaks and shared with McClatchy Newspapers. He’s described in them as unable to deal with judicial corruption, most unhelpful and disappointing.
Critics accused him of leading a “witch hunt’’ against supporters of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Among those who were jailed under his watch and then later released: Miami activist Gerard Jean-Juste, former Aristide interior minister and now Sen. Jocelerme Privert, and Neptune, who led a hunger strike to protest his more than two years detention.
The Neptune case, said one cable, was “not just a judicial matter but also a political one,’’ and posed “grave dangers for the [Interim Government of Haiti] in the event Neptune should die (which would result in international condemnation) or in the event Neptune is freed without a judicial reckoning.”
“Everyone, including his backers in the private sector, agreed that Gousse had been a complete failure both on the security and justice fronts,’’ former U.S. Ambassador James Foley said in a June 3, 2005 cable.
Haiti watchers worry that Gousse’s nomination will open old political wounds. His was among three that had been discussed in recent days. The others are caretaker Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerieve, whom some Martelly supporters object to because he represents continuity, and not the change Martelly has promised; and former president candidate Jean-Henry Ceant.
While some Martelly’s supporters have pushed for him, Ceant also has his shortcomings. He is described in one cable as “Aristide’s notary and personal friend.’’
“Ceant’s wealth (by Haitian standards), combined with his ties to Aristide, raises suspicions about his past dealings,’’ the cable said.
“I fear for Haiti,’’ said Reginald Dumas, a former Trinidad ambassador and long time Haiti watcher. “Gousse’s reputation under [former interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue] was God awful.’’
Dumas said he warned Latortue in 2004 that Gousse “was severely damaging the image of Haiti. He is an ideologically divisive man of the extreme right, and would cause serious problems.’’
Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group said both Martelly and parliament need to figure out a way to get a government in place quickly. Martelly is mid-way through his first 100 days in office, and Haiti remains at a standstill. Two weeks ago, parliament rejected Martelly’s first choice, U.S.-educated businessman Daniel Rouzier.
“The question is whether he’s competent, whether he’s honest and whether he can perform the functions of a prime minister,’’ Schneider said. “If parliament says ‘No,’ then the president needs to find someone else.’’
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