/ 27 October 2022

Haiti in turmoil – and the US must shoulder the blame

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A mans walks past a burning barricade during a protest against Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry calling for his resignation, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2022. (Photo by RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Popular protests in Haiti look much like the street protests that became common in our country from 2004. But in Haiti, the road blockades marked out with burning tires have accumulated the sort of frequency, scale and force that gives them an insurrectionary feel.

As unions and students have joined the ferment there is a growing sense that it is moving towards some sort of critical mass. At the same time gangs have seized control of many neighbourhoods and one has blockaded the country’s principal fuel terminal.  

On 15 October, the US, ignoring popular demands for a constituent assembly and a democratic resolution to the crisis, responded to the upheaval by submitting a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council calling for the “immediate deployment of a multinational rapid action force” in Haiti. 

The racial double standards of the international liberal order are sharply evident in the treatment of Haiti. Since its founding in 1804, after more than 12 years of a revolutionary war against slavery waged by formerly captive Africans, Haiti has been permanently encircled by hostile Western powers.

In 1825 France anchored its gunships off Port-au-Prince and demanded that Haiti pay a “debt” of 150 million francs for the losses incurred as a result of the revolution, most notably the loss of its slaves. By the end of the century payments on this debt took about 80% of the national budget. It was finally paid off in 1947. 

In 1915 the US moved to seize direct political control over Haiti via a military occupation. The country’s gold reserve was appropriated and taken to City Bank in New York, an army was established to sustain the power of local elites and people were driven off their land and into forced labour on plantations. The occupation ended in 1934, but the US retained direct control of Haiti’s public finances until 1947, and appropriated a large chunk of the country’s wealth.

In 1944 François Duvalier came to power via a rigged election. He ruled till his death in 1971, when he was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude. The Duvaliers, whose successive kleptocratic dictatorships were backed by the US, used a vicious informal militia, the Tontons Macoutes, to terrorise people into submission. Up to 50 000 lives were lost. Our own experience of the often murderous alliances between local politicians, gangsters and the izinkabi (assassins) in KwaZulu-Natal carries some echoes of this.

In 1986 Duvalier, no longer able to hold out against a popular rebellion, fled to France on a US plane. The rebellion was driven by impoverished people, mostly locally organised but networked into wider relationships of solidarity and common purpose. At the time Haiti was, along with South Africa and the Philippines, one of the most widely mobilised countries on the planet. In each of these countries the popular movement confronted US-backed regimes.

Democracy won

In Haiti the movement, organised around the axiom “Tout moun se moun” (Every person is a person) cohered behind the charisma of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest committed to liberation theology. In December 1990, in the first credible election since the end of the US occupation in 1934, Aristide trounced the US-backed candidate, former World Bank economist Marc Bazin, and won the presidency. 

Immediately after the election, the US tried to persuade Aristide to ignore the electorate and offer the presidency to Bazin. Three weeks later an attempted coup was repulsed by massive popular mobilisation. But seven months into Aristide’s presidency in September 1991 the Haitian military, acting with the support of the US, abducted Aristide as he was about to raise the minimum wage. US troops were then brought in to “uphold democracy”. Thousands of people were killed over the next three years.

In 2000, Aristide was re-elected to the presidency with 92% of the vote. But the US continued to back the opposition, including armed groups and “civil society” – a term effectively misused to give small foreign-funded NGOs an appearance of democratic legitimacy. In July 2001 there was an armed incursion from the Dominican Republic. There was an airborne attack on the presidential residence in December and a series of raids on police stations during the following year.

In December 2003, on the eve of the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution, Aristide issued a demand to France to pay reparations of $21.7-billion, a low estimate of the contemporary value of the money that Haiti had been forced to pay France after the abolition of slavery. This was often presented as unhinged in the most powerful publications in the Western media. Aristide began to be relentlessly demonised and increasingly presented as crazy. 

In South Africa, this was taken up with enthusiasm by the Democratic Alliance and the bulk of the liberal media. Thabo Mbeki was pilloried by powerful actors in our media for his decision to attend the commemoration of the revolution in Port-au-Prince on 1 January 2004.

Democracy undone

On 29 February, Aristide was removed from his home, at gunpoint and against his will, by the US military. Liberal NGOs, such as Action Aid, offered “civil society” legitimation for the armed coup that had deposed an elected leader who, while not without his critics, retained overwhelming popular support.

A US, French and Canadian-backed “Council of Eminent Persons” chose Gérard Latortue, a former World Bank official, as the new prime minister. The UN provided troops that secured the authority of the new government and continued the repression of the popular movement. They would remain in the country till 2017, and commit numerous abuses, including sexual assault.

When Aristide’s request to be allowed to move to South Africa was granted he was given the respect due to a head of state. This provoked outrage in liberal circles and the South African state was subject to open scorn for both the respect it showed to Aristide and its opposition to the coup. Reporting largely followed the US line and confirmed the well-established ploy of presenting Western-funded NGOs as credible democratic actors while forces with an actual popular base and democratic sanction were vilified, and often criminalised.

In 2006 a study published in The Lancet concluded that about 4 000 people allied to Fanmi Lavalas, Aristide’s party, had been killed in political violence in the greater Port-au-Prince area since the coup. When elections were held that year, Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular party in the country, was barred from participation. The candidates associated with the coup received less than 2% of the vote. Fanmi Lavalas was also banned from participating in the 2009 elections. 

After the devastating earthquake in 2010 US troops returned to the country, which came to be largely run by NGOs, none of which achieved anything like the social efficacy of Gift of the Givers. The Core Group, an organisation dominated by government officials from Canada, France, the US and the Organisation of American States, put musician Michael Martelly into contention for the election in 2011. 

Again Fanmi Lavalas was not allowed to compete. Unsurprisingly, more than 70% of registered voters stayed at home. Martelly won the election with just more than 700 000 votes – the support of 4.5% of registered voters. In 2015 he dissolved parliament and began to rule by decree.

Jovenel Moïse’s ascension to the presidency in 2017 was equally farcical. In a country of 10 million people, he got just 600 000 votes. After he was assassinated in July last year the Core Group moved Ariel Henry into the presidency, saying that this would create a “consensual and inclusive government”. 

Calling in debt

While Aristide was brought to power on a huge tide of popular protest, each of his recent successors has been simultaneously supported by the US and confronted by sustained waves of protest. As the Haitian activist Francesca Menes recently told National Public Radio in the US, leadership in Haiti “has either been supported by the US or if it’s supported by the people [of Haiti], it’s interrupted by the US government”.

Despite the dire social and political crisis in Haiti, the US government remains committed to supporting Henry, a leader with no claim to even the most limited democratic credibility. At the same time, it runs a crudely racist immigration regime against Haiti, which has the highest rate of asylum denial of any country. Between 19 September and 3 October, the department of homeland security sent 65 “repatriation flights” back to Haiti.

As the crisis builds, we need to do a lot better than in 2004 and 2010 when much of our media assumed that tiny Western-backed “civil society” groups were the most credible representatives of the Haitian people and that US-led attempts to subvert actual democracy in Haiti were somehow in the interests of democracy.

We would do well, too, to insist that France repays its debt to Haiti. Economist Thomas Piketty recently put the figure at $28-billion. He’s a smart man. One of our universities should ask him to lead a team of the best of our new PhD graduates to calculate a figure for the amount that the US owes Haiti.

Richard Pithouse works with Inkani Books, The Forge (a cultural space), The Commune, (a radical book store) and the South African office of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.