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As the international community contemplates another armed intervention, a reckoning with history is long overdue.

By Marlene L. Daut, The New Yorker —

“What happened to the Creole pigs is a cancer for Haiti,” a woman explains in “Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy,” a documentary from 2009. Creole pigs—animals indigenous to the island of Hispaniola, which is home to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic—once served as bank accounts for Haitian families. By raising and selling a healthy, fattened pig, the woman says, a family could pay for food, clothing, and education. This all changed in 1981. An outbreak of swine fever in the Dominican Republic had spread to Haiti, and U.S. officials feared that the disease, which is harmless to humans but highly contagious and deadly among pigs, might reach the United States. A powerful consortium of foreign governments and institutions, including the U.S.D.A. and the International Development Bank, required Haitian farmers to kill every pig in the country. Farmers were promised compensation through U.S.A.I.D. and replacement pigs from North American farms.

“They could have saved a small reserve of pigs,” Yolette Etienne, of the National Campaign Against Violence, a Haitian nonprofit, says, in the film. “But the American government demanded total and complete eradication of the entire race of pigs that we had.” Foreign pigs arrived in Haiti, but they were vulnerable to disease and ill-suited to the climate, and proved unable to survive. The country’s pork industry was effectively destroyed, and the Creole pig went extinct. The effect of all this on the country was profound. Many rural families, facing starvation, flocked to Port-au-Prince to seek scarce factory jobs. The population of the capital swelled, causing mass unemployment and a housing crisis. Many Haitians became consumers rather than producers of food, relying on imports from abroad for sustenance.

Governmental interventions in Haiti have a terrible track record—even ones that respond to natural disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince. That year, the United Nations sent two thousand troops and fifteen hundred police officers to Haiti to support the nine thousand peacekeepers already on the ground and help provide emergency relief, including food, water, and medical care. But some of those troops brought cholera with them, creating an overlapping disaster when an outbreak killed at least ten thousand Haitians and sickened hundreds of thousands more. The mission was also plagued by allegations of rape and sex trafficking; during the same period, U.S. families hastily adopted more than a thousand Haitian babies and children, as the U.S. government temporarily did away with routine screening protocols. Foreign N.G.O.s operating in Haiti have not fared much better. In 2018, media accounts revealed that Oxfam Great Britain covered up an investigation into the hiring of sex workers for orgies by its staff. The Haitian government responded by banning Oxfam from Haiti. A few years earlier, an investigation by ProPublica showed that the American Red Cross, which raised a half billion dollars for aid in Haiti after the quake, had squandered the money, building only six permanent homes.

Today, we’re again talking about intervention in Haiti. Since the assassination of the country’s President, Jovenel Moïse, in July, 2021, armed groups have taken over its capital and brought daily life to a standstill. Gangs have repeatedly cut off access to roads, the airport, and fuel supplies; they have also kidnapped for ransom numerous prominent members of Haitian society, and are charged with murdering people indiscriminately, with babies and children sometimes caught in the crossfire. Schools have closed, and travelling to hospitals, banks, and markets has become treacherous, if not impossible. Food and water are increasingly hard to obtain, and doctors are seeing a dangerous resurgence of cholera.

In October, the Biden Administration helped draft a U.N. resolution authorizing the deployment of international troops to Haiti. In an attempt to distance itself from the previous U.N.-led occupation, the resolution proposed a non-U.N. mission led by a “partner country.” António Guterres, the U.N.’s Secretary-General, had earlier proposed the dispatch of a multinational “rapid action force.” The resolution that was ultimately adopted by the U.N. makes no mention of foreign troop deployments. Still, the Canadian government has not ruled out participating in a foreign deployment, if there’s “a consensus across political parties in Haiti.” Ariel Henry, the acting Prime Minister and acting President of Haiti, and eighteen top-ranking Haitian officials (most of whom are no longer in office), previously requested the deployment of foreign troops, too.

But Haiti’s government is not a proper stand-in for its people. Headlines such as “Haiti calls for help” are misleading. Thousands of Haitians across the country have protested the idea of foreign intervention, rejecting Henry’s request and demanding his resignation. “Life is not going to get better with an international force,” Marco Duvivier, an auto-parts manager who took part in the protests in Port-au-Prince, told a reporter for the Associated Press. Widlore Mérancourt, the editor-in-chief of the Haitian news outlet AyiboPost, was more measured when he told me that, though sending foreign troops to Haiti might halt violence and temporarily restore basic governance, it would only be “a Band-Aid, not a long-term solution”; such an intervention, he said, wouldn’t address the “root causes” of a “social structure” that cyclically produces gang leaders who lead mass uprisings that largely comprise Haiti’s youth, resulting in government overthrows that lead to the deployment of foreign troops.

Haiti appears to be stuck between two bad options. To many foreigners, and to those in power in Haiti, intervention seems necessary to halt the current gang violence—and yet history and the Haitian people themselves tell us it’s a bad idea. Meanwhile, international intervention is already occurring without foreign soldiers, both discretely—the United States and Canada have repeatedly sent armored vehicles to the Haitian police—and through an ongoing process of economic and political interference. How can Haiti, and the world, move forward and out of the present crisis without repeating the mistakes of the past? How can the world do right by a nation it’s so often wronged?

The current crisis began in 2018, when Haitians took to the streets to protest the theft, by Moïse and other members of his political party, of money from a development fund linked to PetroCaribe, a now defunct Venezuelan program that sold oil to countries in the Caribbean and Central America. An investigation by the Haitian senate found that 1.7 billion U.S. dollars disbursed over eight years had been grossly mismanaged or stolen. Moïse faced criticism through the rest of his term, which, according to Haiti’s constitutional calendar, should have ended in February, 2021. But, instead of holding an election, he stayed in office, leading to further protests. Amid the chaos, armed gangs sidelined the Haitian National Police, jockeying for position while terrorizing the populace.

After Moïse’s assassination, the confusion and the conflicts deepened. Ordinarily, Claude Joseph, the acting Prime Minister, would have assumed power after Moïse’s death. But just a few days before his assassination, during his fifth year in office and after his term had technically expired, Moïse appointed Ariel Henry, a seventy-one-year-old neurosurgeon, to the position. Since Henry hadn’t yet been officially sworn in, Joseph prepared to take office, with the backing of the Haitian military and national police. But the Core Group—a body comprising ambassadors from Germany, Brazil, Canada, Spain, the United States, France, and the European Union, and representatives from the United Nations and the Organization of American States, who are supposed to promote democracy in Haiti—intervened by issuing a statement, urging Joseph to step down and Henry to take power. Many Haitians and Haitian Americans decried the statement, which resulted in Henry’s ascension, as yet more international interference.

There was a viable alternative to the Core Group’s solution. In August, 2021, community and institutional leaders representing disparate parts of the Haitian population, with the shared mission of finding a “Haitian solution to the crisis,” drafted the Montana Accord. Writers of the accord insisted that the international community refrain from intervening in their country’s politics, and called for elections to be held no later than 2023. They also demanded that the United States, the Core Group, and the U.N. cease all support for Henry’s government, because of its ties to the PetroCaribe scandal and other forms of corruption. In collaboration with more than four hundred civil and political bodies in Haiti, the writers of the accord identified an interim President and Vice-President who could preside over the government until elections could be held. “The Haitian people want to redefine their future outside of this state administered mainly by local and foreign actors,” they declared. The next month, Daniel Foote, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, resigned, citing ongoing U.S. support for Henry’s administration. “The hubris that makes us believe we should pick the winner—again—is impressive,” Foote wrote. “This cycle of international political interventions in Haiti has consistently produced catastrophic results.”

The cycle of interventions began at the country’s founding, in 1804, when Haiti declared independence from France. After the Haitian Revolution—a twelve-year-long struggle led by formerly enslaved people against their enslavers—Haiti determined its own form of government and enjoyed robust trade with Britain, the U.S., and other nations. But France continued to pursue reconquest, and President Thomas Jefferson, caving to pressure from the French, instituted a trade embargo. Economic sanctions against Haiti reached an apex in 1825, when France, under King Charles X, forced Haiti’s President, Jean-Pierre Boyer, to agree, under threat of invasion, to a disastrous indemnity of a hundred and fifty million francs; the amount was later reduced to ninety million, but after tariffs, interest, and other fees, Haiti ultimately paid a hundred and twelve million francs. Even after the agreement, the United States and other Atlantic slave powers refused to recognize Haitian independence.

The United States finally recognized Haiti in 1862, a year after the U.S. Civil War began. All the same, it repeatedly encroached on Haitian territory, using gunboat diplomacy to seek territory for naval bases. From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. staged a full-blown occupation of Haiti—its longest military operation until the Vietnam War. Although U.S. diplomats framed the occupation as a response to the assassination of Haiti’s President, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, its fundamental goal was to force Haiti to pay loans and fees associated with the French indemnity, in which American banks had a fiduciary interest. The United States impounded all Haitian government revenue to insure that payments were made.

Haitians, naturally, protested the presence of U.S. forces. In 1919, the Haitian nationalist Charlemagne Péralte led a rebellion against the occupiers. U.S. soldiers responded with a harsh crackdown, killing Péralte and afterward circulating a picture of his body positioned in a crucified pose as a warning. During the occupation, more than fifteen thousand Haitians were killed by U.S. soldiers. The violent quashing of all protest was widely viewed by Haitians as a decisive turning point away from the country’s revolutionary principles of freedom and independence and toward autocratic rule. In 1929, the Haitian historian and diplomat Dantès Bellegarde told President Herbert Hoover that many Haitians now had a “general scorn” for the law, obeying it only “in order to escape its severe sanctions, decreed and applied by brutal force.” The economist Emily Greene Balch, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize, led a delegation to Haiti in 1926 and observed that “the Americans are training not police, but soldiers.” She wondered what the effect of such a force would be after American withdrawal. Haitians were soon to find out.

During the occupation, U.S. soldiers helped establish the puppet Presidency of the pro-U.S. politician Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, paving the way for the United States to play a role in installing or deposing every subsequent Haitian President. François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, was elected in 1957, allegedly by a landslide; as the writer Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has shown, however, four times as many Haitians voted for his opponent, Louis Déjoie. The U.S. supported the election because Duvalier was anti-Communist. In 1964, following another sham election, Duvalier declared himself “President for life.” The infamous brutality perpetrated by his henchmen, the Tontons Macoutes, is perhaps best summed up by Duvalier’s “Catechism of the Revolution,” widely circulated in the capital: “Our Doc who art in the National Palace for life, hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations. Thy will be done in Port-au-Prince and in the countryside. Give us this day our new Haiti, and never forgive the trespasses of those traitors who spit on our country each day. Lead them into temptation, and poisoned by their own venom, deliver them from no evil.”

Duvalier unleashed a reign of terror, censoring the press and imprisoning or killing his rivals along with journalists, academics, and students. When he died suddenly in 1971, his nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude, known as Baby Doc, inherited the dictatorship. Hardly less brutal than his father, he reigned until February, 1986, when a popular uprising known as déchoukaj, or uprooting, forced him out of office. As many as thirty thousand people were killed by the Duvalier regimes. Baby Doc fled to France, where he enjoyed protection and lived in exile for the next quarter century; meanwhile, a violent military junta came to power in Haiti. Most of its leaders had received U.S.-funded paramilitary training.

The junta left power in 1991, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, took office, winning nearly seventy per cent of the vote. Aristide, Haiti’s first popularly elected President, was known for sharp criticisms of the U.S. He accused Haiti’s economic élite of exploiting the poor, and took the military to task for its human-rights abuses. After only eight months in power, his administration was toppled by the Haitian military in a 1991 coup. Even as he took refuge in the United States, Aristide publicly blamed the U.S. and the U.N. for much of Haiti’s economic and political turmoil. At the U.N. General Assembly, he criticized foreign leaders to their faces in a famous “ten commandments” speech known as the “Diskou Aristide.” His fifth commandment: “What belongs to us is ours. Ours is not yours.”

Aristide spent three years under the protection of the U.S. government, until he was reinstalled in 1994, through an initially popular military mission called Operation Uphold Democracy. But Aristide’s sudden reliance on U.S. intervention signalled a change in his loyalties. He was reëlected in 2000 amid allegations of election fraud and soon began using armed groups called Chimè to threaten, silence, and kill his critics. His regime lasted until February, 2004, and was followed by a U.N. peacekeeping mission that continued until 2017. Depending on whose version of the story one believes, Aristide either asked the U.S. government for help fleeing the country when his ouster again seemed imminent or was kidnapped by a coalition from the United States, Canada, and France, who colluded to remove him from office.

Many Haitians believe that the French government orchestrated Aristide’s removal because, in 2003, he engaged an international cadre of lawyers to study the nineteenth-century independence indemnity. They calculated that France owed Haiti twenty-one billion dollars in reparations—a number recently confirmed by an independent investigation at the New York Times. Speaking to the Times, Thierry Burkard, who was France’s ambassador to Haiti in 2004, acknowledged that Aristide’s removal was effectively “a coup,” orchestrated in part by France. It was, he said, “probably a bit about” the Haitian President’s request for reparations.

This is the history of neocolonial Haiti. Kwame Nkrumah, the former President of Ghana, has defined neocolonialism as the “last stage of imperialism.” A country subjected to neocolonialism “has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty,” he went on, but “in reality its economic system and its political policy is directed from outside.” Neocolonial foreign policies create continuous cycles of dependency.

Without a doubt, neocolonial Haiti is a spectacularly failed state—a shadow Haiti, unable to provide the basic necessities of life for its people. At the same time, its economy and elections have largely been controlled by foreign banks and the world powers. This is why the Haitian historian and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot once referred to Haiti as “the longest running neo-colonial experiment in the west.”

Part of what makes neocolonialism so intractable is that, as a state fails, more neocolonialism becomes the only imaginable cure for the ills created by it in the first place. The United States’ Haitian policy has never been primarily directed toward the humanitarianism it touts; during the Cold War, the U.S. was first and foremost concerned with anti-Communism, and since the fall of Duvalier its main goal has been to prevent Haitian “boat people,” who flocked to Miami in droves during the Duvaliers’ dictatorships, from reaching the continent. Less than five per cent of Haitian asylum seekers in the U.S. are granted asylum, the lowest rate of any nationality for which data are available. More often, Haitian migrants have been brutally expelled. In September, 2021, for example, the U.S. began the process of deporting back to Haiti thousands of people sheltering near the Rio Grande—even as instability in Haiti, caused in large part by U.S. foreign policy, was the reason the migrants had fled.

What Haiti needs, above all, is a definitive rupture from the cycle of forced dependency kept in motion by foreign governments and international institutions. How does a shadow state like Haiti achieve decolonization from neocolonialism? As a first step, the U.S. and other U.N. member states must stop hailing elections to be organized by Haiti’s current leadership as the best route to future stability and security. In the words of James North, a longtime political correspondent covering Haitian politics, the gangs running rampant over the capital today are “largely paramilitary allies” of Henry’s (formerly, Moïse’s) ruling party, which has “dominated Haiti for the past decade with a combination of election fraud and violence.” Second, and most important, the international community needs to commit to charting a new path. Payments are part of that path: Haiti should receive compensation from France, the U.S., and the U.N. for damages related to the indemnity, the U.S. occupations, and other abuses.

Skeptics and critics often cite the corruption of Haitian leaders in arguing that Haitians are not as worthy of restorative justice as other victims of mass atrocities. Yet this argument is another neocolonial fallacy. “Oppression justifies itself,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, in “Colonialism and Neocolonialism.” “The oppressors produce and maintain by force the evils which, in their eyes, make the oppressed resemble more and more what they would need to be in order to deserve their fate.” It would be the job of a freely and fairly elected Haitian government to take on the work of appropriately managing the rebuilding of Haitian infrastructure with any reparations awarded to the Haitian people.

How do we get from the current crisis to a scenario in which elections and reparations are possible? One critical step might be to move the government away from the overcrowding and structural problems of Port-au-Prince. Although Port-au-Prince is the capital of Haiti, it is not Haiti itself; meanwhile, nearly half of the country’s estimated two hundred gangs are concentrated there. As Vadim Rossman has shown in his book “Capital Cities: Varieties and Patterns of Development and Relocation,” new capitals can play an important role in conflict resolution. Establishing an interim government in Cap-Haïtien, for example, a city two hundred kilometres to the north, might destabilize the gangs by forcing them to physically disperse and divide. Okap, as Haitians call Cap-Haïtien, has an international airport and other existing infrastructure, such as hotels, for meetings between foreign officials and diplomats; it also has a large port capable of handling both imports and exports. The economist Tyler Cowen has cited moving the capital to Okap as a promising idea. It might encourage migration out of Port-au-Prince, a city built for two hundred thousand people, which is currently home to nearly three million. (Bernard Ethéart, the director of Haiti’s National Institute for Agrarian Reform, also suggested moving the capital after the 2010 earthquake, for seismological reasons.)

Moving the capital and decreasing the population of Port au-Prince will not eradicate the gang problem on its own—there are smaller gangs in other cities, including in Cap-Haïtien. But, coupled with infrastructure projects that will create jobs, it could play a key role in engaging the youth of Haiti in work, education, and even governance. Clarens Renois, a coördinator for the National Union for Integrity and Reconciliation, a nonviolent political party, insisted in an interview with the New Humanitarian that Haitians do not need a “military solution; the solution is social, economic, and it’s about justice.” One gang member who joined when he was just fourteen echoed this sentiment when he remarked that, if given the opportunity, “the youth would wake up to work—not fight—because they [would be] making money.” Removing neocolonial barriers placed in front of Haitian agriculture—such as subsidies for U.S. farmers that have put Haitian rice farms out of business—could help make the countryside a viable place for Haitians to thrive. Supporting small-scale farming and micro-lending programs, such as those utilized by Haiti’s famous Madan Sara—market women who bring food produced in the countryside into the cities—is essential for Haiti’s future economic stability, too.

January, 2023, marked the two hundred and nineteenth anniversary of the declaration of Haitian independence. The United States, like Europe, needs to finally attend to the gaping wounds created by its colonial crimes. These wounds must be exposed to an uncomfortably bright light, so that they can be properly treated. If the West continues to repeat the past—sending and then withdrawing foreign troops, and showering Haiti with vast amounts of ineffective “aid”—then true Haitian independence will never be restored, and the world will continue to be morally and materially culpable for a humanitarian and political disaster it has spent centuries creating. There must be, and there is, another way, and just as in 1804 at Haiti’s founding, it will be Haitian-led. The path that leads to a once again sovereign Haiti will not be easy, familiar, or common sense; it will require daring, imagination, trust, and respect on all sides. But it is the only path that can produce something good. If the world truly wants what is best for Haiti and Haitians, then there is no choice but to take it.

Source: The New Yorker
Featured image: Photograph by Odelyn Joseph / AP


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.