ince 2018, there have been protests going on and off in Haiti. The hallmark of Moise’s tenure, ever since he won the 2016 election, with fewer than twelve percent of votes poured in, was his accusation by the Haitian senate for embezzlement of over $700,000 of public money, from an infrastructure development fund called PetroCaribe to his banana business. But, what came as a shock was his assassination, along with his wife, by mercenaries on July 7th 2021, apparently in a coup attempt, at his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince. His brazen death shocked Haitian society. It also created an ensuing power vacuum in Haiti, adding a new chapter in the story of past autocrats, violence and coups. There are already clues that point to Colombian mercenaries, a US-based security company, and various opponents of Moise in Haiti.
To make matters more complex, the turmoil had pushed Haiti up Biden’s foreign policy priorities and in July 2021, the U.S. State Department named a special envoy for the country. But Biden then rebuffed a request by Haiti’s interim leaders to send troops. The thing is note is that despite understanding the frustrations of common Haitians, the US went on to support the recent regime leaders.
Ironically, the regional state actors in Haiti didn’t realise that the last time when a president was murdered in Haiti, in 1915, troops from the United States occupied the Caribbean country for 19 years, trying to regain control of its ports and custom houses. They introduced racial-segregation laws, built infrastructure with forced labour and left a bloody legacy by stamping down on cacos, the insurgents who defied the occupation. Writing in The New Yorker in 2015, Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American novelist, described how her uncle recalled seeing marines kicking a man’s decapitated head around like a football, to scare the rebels in their area. It reflected America’s yet another brutal neo-imperial adventure.
Moise, in his tenure, referred to himself as “Après Dieu” (i.e., second only to God), and had widened the definition of “terrorism” to include acts of dissent. His response to the protests, which first broke out in 2017, had been heavy-handed. At first protesters were complaining about the cost of living, but in 2018, they started grousing about corruption. Before his death, in January 2021, journalists, lawmakers, police officers, retirees, former police officers and human rights judges led protests against human rights abuses, police brutality, violence and repression against protesters and chanted “When they don’t get paid, we’re the ones they call!” In February 2021, thousands of Haitians rallied in multiple cities and the capital Port-au-Prince where they demanded respect for the current constitution, as militants burned tires and tore down mounted billboards. Supporters of the opposition against then incumbent President Moise also allegedly attempted a coup d’etat.
National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH) had documented the violence that had taken place while Moise was in power. The atrocities include hundreds of civilian killings and disappearances. There were more than hundred killings of police officers and five of journalists, and dozens of gang rapes and rampant kidnappings. More than ten thousand people were displaced after fleeing violence, burned homes and destroyed businesses. That’s why it’s not hard to conclude that since day one, many Haitians doubted that Moise was the right man to reform democracy. Amid this climate of uncertainty and turmoil, he had even sought to extend his term in office.
The hopeless politics in Haiti also reflected in the low electoral participation that actually precedes Moise. It had been plummeting since Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in the 1990s, to the first post-quake elections, which saw less than 25% of the population vote.
However, according to James Boyard, a researcher who is also a police officer, there are other problems which also predate Moise, especially since the fall of the dictatorship of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalie in 1986, when political bigwigs relied on armed groups to do their bidding. Even today there is ‘a wholesale criminalisation’ of the political apparatus. Gangs are affiliated not just with the government but with opposition groups and big business families. For this reason, they are far stronger than the police. The gangs also know that they can charge politicians for access to neighbourhoods to hold meetings. They range historically from Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tontons Macoutes to the Chimères [or ghosts] of the Jean-Bertrand Aristide era, or the gangs used by both sides under Jovenel Moise.
Human rights organisations in Haiti reveal that, between August 2020 and May 2021, at least 81 people were killed violently. As per an Op-ed in Washington Post, Évelyne Trouillot wrote: ‘the populations of Martissant, Fontamara, and the south of Port-au-Prince have been held hostage by armed gangs for years. When they are lucky, they manage to take refuge with a friend or family member. More often, they remain trapped, terrorised and are left with the feeling that they have no recourse. They are threatened, beaten and humiliated; often, some of them fall victim to a stray bullet; too many times, young girls and women are harassed and raped.’
Politically, Haiti transitioned from authoritarian rule to a republic democracy, in mid-1980s but over the following three decades, the presidency changed hands twenty times. It made Haiti one of the most unequal countries in the world. Since three decades, there were two foreign occupations: in 1994, when the Americans went in to return President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office after he’d been deposed in a coup in 1991, and another that began in 2004, when Aristide was once again ousted from the presidency. That coup led to the United Nations mission to stabilise Haiti which remained in the country for 13 years. It was due to these two foreign occupations, which majorly were responsible for the present discord. Both Martelly and Moise were elected while the U.N. was still patrolling the pro-Aristide neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince , trying to keep peace by firing ammunition into the tin-and-cardboard shantytown houses, where many Haitian voters resided.
In the previous elections, the right-wing, anti-democratic faction was able to triumph again, with the help of the U.N. occupation, and the rest of the international community. This rightist political faction didn’t loathe the greedy business class. As per an Oped by Amy Wilentz in Washington Post: ‘both Martelly and Moise seemed comfortable with Haiti’s rising business class — often called as the mafia by Haitians. This mafia is on good terms with the international community. This mafia speaks perfect English. They have nice houses and invite diplomats to dinner. They have servants and armored cars and working generators so that they don’t have to suffer when the blackouts come. They can talk a very good game.’
There is apartheid-like exclusion in the society, that will remain even if you solve the political crisis. Some of the sixty percent of the population live on less than $1.90 a day. It has given a reason for the well-educated to try to immigrate elsewhere by establishing connections. And then, there are women and men, young and old, middle aged and disabled, with picket signs and holding Haitian flags, shouting their courage and their desire to live a decent life. They want Haiti free from foreign interference, inequality and impunity, corruption and ugliness. Their protests, however, went largely unnoticed by the international community, and foreign media, who for many reasons decided that they were not worthy of their front pages.
The succession of unstable governments in the past few decades, and the growing economic dependence on the US, as an ‘aid state’, have significantly limited the capacity of the Haitian state to provide services for its citizens.
“The notion of Haiti as an aid state is a corrective to the idea of failed state,” said Jake Johnston, a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, who coined the term and returned from Haiti a few days before Moise’s assassination.
Talking about corruption, he further wrote: “Ironically, this very aid to Haiti has been used for political purposes going back years. It is transactional. It has gone up under certain leaders and it has gone down when someone isn’t liked, or it goes to an organisation that shares the interest of the donour country.”
Rather than strengthening institutions, politicians have undermined the institutions. The economic policies have been imposed by multilateral banks, like the IMF, which has seen agricultural subsidies slashed. The education and health systems have been turned over to private actors like NGOs. All of this has created a separation between the people and a government that is absent. There are also documents that very specifically talk about using private, voluntary organisations, now known as NGOs, to funnel money away from the Haitian government, to recreate its functions elsewhere.
Historically, the 2010 earthquake, which was followed by the cholera outbreak, also devastated the country and set back development efforts. The government even struggled to respond to the massive destruction and dispossession.
After Moise’s death, there are politicians who are meeting openly and secretly, like vultures vying for the reins of political power to gain access to more wealth. At the same time, activists and grass-roots organisations have been fighting for the population’s interests, and are gathering and watching. But will there be a national consensus? Will the political forces unite to find a national solution? And what will be the population’s response to that solution?
Naveed Qazi is an author of six books, and editor of Globe Upfront. For feedback, he can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org