Why has Haiti risen up once again?
By Ashley Smith
March 4, 2019
THE HAITIAN masses have mobilized a new wave of protest against the corrupt government of President Jovenel Moïse.
It began with demonstrations last summer in July and August, re-emerged in November and December, and exploded again in the first two weeks of February when hundreds of thousands marched in all the major cities of the country, from the capital of Port-au-Prince to the northern city of Cap-Haïtien.
The demonstrators demanded an investigation into what happened to billions of dollars of funds from Venezuela, an end to austerity measures and price increases for basic goods, and the resignation of Moïse and his prime minister, Jean-Henry Céant.
The government predictably responded with a combination of concessions and repression. It rescinded the price increases and promised investigations into corruption, but neither Moïse nor Céant agreed to step down.
At the same time, the police and army, backed up by the UN forces nominally in Haiti to ensure “peace,” cracked down on the protests, killing 26 people and injuring 77 since February 7.
Taking the long view of this crisis, the uprising is the latest example of revolt against the strategies pursued by Great Empires since Haiti’s birth as an independent nation state more than two centuries ago.
In the more recent past, American imperialism’s imposition of neoliberal structural adjustment programs on Haiti in the 1980s, followed by two U.S.-backed coups against former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, undermined the project of social reform to address the country’s deep social inequality.
Now those grievances are again bursting out into the open.
THE SLAVE revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture succeeded in driving out Haiti’s French masters in 1804 and fending off Britain and Spain, and yet imperialism would not leave Haiti alone.
Though the world’s imperial powers couldn’t directly colonize Haiti, they could compel the free Black republic to pay an enormous price for its liberation, isolating it from the world economy and, in the case of France, forcing Haiti to pay $21 billion in today’s dollars for the loss of “its” slaves.
These powers also meddled in Haitian politics, backing different factions of the ruling class that has exploited and oppressed the country’s peasantry and small working class for the last two centuries.
The U.S. repeatedly invaded the country to back up its handpicked autocrats, occupying from 1915 to 1934 and creating a domestic military force with the sole purpose of repressing the Haitian masses.
During the Cold War, the U.S. supported the brutal regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier as an ally against Castro’s Cuba. He ruled the country through terror enforced by his own paramilitary force, the Ton Ton Macoutes.
After Papa Doc’s death in 1971, the U.S. backed his son and anointed successor Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. This father-son dictatorship killed between 30,000 and 60,000 people in order to cement its rule over the course of nearly 30 years.
Under the influence of Washington in the 1980s, Baby Doc implemented a neoliberal economic program with the aim of turning the country into a giant export processing zone based on exploitation of workers drawn out of the peasant majority and into the cities.
THESE PLANS for sweatshop development failed, triggering a mass movement called Lavalas that drove Baby Doc from the country and eventually led to elections in 1991 won by liberation theologist and leader of the struggle Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He and his party, Fanmi Lavalas, hoped to implement a program of social-democratic reforms to alleviate the country’s desperate poverty.
But the U.S. and Haiti’s ruling class united against him, with the military staging a coup that drove Aristide into exile. After protests within Haiti and internationally, the U.S. returned Aristide to power, but on the condition that he agree to implement Washington’s neoliberal program, count years lost to the coup as part of his term, and agree to step down in 1996.
While Aristide succeeded in abolishing the despised Haitian Army and did resist some of Washington’s neoliberal dictates, he implemented other parts of them, and so did his successor and ally René Préval, who governed until Aristide won re-election in 2001.
Back in office, he continued to advocate redistribution of wealth and demand reparations from France for the debt imposed on Haiti after the revolution, but he was unable to implement many reforms, and many in his government became corrupt, leading to mass disillusionment with his rule.
The Haitian ruling class and the right took advantage of this to stage a campaign of destabilization. Then, in 2004 with the country reeling, the U.S. kidnapped Aristide and forced him into exile.
After this second coup, Washington and its allies deployed UN forces to occupy the country from 2004 until 2017, when they were replaced with a smaller force assigned supposedly to ensure the rule of law.
When new elections were held in 2006, Préval again won, but he at best implemented neoliberalism with a human face, failing to enact any significant reforms in the interests of the masses.
As a result, the country’s workers, the urban poor and peasants have suffered ever-worsening poverty.
The World Bank estimates that 59 percent of the nation’s 10.5 million people live below the official poverty line of $2.41 a day, while a shocking 24 percent survive in extreme poverty defined as less than $1.23 a day. And with such poverty comes hunger so pervasive that USAID estimates half the population is undernourished.
Then in 2010, a devastating earthquake struck, flattening whole sections of Port au Prince, where housing had been built with next to no regulation, in accordance with neoliberal doctrine. The Haitian government estimated that the quake killed 300,000 people, while other analysts put the total at about 100,000. More than 1.3 million people were displaced, and close to 40,000 were still living in camps as of 18 months ago.
On top of that, three hurricanes — Thomas in 2010, Sandy in 2012, and Matthew in 2016 — swept through the country, destroying villages, farmlands and whole sections of cities with devastating floods. Matthew was the worst — it killed 546 people, displaced 175,500 and pushed 806,000 into extreme food insecurity.
THE SOCIAL conditions wrought by imperialism and the Haitian ruling class turned a series of natural disasters into a social catastrophe. The U.S. and other international donors disbursed $10 billion in foreign assistance and promised, in the words of Bill Clinton, to “build back better.”
Instead, they betrayed the country and its people. The biggest scandal centered on the Red Cross, which raised half a billion dollars from appeals and claimed to have built homes for 130,000 people after the earthquake. But as an investigation by ProPublica and NPR proved, only six permanent homes were built.
Aid largely bypassed the Haitian state and ended up in the coffers of international NGOs, most based in Washington and other imperial cities.
As a result, the Haitian state was incapacitated, and private services provided by international and local agencies proliferated to such an extent that Haiti has been called “The Republic of NGOs.”
The development that did happen merely laid out the red carpet for the predatory tourist industry and established new sweatshop complexes. Even much of that failed to materialize. And the UN, which had promised to provide disaster relief, behaved as its critics predicted: like an occupying army repressing protests by a desperate population.
Worst of all, UN troops introduced cholera into the country for the first time, a fact the UN denied until 2016. The ensuing epidemic killed 10,000 people and only recently subsided.
ABANDONED, BETRAYED and disillusioned, the Haitian masses largely sat out a series of elections that brought American-backed neoliberal puppets to power.
Michel Martelly, a former Kompa singer nicknamed “Sweet Micky,” narrowly won an election riddled with controversy, ruled as a neoliberal technocrat and restored the dreaded Haitian Army with the sole purpose of domestic repression.
He handpicked his successor Moïse, a businessman whose most recent enterprise is a failed export-oriented banana plantation. Moïse won the presidency in 2016 with only 18 percent of voters participating in the election.
Martelly and Moïse proved themselves venal rulers who plundered the state coffers for their own enrichment. They saw an opportunity in Venezuela’s PetroCaribe Alliance.
Flush with money from high oil prices at the time, Hugo Chávez launched it in 2005 to promote a regional reformist strategy of state-led capitalist development as an alternative to Washington’s neoliberal consensus. Venezuela sold oil to 12 Caribbean countries at 60 percent of the market rate, with the remaining 40 percent paid for by long-term, low-interest loans.
To the consternation of the U.S., Haiti joined PetroCaribe in 2007. Then-President Préval promised to use the $4 billion in credit to build hospitals, schools and roads. However, the corrupt governments led by Martelly and Moïse gobbled up more than $2 billion of the funds for themselves and their cronies.
The scandal became public when “a Haitian Senate commission published [in 2018] a 650-page investigative report on the Petrocaribe program,” according to the New York Times. “It implicated much of Haiti’s political class in inflating government contracts, funneling money to ghost companies and a host of other financial improprieties.”
After oil prices collapsed, Venezuela entered a crisis of its own, which was further compounded by U.S. sanctions. The crisis brought the PetroCaribe program to a close and left Haiti billions of dollars in debt to Venezuela.
Desperate for funds, the Haitian state turned to the IMF last year for a $96 million loan, which unsurprisingly came with neoliberal strings attached. It required Haiti to cut its fuel subsidy and sell it at prevailing market prices, immediately jacking up gas prices by 50 percent.
Predictably, this inflamed an already rising inflation rate with prices increasing by double-digit percentages each year since 2014, putting all kinds of basic necessities out of reach for many households.
DESPERATE AND enraged, the people of Haiti want answers, and they have been flooding into the streets in repeated waves of protest since last summer.
In February, protests shut down most of the country’s cities, and marchers converged on Moïse’s house in the elite suburb of Pétion-Ville. After a guard beat a woman protester, the crowd pelted his property with stones.
Protesters are calling for the president and prime minister to resign, an end to austerity measures, and an investigation into the theft of the PetroCaribe funds.
With the backing of the U.S. and UN, the Haitian state responded with brutality, deploying the police and army against the February demonstrations. Moïse refused to resign. “I, Jovenel Moïse, head of state, will not give the country up to armed gangs and drug traffickers,” he declared.
He and Céant did offer to trim their perks, promised further investigations into the misspending of the PetroCaribe funds, increased the minimum wage and lowered prices of basic goods. But who would trust this utterly corrupt regime either to investigate itself for its crimes or enact reforms in the interests of its people?
The rising against the government has precipitated an even deeper crisis in Haitian society, as imports of food, distribution of water and shipments of fuel have been interrupted.
Disgracefully, Novum Energy, which has a contract to supply fuel to the country, stopped its tankers from unloading 60,000 barrels of gas and 260,000 barrels of diesel because the government was behind in payments, thereby exacerbating shortages of fuel.
WHILE THE protests have subsided for now, the Haitian masses face big challenges ahead. Various reformists have attempted to position themselves as a credible alternative, but their strategy, blazed by Aristide and his party Fanmi Lavalas, hit the inevitable contradictions of trying to run capitalism with a human face under the thumb of American imperialism.
Ominously, the Haitian right is also re-emerging and putting itself forward as an alternative to the corrupt neoliberal rulers. Baby Doc’s son Nicolas Duvalier is even rumored to be considering a run for the presidency in the next election.
Meanwhile, the Haitian left, which struggled to position itself as a force independent of Aristide’s reformism, is trying to rebuild itself amid the new wave of protests.
One thing is for sure: the U.S. is part of the problem — perhaps the most important part — facing the Haitian people. The Trump administration has proven itself utterly hypocritical. It backed the current venal regime to the hilt and betrayed promises to Haitians in the U.S. in a blatantly racist fashion.
Trump’s double standards are brazen. On the one hand, his administration denounces Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela on wildly exaggerated claims, while the U.S. plots a coup to overthrow him. On the other, it supports Moïse’s brutal and corrupt rule in Haiti and thus only calls for new elections — which it will rig in favor of neoliberal candidates, as a face-saving solution.
Why? Because Moïse and his ilk are useful puppets for Washington’s imperial ambitions, including against Venezuela. Moïse’s government, for example, joined the U.S. and 17 other countries in the Organization of American States in passing a resolution refusing to recognize Maduro’s government.
Trump has also betrayed promises to Haitians in the U.S. and on its border in Mexico. During the 2016 campaign, he promised Haitians that he wanted to be “your greatest champion” — but in office, he has proved himself their greatest enemy. Infamously, in a meeting in the Oval Office, he complained about immigrants coming from “shithole countries” like Haiti.
Trump rescinded Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians, which had allowed 59,000 to stay in the country since the earthquake.
That led to an exodus of Haitians crossing into Canada in the hopes of finding safe haven there. While the courts have put a stay on that order, those with TPS still face an uncertain future.
Moreover, amid the spiraling crisis in Haiti, thousands have left the country for Latin America, and many of those have attempted to enter the U.S. through Mexico only to be denied entry at the border.
Haitians have become the target of anti-migrant xenophobia and racism throughout the region, most horrifically in the Dominican Republic, which deported 120,000 Haitians last year.
HAITI AND its people are thus caught in an organic crisis precipitated by imperialism, neoliberal capitalism, and the failure and collapse of reformism within the country and region.
Nevertheless, the Haitian masses have yet again demonstrated their determination to fight for democracy and equality. Their resistance offers the country’s left the opportunity to rebuild and lead a new wave of struggle.
Amid this crisis, activists in the U.S. must defend the right of Haitians to determine their own fate, including overthrowing and replacing the current corrupt neoliberal government. And we must oppose the U.S., its imperialist allies and the UN from interfering in their fight for liberation.
Instead, the U.S. and France should be forced to pay reparations to Haiti for the debt trap in which they ensnared the country, and for the neoliberal program they imposed on it, so that the people have the resources to rebuild society in their own interests.
And we must agitate for the indefinite extension of TPS for any Haitians requesting it — and open U.S. borders for Haitians and all other migrants seeking safe haven. We should see the Haitian struggle as part of our revolutionary struggle for a new internationalist socialist society that puts people and the environment before profit.