What is really behind the crisis in Haiti?

One cannot understand what is going on in Haiti without considering its long history of violent foreign intervention.

Demonstrators take part in a march during a protest against Haiti's then-President Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 14, 2021 [File: Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters]

In the middle of the night on July 7, a group of armed men stormed the private residence of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and shot him dead. The brazen murder shocked Haitian society. Although it is still unclear who hired the killers and why, there are already clues that point to Colombian mercenaries, a US-based security company and various opponents of Moïse in the country.

The president was unpopular and amid a climate of uncertainty, he had sought to extend his term in office. Over the next few weeks, Haitians will have to grapple with the political implications of the assassination, the contestation of power, and the increased repression against protests.

Meanwhile, international media will write off these events as yet another “chaotic” episode in Haiti’s “turbulent” politics, while the international community – namely the United States and the United Nations – will once again seek to “stabilise” the country. The problem with this narrative is that it covers up the history of violent foreign interventions, of Haitians being constantly made to pay for their liberty, and does much more damage than good.

A history of foreign intervention

It seems hard to talk about Moïse’s assassination and its aftermath without running into clichés about “chaos”, “turmoil”, “poverty” and “corruption”. A New York Times editorial described the event in a similar vein stating, “An already turbulent political landscape in Haiti threatened to descend into further chaos on Thursday as a power struggle between two competing prime ministers stoked tensions after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.”

Such media portrayals promote the idea that Haitians are unable to rule themselves and that what is happening in the country is the result of native corruption, incompetence, and unruliness. Viewing the ongoing events only through the lens of “endemic chaos”, however, leaves out a long history of foreign intervention that has systematically undermined the Haitian struggle for freedom and democracy.

On August 22, 1791, a revolt by enslaved Africans broke out in what was then known as the French colony of Saint-Domingue. For more than a decade, the Black revolutionaries struggled against colonial rule and on January 1, 1804, Haiti became the first self-governing Black society in the Americas.

But that did not sit well with the defeated colonial power, France, which continued to attempt to restore colonial rule over Haiti. In 1825, under the threat of another French invasion, the Haitian government under President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to pay France an indemnity for its independence, which has since contributed to the country’s continuing financial instability.

But it did not stop there, Haiti’s political sovereignty was not fully respected by its powerful neighbour, the US, either.

For decades, Washington sought to establish a foothold in Haiti, trying to gain control of its ports or customs houses but meeting Haitian resistance. In the early 20th century, it regularly sent its navy to Haitian waters, and in 1914, US Marines landed on Haitian land and forced their way to the Haitian National Bank, where they seized $500,000 and transported it to New York. The following year, a US delegation proposed to the Haitian government the US military “protection”, which was rejected.

When Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume was assassinated in July 1915, US President Woodrow Wilson sent US troops to occupy the country. They stayed for 19 years, during which the US government imposed Jim Crow racial segregation, restricted press freedom and indulged in violence against Haitians.

Foreign intervention, however, did not end with the departure of US troops from Haiti in 1934. In the mid-1980s, the country transitioned from authoritarian rule to a republic democracy, but over the following three decades, the presidency changed hands 20 times.

In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the first democratically elected Haitian president. Within a year, he was deposed in a coup, in which a CIA-trained and funded intelligence agency had participated. In 1994, he returned to Haiti under the protection of US troops. Aristide was re-elected in 2000, but forced out again after another armed uprising, which he believed was orchestrated by foreign powers.

Aristide’s story is a prime example of how the US intervention has consistently derailed Haiti’s democratic development. As Jemima Pierre, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has pointed out: “The US is responsible for the complete destabilisation of Haitian democracy and the complete loss of Haitian sovereignty since at least 2004.”

In the aftermath of the coup against Aristide, Haiti entered into another period of foreign military occupation. This time it was by the UN, which sent peacekeeping forces to the Caribbean nation, after determining that “the situation in Haiti [constituted] a threat to international peace and security in the region”.

With a budget of $200m, it deployed thousands of foreign troops and police officers, who did little to improve the situation in the country and ended up causing a devastating cholera epidemic and committing a series of sex crimes.

According to Mamyrah Prosper, a professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College, the UN also made the security situation worse: “The United Nations were here [in Haiti] for 17 years but during those 17 years and during those years we have more guns in the territory than we did before.”

The failure of the aid industry

The succession of unstable governments in the past few decades and the growing economic dependence on the US have significantly limited the capacity of the Haitian state to provide services for its citizens. The 2010 earthquake, which was followed by the cholera outbreak, devastated the country and set back development efforts. The government struggled to respond to the massive destruction and dispossession.

As a result, Haiti, which even before the earthquake was an aid industry hotspot, found itself at the centre of a massive humanitarian operation. More than $13bn in humanitarian assistance and donations were poured into the country, including development projects sponsored by US corporations and loans from neighbouring Latin American countries.

Instead of helping rebuild the country and providing reprieve to Haitians, the international development efforts failed to significantly improve living conditions.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Bill and Hillary Clinton became two of the leading proponents of development projects for Haiti, believing that the “solution” to the country’s woes lay in attracting investments by multinational companies. They were involved in the launching of Caracol, an industrial park initiative, which aimed to boost economic development through manufacturing and infrastructure expansion. A decade and hundreds of millions of dollars later, the project is not anywhere near what it was marketed to be; the port development part of it was even abandoned.

Similarly, USAID spent $4.4bn after the earthquake, but its impact was hardly felt on the ground. As Jake Johnston, a researcher at the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, has noted, only 2 percent of the money went directly to Haitian organisations, while the majority of it went to the US-based contractors.

Of course, this is not to say that Haitian officials also did not participate in the waste and embezzlement of aid money, which thwarted humanitarian and development efforts.

For example, between 2008 and 2016, PetroCaribe, a Venezuelan programme that funded development throughout the Caribbean, channelled about $4bn into more than 400 projects in Haiti. But much of the money was embezzled, with no significant development milestones achieved.

Reclaiming Haitian sovereignty

After Moïse’s assassination, acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph announced he was taking over power in the interim. However, he was quickly challenged by Ariel Henry, who was appointed prime minister by Moïse on July 5, as a replacement for Joseph. Senate President Joseph Lambert has also laid a claim on power.

The political crisis is further exacerbated by the absence of a working National Assembly – whose mandate expired after Moïse delayed elections last year, citing the COVID-19 pandemic – as well as a Supreme Court paralysed by the recent death of its president.

Elections are planned for September and many Haitians are anxious about what will happen during the vote. Haitian activists are calling for transparent and fair elections – without foreign intervention.

Haitians are more than capable of steering their country in the right direction. Throughout history, they have taken to the streets to hold their leaders accountable, even when they have been met with bullets and batons. Protests have been integral to the democratic process in Haiti. In recent years, Haitians have been demonstrating for the right to exercise their political sovereignty and to live in dignity, demanding an end to the UN occupation and Moïse’s autocratic rule.

The potential for change through grassroots mobilisation in Haiti is massive, and while generally ignored by the international community, it has not gone unnoticed by Black activists globally. As Ajamu Baraka, a representative of the US-based Black Alliance for Peace, told me in a recent conversation: “What’s important is for Haitians to work out their own problems and that they in fact could work out their own problems if they were allowed to, if they didn’t have to constantly deal with the, the interference interventions of these foreign forces.”

It is time to end this racialised “chaos” narrative about Haiti and talk about the country’s past, present and future in real, objective terms. Foreign powers have long had a destabilising effect on the country and have undermined its democratic development. Only by acknowledging this reality, upholding Haitian sovereignty and not sabotaging Haitian people’s struggle for justice and dignity can these powers set the record straight. Haiti has all the potential to build a bright future for itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.