What’s the Path Forward for Haiti?

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. ♦

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