ISSN 2330-717X

Haiti’s Ongoing Struggle For Uninterrupted Democracy Against International Interventionism – Analysis

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By Tamanisha J. John*

Overview

Towards the latter months of 2018, “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?” (“Where is the PetroCaribe money?”) became a rallying cry for Haitians demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. Haitian protestors charged Moïse with misappropriation of government funds that should have been set aside for infrastructure development within Haiti; instead it has been used to enrich himself and his allies. Further fueling the mass protests within Haiti were the rising costs of living and the decreased availability and access to public services— even as the quality of life continued to deteriorate. Moïse denied all allegations of corruption levied against him by the public, and simultaneously utilized the Haitian army he revived in 2017 to brutalize and kill Haitian protestors and demonstrators.

Three years later, Jovenel Moïse has yet to resign in spite of sustained protests by a mass movement representing all sectors of Haitian society. Instead, as he rules by decree, Moïse has preoccupied himself with changing the Haitian constitution in order to remain the President of Haiti for at least another year. Moïse has also taken to describing Haitian protestors as “terrorists” and as enemies of the state. With this labelling, Moïse has attempted to justify the state-sanctioned murders, arrests, and other types of violence against Haitian protesters. Moïse’s brazen brutalization of the people of Haiti is not without foreign support. On February 5, 2021, two days prior to the termination of Moïse’s presidential term, the Biden State Department made it clear that they supported Moïse remaining in power for another year until 2022. This prompted a stronger wave of protests in the country, with some protestors burning the U.S. flag. This rancor is motivated by a history of U.S. occupation, invasion, and meddling in Haitian politics, including the selection of unpopular Haitian presidents.

Despite the criminalization of dissent within Haiti, on February 7 mass demonstrations and protests called on Moïse to step down and leave the Presidential Palace. These protests continue at the time of this writing (March 2, 2021), demanding not only that Moïse step down, but also for an end to foreign intervention in Haiti’s politics. As was the case during the 2018 protests, the demands of Haitian demonstrators remained the same: “No more foreign military occupation, no more foreign meddling, stop supporting the Moïse regime” (Francois 2019). In spite of these clear demands by Haitians, Western states, like Canada and the U.S., along with some international organizations, like the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN), have chosen to ignore them. Thus, in the current protests, Moïse has arrested judges, journalists, reporters, opposition members, and working-class Haitians with impunity.

Moïse’s attempt to remain in power by decree (due to a closed parliament) and rewrite the Haitian constitution (to extend the length of his illegitimate hold on power) brings back memories of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship. Moïse’s actions, along with the addition of a growing police, military and paramilitary infrastructure within Haiti, make these fears warranted. The plight of Haitians today is exacerbated by the reality of a global COVID-19 pandemic. And despite the low infection numbers (250 deaths so far[1]), the pandemic has been used by the US to justify deportations[2]. The anti-migrant offensive by the U.S., which now continues under Democratic President Joe Biden, has resulted in the deportation of hundreds of Haitians back into a dangerous situation in Haiti.

As was the case during the 2018 protests, the demands of Haitian demonstrators remained the same: “No more foreign military occupation, no more foreign meddling, stop supporting the Moïse regime”

A Brief Look Through History: Western Imperialism and Haitian Politics

To talk about Haiti in the present, is to talk about a history of imperialism that is embedded and entrenched in the relations between Western states, international organizations, and Haiti. Moïse’s hold on power is largely a by-product of foreign intervention and other external interests acting on Haiti’s politics. Thus, Moïse’s utilization of internal state violence to sustain profits for Western ideological and corporate interests, via the exploitation of Haitian people, is not new or unique.

In order to understand today’s protests in Haiti, one must first understand the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, as well as Haiti’s “history of enslavement, involuntary migration and displacement; history of colonialism, foreign intervention, forced isolation, and economic exploitation” (Clitandre 2011, 146).

The Caribbean region has been a site of political resistance against colonialism for centuries. This is due to the fact that the region itself informed the global political economy via the production of sugar using enslaved labor, facilitated by the transatlantic slave trade since the sixteenth century. This is where the modern story of what we now know as Haiti begins. Haiti was the most exploited colony in the Americas. Between 1730 and 1790, Saint-Domingue (Haiti) exported 60% of the world’s sugar consumption (Desmangles 1992, 20). This exploitation had a massive human cost. The number of recorded daily deaths of enslaved Africans by this French colony would see that European empire resort to bringing in daily shipments of more slaves. By the time that the suffering of the enslaved sparked a  revolution to end their collective suffering, there would be over half a million Africans in Haiti.

Unlike other states in the Caribbean region— whose independence was granted once European powers decided that to keep the colonies would be a financial burden, and thus relegated the people there as “fit” to govern, Haitians won their independence after a 13 year revolution that lasted until 1804. As one of the most profitable sugar colonies at the time, the Haitian Revolution sent shockwaves throughout the various European colonies, instilling fear in the colonizer that enslaved peoples (and others subject to European colonialism) within their overseas territories would revolt. After winning their independence through revolution, the Africans living in Haiti were presumed to be “backwards” (unable to govern themselves) by European powers, and thus still the property of France. Haitian freedom was seen as illegitimate by the Western world.

Haiti, as the first republic to guarantee freedoms to all people— and the first Black republic— in the Americas, was never safe from recolonization or occupation by white imperialisms. Racism continued to inform how Haiti was viewed and understood within the global international system, as it was left isolated— and economically vulnerable— after winning its freedom.

It is within this historical context that we have to analyze the 19-year U.S. military occupation of Haiti. While the U.S. intervened in Haiti prior to 1915, the invasion and occupation from 1915 to 1934 is noteworthy because over that length of time the U.S. directly dictated Haiti’s political and economic policy. The 19-year occupation served to ensure that U.S. interests dominated in the country over the interests of other European powers. Over the 19-year period, five different Haitian presidents “ruled” Haiti, until President Stenio Vincent (1930-1941) came to power. However, even during Vincent’s presidency U.S. influence would continue to assert itself in the Caribbean country.

Haiti, as the first republic to guarantee freedoms to all people— and the first Black republic— in the Americas, was never safe from recolonization or occupation by white imperialisms. Racism continued to inform how Haiti was viewed and understood within the global international system, as it was left isolated— and economically vulnerable— after winning its freedom.

Between 1941 and 1957, Haiti would go through ten different presidents— the majority of whom would only hold office between three months to one year — before François Duvalier’s rise to power in 1957, until 1971. Prior to Duvalier’s rise, the West preferred mulatto elites to govern Haiti. However, with the emergence of a Black elite and middle class, Western preferences soon shifted to figures who could best enact (or protect) Western interests within the state. Needless to say, the West found a friend in Duvalier who ran on a platform to raise racial consciousness in the Black republic, but instead instituted the preferred policies of Western governments and corporations. To do so, the Duvalier presidency resorted to murder, kidnapping, and the brutalization of the masses of poor Black Haitans.

Under Duvalier, it was not just Western corporate interests that were appeased, but also Western ideological interests. In 1969, Duvalier passed anti-communist laws which forbade adherence to communism and purported “the incompatibility of imported doctrines, notably Marxism-Leninism, with the social, political, and economic order of Haiti” (Trouillot & Pascal-Trouillot 1978, 445). Internal repression was deployed against Caribbean peoples seeking freedom from empire and the creation of more economically and socially just societies. Neocolonial interests vigorously assaulted Caribbean states with citizenry vocally opposed to their agenda. Imposing neo-imperial state relations was the background for all of the attempted invasions into Cuba, the invasion of Grenada (1983), the multiple coups and occupations of Haiti (1915, 1988, 1991, 2004), the occupation and coup in the Dominican Republic (1916-24, 1965), and the provision of arms to state militaries in Trinidad and Tobago (1970), Dominica (1978-9), and Antigua (1980-1) to silence Black power movements.

When François Duvalier died in 1971, his constitutional declaration, which granted him the presidency for life in Haiti, passed on to his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-1986), who assumed the powers of the Presidency and continued on with his father’s brutal legacy. Economic and social decline continued in Haiti under the collective 30-year reign of the Duvaliers, for the vast majority of Haitians. The mulatto and Black elites in the country continued to steal Haitian resources.

In 1986, Duvalier fled the country in the face of uprisings calling for the end to his rule. This partial victory of the popular forces was followed by another round of U.S. and other Western occupations. It would not be until 1991 that Haiti finally had its first democratically held elections. In 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected by popular majority (67.5%), making him the first democratically elected president of Haiti. Aristide’s win demonstrated that Haitians wanted a more redistributive and just society— something antithetical to the interests of foreign stakeholders.

Aristide was a Catholic priest who preached the “religio-socialist principles of liberation theology… [that] forcefully and vocally advocate[d] for the masses of Haitian poor mired in deeply entrenched disenfranchisement and exploitation” (Kain 2020, 1). Aristide’s convictions were in deep opposition to “rightist and international capitalist interests,” similar to other followers of liberation theology in Latin American and the Caribbean region (Kain 2020, 3).

Aristide was labelled a “communist” and enemy of Western interests— and not even eight months into his presidency he was ousted by a CIA coup on September 29, 1991. Aristide was seen as a threat to both internal and external elite interests, in direct opposition to the authoritarian capitalist regimes usually backed by the West. Aristide was allowed by the U.S. military to resume the presidency in 1994, only after agreeing to accept the neoliberal reforms that Western interests wanted Haiti to enact. Aristide disbanded the Haitian army in 1995, which meant Washington would have to directly intervene in Haiti during new coups.

Ultimately, however, Aristide was successful in instituting neoliberal reforms in Haiti. Interestingly enough, in 2004 Haiti mounted a lawsuit against France to recuperate the $20 billion dollars it was forced to pay back to slaveholders who had lost their slaves due to the Haitian Revolution. Although it appeared Haiti had a strong case against France in 2004 to recover the funds, France belonged to the group of Western states that supported the 2004 coup d’ètat in Haiti.

In 2006, René Préval (2006-2011) announced that during his Presidency, Haiti would join the PetroCaribe program. Préval kept this promise and immediately joined the agreement after his inauguration. PetroCaribe is (or was) a regional development loan initiative started by Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, which allowed states in the region to purchase oil at cheaper prices from the South American country. The savings accrued from the purchase of Venezuelan oil was to subsequently be used for infrastructural projects in developing countries throughout the region. Under Préval, the West opposed the PetroCaribe initiative because it advanced a cooperative relationship between Haiti and Venezuela. The “threat” of PetroCaribe to Western stakeholders was that it had the ability to lend “credibility [to] 21st century socialism” (Gordon & Weber 2016, 246-7) and undermine U.S. efforts to dominate the energy market in the Caribbean. In Haiti, the need for PetroCaribe funds and earnings started to become a public topic of discussion in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, which further devastated the country.  Another development was that after the earthquake, Michel Martelly (2011-2016) assumed the Presidency of Haiti. U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton (2009-2013), flew to the country to tell Préval that Martelly was now the President (Danticat 2015).

As newly anointed President of Haiti, per the direct wishes of U.S. stakeholders, Martelly ruled as an authoritarian while instituting neoliberal reforms. Martelly was opposed to democratic elections and used his background as a popstar to gain credibility. Under Martelly, parliamentary elections were refused, the security state was strengthened, and earthquake disaster relief was largely privatized and outsourced to foreign interests and NGOs. Unsurprisingly, the challenges of meeting post-earthquake recovery goals in Haiti were not met under Martelly— even as the proliferation of NGOs and a flood of donor money came into the country enriching the Haitian elite and disaster capitalists (Francois 2019). Martelly’s reign was marred by corruption and embezzlement, but also by mass worker strikes and protests against him, which called for his resignation. In spite of the aforementioned, Martelly’s stronghold on power was backed by the Obama administration (Padgett 2013).

The Current Protests and Moïse— Another Illegitimate Haitian President

Michel Martelly’s hand-picked successor was Jovenel Moïse. Moïse was chosen by Martelly to continue on in his tradition— that is, to act as a stand-in for corporate imperialism and other Western interests, while enriching himself and his allies. It should be noted that Martelly’s term came to a constitutional end that he could not change, given that unlike Moïse after him, he would not have a parliamentary majority capable of extending his time in office. Prior to the 2015 elections, Martelly instituted a campaign of massive voter intimidation using his security forces and allied gangs, to ensure another victory for his party (Bald Headed Party, PHTK) and preferred candidate, Moïse. Voter intimidation was necessary, as the Aristide/Narcisse ticket had more popular enthusiasm than the lackluster and uninspiring campaign of Moïse, whom Haitians correctly identified as being another puppet in the likes of Martelly. Martelly’s usage of state sanctioned violence during the October 2015 elections continued. Meanwhile credible rumors spread about ballot stuffing and voter bribing (North 2015). The following year in 2016, the electoral council in Haiti concluded that irregularities in the November 2016 elections did not impact the results. Thus, with only 21% of Haitians participating in the 2016 elections, Moïse secured the candidacy with 55.6% of the vote.

On February 7, 2017 Moïse was sworn in as the new President of Haiti after the year-long process mired with fraud, protests, and retaliatory state violence. The beginning of Moïse’s presidency was clouded by the findings of the PetroCaribe investigation, where he was implicated in having helped the Martelly government embezzle PetroCaribe funds before assuming office (Nugent 2019). Moïse also faced money laundering accusations. However, as has become characteristic of Moïse, he has denied all allegations of corruption every year from 2017 to the present in spite of the evidence.

Currently, Moïse’s presidency is characterized by corruption and deep contempt for the Haitian people, provoking protests against him during the entirety of his presidency. Moïse has actively used state force to discourage and intimidate protestors, whilst instilling fear throughout Haiti, during his five, or as Moïse claims, four years in office. In regards only to those Haitians killed while protesting, available data indicates that state security forces under Moïse have killed over 100 people.

This is the context for the protests happening in Haiti. This year, opposition leaders within Haiti have maintained that Moïse’s constitutional term came to an end on February 7, 2021.  Given the 2015/6 elections, the opposition argues that Moïse has served for five years, which is the full length of a Presidential term in Haiti.

The opposition urged Moïse to step down on February 7, 2021. However Moïse declined because he was not officially inaugurated until 2017. By Moïse’s count, his 2017 inauguration means that mathematically his mandate would not expire in 2021, but rather next year on February 7, 2022.  Moïse’s claims yet again sparked protests in Haiti calling for his resignation. This time, the outcry is more acute given what is seen as the potential for a Moïse dictatorship. Fears of dictatorship are not unwarranted, because in January of 2020, Moïse raised cause for concern within Haiti, when he dissolved parliament and dismissed all of Haiti’s elected mayors (Charles 2021). This is why today, Moïse is ruling by decree.

In the aftermath of Moïse’s dismissal of parliament and elected mayors within Haiti, Moïse also declared that new elections would not be held in Haiti without constitutional reforms. According to Moïse, under the present constitution, his powers in the presidency are weakened— which begs the question, what does Moïse want with stronger presidential powers? Moïse’s proposed changes to the constitution calls for both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate to be replaced by a unicameral legislature— effectively granting more executive powers to the president. These are powers that,  in 1987, due to citizen input through more elected officials, were included in the Haitian constitution in order to prevent a possible return of dictatorship.

Under the Trump administration, light pressure was applied to Moïse to hold elections, with the Organization of American States (OAS) saying that “legislative, local and municipal elections should be under way by January [2021]” (Charles 2020). The response by the OAS and the Trump administration was due to the anti-government protests within Haiti that witnessed a lot of violence, given “Moïse’s failures to send an electoral law to parliament” before their duties expired (Charles 2020). The Trump administration was also concerned that protests in Haiti would lead to more Haitian immigrants coming to the U.S. In any case, if there is any indication that the OAS functionally operates as an arm of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. interests in the Americas,it is the fact that under Biden, the OAS has stopped calling for new elections, and instead agrees with the U.S. that Moïse’s presidency is still in effect until 2022.

On February 7, 2021, Moïse arrested 23 people, including a supreme court judge, with unsubstantiated claims that they were plotting a coup and assassination against him. Moïse also issued a decree declaring three Haitian Supreme Court Justices retired (News Wires 2021), who allegedly agreed with the opposition that Moïse’s mandate had ended. On February 8, 2021 the Haitian army announced that it would defend Moïse in carrying out “the rule of law,” and some protestors— including reporters— were killed in the capital that same day (News Wires 2021). During the weekend of February 14, 2021 thousands of protestors were on the streets of Haiti after Moïse’s refusal to step down, protesting against Moïse’s decision to remain in power against the Haitian constitution. The protesters repudiate the legitimacy of Moïse’s continued rule and oppose the international backing of his bid to stay in power by the U.S., OAS, and the UN. Along the protestors’ route, they stopped at the offices of the OAS and the UN to show their disgust with these organizations’ insistence on backing an illegitimate and highly unpopular president (Charles 2021).

Throughout the earlier phase of Moïse’s presidency, he claimed to be against foreign intervention in Haiti, but only when it did not suit his quest for power. This is why Moïse was not persuaded to hold elections given pressure from the Trump administration and the OAS in 2020. However, today Moïse’s claim to the presidency in Haiti until 2022 is not due to the popular will of the Haitian people, but rather, foreign intervention. Moïse’s quest for power, and the continued assistance he receives from Western backers, are cause for concern.

Solidarity with Haitians Fighting for Democracy

Today, Haiti is viewed by the West and other international organizations as property of and for their interests— not that of Haitians. This logic informed Haiti’s indebtedness to France in the 19th and 20th centuries, well after slavery was abolished, as well as its current subjugation to foreign stakeholders not interested in Haitian democracy or development. While romanticized in the present, given the extraordinary feat of the Haitian Revolution, the over-romanticizing of Haiti has paved the way for the recolonization of the first free state in the Americas. The suffering of Haitians rarely features in the U.S. and other Western backed media. Haiti is imagined as a place to be reconquered, by the foreign NGOs, international organizations, and Western countries which continue to negate its right to exist as a free republic.

In less than one month, the Biden administration has deported hundreds of Haitians while legitimizing the unpopular presidency of Jovenel Moïse, despite Haitian calls for his resignation. The deportations have occurred under the premise that the Moïse regime is “legitimate,” and thus there are no intractable problems in Haiti. This harkens back to U.S. policies in the 1980s that marked Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers as “economic migrants,” in order to substantiate the authenticity of the U.S.-backed Duvalier regime and justify Haitian detentions and deportations (Shull 2020, 12). There is an observable pattern of the U.S. backing repressive regimes in Haiti (and elsewhere), and then instituting anti-migrant offensives against the people fleeing those repressive governments. Given social media’s ability to draw attention to democratic movements that are vilified and/or ignored by people living in the West— even as their Western governments actively stifle democracy for those people— we can only continue to open a window onto what is happening on the ground in Haiti.

*Tamanisha J. John is a doctoral candidate of International Relations at Florida International University (FIU), conducting research on Caribbean sovereignty and politics, economic imperialism, race, financial exclusion, and Canadian multinational banks in the Caribbean.


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Sources

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/haiti/

[2] “US to deport Haitians who’ve tested positive for coronavirus: NGO,” https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/5/10/us-to-deport-haitians-whove-tested-positive-for-coronavirus-ngo

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