The topic for today is Haiti’s current socio-political situation. It’s a very complicated situation, and there are many things we don’t know, and can’t know. With such limited information and contradictory information in the media, the simplest thing to do is to grab onto an interpretation of the situation that falls into a narrative we can all relate to – that there are “good guys” and “bad guys” and that things will get better when the good guys win. The one thing I’m sure of in this situation is that there are no “good guys”. Corruption is virtually universal amongst Haiti’s leaders, and political struggles are largely about how the spoils are to be divided among them.
Jovenel Moise was elected a few years ago. He is the chosen successor of the previous president, Michel Martelly. Martelly may or may not have known Moise before picking him as his successor to run the Tet Kale (bald head) political party. In Haiti, the president can serve two, five year terms but not consecutively, so one strategy is to have a close associate serve a term in between your two terms as a seat-warmer of sorts. There is little more than speculation about the relationship between these two presidents. I have heard that they have almost no contact, and I have also heard that they meet once a week.
Moise was elected as president largely because he was seen as a successful businessman. He started an organic plantain plantation to produce for export, so he became known as Neg Banan (Plantain Man). The plantation is now defunct.
Confusingly, the opposition is loosely led by Jean-Charles Moise, so there are two Moises involved, not related to each other. Jean Charles was a main candidate in the last election, which was disputed and needed to be re-held.
The head of the senate, Youri Latortue, is also a leading member of the opposition. Wikeleaks published an intercepted a communique from the U.S. ambassador which stated Youri Latortue was “one of the most brazenly corrupt of leading Haitian politicians.”
Venezuela & PetroCaribe:
With the PetroCaribe program, Venezuela sold fuel to the Haitian government for credit, to be repaid later. The idea was for the funds received from fuel re-sold by the government to the various gas stations around Haiti to be used for building roads, social programs, and the like. A LOT of the money has been stolen, but we don’t have all of the information about where the money went. The program is now over.
Recently, the U.S. put pressure on Haiti to come out in opposition to Maduro’s government in Venezuela at the U.N. This upset a lot of Haitians, who saw the PetroCaribe program as a huge help to Haiti. It’s common for people to say that the people stand with Maduro, even if the government doesn’t.
The USA has been heavily involved in Haiti since the fall of the Duvalier regime which lasted from 1958-1986. The Duvalier regime was a period of autocratic stability without democracy, and the U.S. hoped to see a stable democracy begin after Baby Doc’s departure. After an interim period when a new constitution was written, Aristide was elected by a landslide – not America’s choice at all. However, after the military coup d’etat in 1992, Aristide took refuge in the USA and continued to control a large amount of Haitian government money which he used to lobby the US government and the Organization of American States to put an embargo on Haiti to force the military regime to collapse and accept Aristide back. The Clintons have a sentimental attachment to Haiti (they honeymooned here) and Bill backed the effort with redoubled effort when he became president, bringing about his return. The US remained heavily involved, along with a U.N. mission in ’94-’95 after Aristide’s return. Aristide finished his first term, helped Preval get elected under his Lavalas party banner (as seat warmer), then was elected to a second term in 2000.
Aristide upset the Americans in many ways. He was not America’s favorite candidate. It’s surprising that he was brought back, until you consider both the lobbying money being spent and the growing power of the Haitian-American voting block in the US. There are about 3 million Haitian Americans living in the U.S., and many of them saw Aristide as a hero. After his return in ’94, he went back on a number of promises which he made to the U.S. officials as they negotiated his return.
In his second term, Aristide continued to upset the Americans. In 2003 they backed an uprising against him with the aid of Guy Philippe, who led an armed group around northern Haiti, chasing the police away from each town they came to, until eventually marines from the U.S. embassy knocked on Aristide’s door and whisked him off into a plane headed to the Central African Republic. Three days later 2000 marines arrived along with the French foreign legion to quell the massive rioting that accompanied Aristide’s departure.
The U.N. took over for the marines, and stayed for 13 years. In 2010 came the earthquake, and planeloads of do-gooders arrived from the U.S. The 101st airborne came for a while. As far as I can tell, they were basically here for photo ops while Haiti was the main item in the news cycle, but I digress. (An airdrop on the Petionville Golf Club? Seriously?)
That brings us to now. The current U.S. administration is NOT interested in being involved in Haiti – a major departure from the past 43 years. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing. In any case, they are not getting involved.
Canada will follow whatever the USA does, probably. They won’t get involved.
France is Haiti’s old colonial power. Haiti is the only country in the world to be founded on a slave revolt, and won independence from France in 1804. Some time later, the Haitian government agreed to pay France reparations for the value of the slaves which they stole from them (plus land, other properties) at the threat of attack by the French military. That’s pretty messed up. Payments on this “debt” were made for over 100 years, and only ended in the 1940s. Aristide gained enthusiastic support in Haiti by demanding this money back in his second term. It didn’t go over so well in France.
I heard recently that France is continuing to support Jovenel Moise because they are worried Aristide could come back to power if he leaves. I have trouble believing that this is really an issue with the French; surely they know that Aristide will never come back to power again. Even in Haiti, people think that two coup d’etat against the same president is too many. It’s also against the constitution to run for a third term.
The point though, is France isn’t getting involved.
MINUSTAH was a peacekeeping mission without any armies to keep apart (Aristide disbanded Haiti’s army in 1995). It was widely criticized, even from leaders within the mission. There were several scandals, including the introduction of cholera to Haiti, goat stealing, and lots of rape. If they raided gang bases they were accused of human rights violations, but if they did nothing, they were accused of… doing nothing. The U.N. is probably not going to get involved. As far as I know, Haiti isn’t even an item up for discussion.
After living in exile for 10 years in South Africa, Aristide moved back to Haiti. His party, Lavalas, is still active but not very popular. He influences Haitian politics in many ways, but does not take the limelight.
Baby Doc Duvalier returned to Haiti around the same time Aristide did, then died a few years later. Even dead, though, Duvalierism lives on. A surprising number of people would like to see Haiti go back to the oppressive, yet stable, ways of the Duvalier regime.
As a major trans-shipment point, Haiti is a non-producing narco-state. Many wealthy and aspiring-to-be-wealthy Haitians are involved in the drug trade, and it’s common to move back and forth between cocaine selling and politicking. It’s key to have political connections when you’re moving cocaine, and a politician can make a lot of money by facilitating the movement of cocaine in and out of the country. It would be difficult to overstate just what a profoundly negative effect America’s drug habit has on Haiti. The value of the cocaine trade in relation to Haiti’s total GNP is substantial, and breeds corruption like crazy. The cocaine trade may explain America’s seemingly erratic involvement in Haiti. The DEA is heavily involved in America’s policy towards Haiti in ways that are never made public.
So what’s going on in Haiti?
The Haitian government sets the fuel price in Haiti. The slow-motion disaster started for Moise when in July 2018, he announced a fuel price raise just as Brazil lost a football match to Belgium. Haitians love football, and Brazil is by far the favorite team. Jovenel’s plan was that Haitians would be pleased about Brazil’s easy win and be distracted from the price rise. Oops. With the loss, many people rioted and burned businesses in protest to the fuel price rises. (All the worst-hit businesses were Syrian-Haitian owned, for some reason.) Moise backed off on the planned price hike, leading to the inevitable: In an attempt to continue to pay for the subsidized fuel, the government had to dilute the money supply. This is devaluing Haiti’s currency, leading to the nominal Gourde price of fuel to become less and less in USD terms, causing the fuel subsidies to be still more expensive, causing the currency to devalue further, etcetera. The price of diesel is now about $1.80, way less than it needs to be for financial stability.
The first fuel shortage was in February. People became frustrated, and protests broke out which extended well past when fuel became available again. Eventually people got tired of the disruption and the protests petered out.
In March the police arrested a group of foreign mercenaries, including retired navy SEALs, outside of the national bank. They most likely had been hired by the president himself in an effort to have some government funds transferred to an account he controls. It’s a clear violation of Haiti’s constitution for mercenaries to be employed this way on Haitian soil, but unsurprisingly, the mercenaries were released and flew back the U.S. the next day and faced no consequences.
There are accusations that the president has paid troublemakers to take various actions around the city, and that he has provided gangs with guns. That may or may not be true. It’s certainly true that troublemakers are being paid by multiple people or groups. There are also a LOT of guns around, far more than in the past.
Just like the previous president, Jovenel Moise is attempting to revive the Haitian army. This is a move favored by Duvalierists who look back to the happy times when political dissent was quickly met with a crushing response by authorities.
The more recent fuel shortage, starting in late August, has been much more severe. At this point (Oct 29), there is fuel available in Port au Prince but not outside of the capital, because there is only one fuel depot that tanker trucks can fill up at, and the roads leading out of Port au Prince to the north and south are blocked by angry young men.
Most protests in Haiti start out with paid leaders. For political reasons, politicians (or anyone) will pay young, unemployed men to block the highway, throw rocks and generally make trouble. The payment can be cash, but it might just be clairin (Haitian moonshine). Other, unpaid young men may join in the protest too. In this most recent instance, the road blockages have gone on a LONG time. In desperation, people have been making the road trip into the capital anyway, allowing money to be extracted from them by the young men manning the road blocks along the way. Inevitably, the result is that many of the angry, young, unemployed men have spied a business opportunity. The result is widespread banditry along the highways. I’m really unhappy about this trend.
How did things get so bad?
Ultimately, the biggest reason is universal corruption. Government corruption got quite a bit worse under the previous president, and Jovenel Moise was elected under the same party banner. The previous congressional elections were held without eliminating candidates with a criminal history, so a number of senators and deputies have a criminal past. The political struggle is between different corrupt groups, all of which have no problem with sacrificing the Haitian people to gain or maintain power. It’s much easier to steal if your own people control the national treasury.
The Haitian constitution of 1986 contains a lot of checks and balances. For example, the President must appoint a Prime Minister who runs the day-to-day affairs of the country, but the Senate must ratify the president’s nomination. Unless a senator is from the president’s own political party, he/she will typically need to receive some sort of payment before voting in favor. Strangely, a senator recently admitted to taking $100,000 for voting in favor of Jovenel’s choice for prime minister without any apology whatsoever. While checks and balances seem like a good idea on paper, or seem to work in America’s own constitution, in Haiti’s case the result is complete gridlock.
Haiti has a large cohort of single, unemployed, angry young men who feel like they have had their future stolen and they don’t know who to blame. In addition to the lack of opportunities in the economy, matters are made worse because Haiti is a (unofficially) polygamous society and, like other polygamous societies around the world, it disenfranchises young men. Two things have come along in the past 10 years to make this group even more volatile: motorcycles and smart phones. Those two things together mean that whatever perceived outrage might occur at a particular moment can immediately spawn a group of angry rock throwers. They feed off one another’s anger, and are keen to impress each other with acts of bravado. These young men want desperately to create a life for themselves and to be part of something that’s important. People in politics use this group as much as they can to try to achieve their goals.
In the past, the Haitian army would have put a stop to civil unrest. After the army was disbanded, the police took on that role. At the moment, the police are very unhappy with their situation. I heard that they haven’t been paid in the past 4 months, which may or may not be accurate. The police actually joined protesters marching in Port au Prince on the weekend. Even at the best of times, the police are a weak institution with a very top-heavy command structure that discourages independent action. They don’t have the capacity to deal with the present crisis.
What is going to happen next?
I don’t know. But I have an idea of what is NOT going to happen.
There is not going to be a foreign intervention. For decades, every time the situation in Haiti has gotten out of control there has been a foreign intervention. Haitians from all social classes seem convinced that we are about to have a foreign intervention again, but I strongly believe the situation has changed. The U.S. is concerned with internal politics and the current administration has little interest in third world countries. The recent U.N. mission is widely considered a failure, so they aren’t coming back soon.
When protesters block roads and throw rocks, they are largely playing to an international audience that isn’t looking. When they say “we’re going to make the president leave” they really mean to say that they’re going to make the USA decide to make him leave.
A common refrain I’m hearing is that things are going to get better, because they can’t get worse. Of course, they can get a lot worse. Things may get worse or they may get better, but it’s hard to see a way through at this point. Perhaps secret meetings are going on even now and people are figuring out a way through the mess, but I doubt it.
What should happen?
I don’t know. I don’t know if there should be another foreign intervention. The previous interventions haven’t worked. They have been implemented with the internal politics of foreign countries in mind, not the good of the Haitian people. Some Haitians state that “the foreigners” should either occupy Haiti altogether or leave it alone to figure out its own issues. Haiti’s socio-political issues are very, very complex, but a dynamic that makes it worse is that Haitians have come to expect solutions to come from abroad rather than from within.
I don’t believe a new leader coming along is going to fix everything. It’s wishful thinking. As far as I can see, there are no “good guys”. Worse than that, if a “good guy” did come along, I don’t see how he/she could make a difference while working within Haiti’s political system. There are currently no consequences for a wide range of evil behaviors if you are part of the political or elite social class. A well-intentioned leader, focused on eliminating corruption, would likely find themselves assassinated.
I don’t know if it’s possible, but I would really like to see parts of Haiti’s constitution rewritten to avoid the continual political deadlock. I’ve heard discussion of a new constitution where the elected president leads the country directly without a prime minister, the chamber of deputies is eliminated, and the senate is reduced by half. It sounds like a good idea to me. There could be fewer checks and balances, while creating ways to ensure greater transparency. The idea of centralizing power to improve a corrupt system may seem counterintuitive, but there needs to be someone in charge for there to be accountability. With the current system, everyone blames everyone else, the truth of the matter is elusive and accountability doesn’t exist.
For my part, I’m going to keep doing the work at Clean Water for Haiti. We’ve found a way to help the Haitian people advance that doesn’t involve politics. We don’t get involved in politics. Our program is mainly for the poorest of the poor, people who wouldn’t dream of throwing a rock or blocking a highway. Even though things are unpleasant, we’ll wait out the violence, anti-foreigner sentiment and fuel lines. We’re helping people, and even though it doesn’t always feel like it, we’re helping to make Haiti a better place.