In Haiti, the unrest continues unabated. Only this morning, Haitian street protesters planned to meet up in a vast group, and march on Toussaint L’ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince. The social media call to protest (“Operation Airport Lockdown”) included a suggestion that marchers bring “ti chez” or “little chairs” along with them so that once they have taken over the runways, of which there are not many, they can hold a comfortable sit-in for the day. The digital image for the march shows an airplane in flight over a runway, with the motto: “The Only Plane That Will Land is the One That Will Take Away Jovenel,” a reference to Jovenel Moïse, the country’s president, who has become the focus for popular anger and dissatisfaction.
As you watch what’s happening in Haiti today, and read the front-page coverage, it’s important to remember that the massive unrest in the streets is not powered by emotion only. The people you see out there are not thoughtless and they’re not simply angry. There is a logic to what’s happening; there’s a history and so many reasons why. There’s a plan, a hope. There are ideas. There is need and desperation, definitely. But implicit in what’s happening is a rejection of a long-standing system—and a dream of what another Haiti could look like.
I don’t say this as a romantic. I’m not saying that there aren’t subtle forces at work behind the scenes. Of course money is changing hands somewhere, to influence the moment and its outcome. There is always money coursing through protests, especially in poor countries. But recall that Haiti has always been a leader in seismic shifts in how the world functions. Remember the revolution of 1791–1804 that ensured that slave capitalism would eventually be doomed all over the planet? I’m reminded now of that revolution, which took a long time to accomplish. Remember that Haiti was the first nation to cast off an American military occupation, in 1934. Besides frustration about infinite corruption and zero leadership in Haiti, there is a lot of thinking now about how the country might survive outside globalized markets, and how it could return to an agricultural system of updated, modernized, self-sufficient small farming. Changes like these take a long time to accomplish, and require the support of huge majorities willing to work for these goals or other grand changes. It’s a demanding job, to tire out an enemy who has every advantage. But it can be done—and has been done before in Haiti.
The situation that has been unfolding over the past year is the long, drawn-out, tortuous result of a concerted attack on popular democracy, and of the Haitian elite’s reluctance to allow any political or economic space for the masses entrenched in generations of poverty. The international community has followed along with the English- and French-speaking Haitian business and political elite—whose word on Haiti is taken as gospel by foreign officials who don’t speak Creole—and has also often taken the lead. This elite-sector-first strategy worked as long as people could still live in the Haitian countryside. But as Haiti joined the global economy and its agricultural system failed to compete abroad and was undersold at home, urban migration with all its concomitant ills began to impinge on the ease of the Port-au-Prince elite.
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Now, with real unemployment running at historic highs and a corrupt government in complete shambles, the predatory system, having stolen everything it can steal, is showing its radical illogic. Unless you run a slave nation, you can’t endlessly run a state off the backs of a people from whom you’ve taken everything, a people who have nothing. Try to see Haiti as the United States today, as run by Trump, but concentrated into a thimble. Income inequality is far more visible and insane than it is here in the United States, because the country lacks a cushioning working or middle class. The Haitian middle class now lives where middle classes like to live: here, in Canada, in France, and in other remaining bits of the late Francophone empire—places where there are still at least remnants of economies that function for most of the population and where a Haitian refugee can get a job.
Without its working middle class (some still remain, but very few), Haiti has become a land of millions of the virtually homeless living in shantytowns built with their own hands, and a few millionaire and even billionaire elite families who live behind barriers and barbed wire toward the top of the mountain that overhangs the capital, keeping a stranglehold on political power and on all the country’s wealth—a wealth that comes largely from a demoralized, mistreated, and grotesquely underpaid shantytown population, as well as from some lingering tourism, some lingering agriculture, international mineral extraction, drug-trafficking, and corruption. For the Haitian people, there is almost no public education, no public sanitation, no fire safety. There is also no social security, no subsidized health care. Plus right now there’s often no gas, no electricity, no water and no food.
The justice system is inept, corrupt, inefficient, and unjust. The prisons are disgusting, overcrowded, and unfunded. Inflation is high. Buying power is low. Elections are corrupted by domestic money and foreign influence. Wait, it’s beginning to sound familiar.
Thanks for all this, pure capitalism.
I say this about a country I love and a people I respect. But extractive capitalism, a kind of racism, and the global order have conspired to undermine hope in Haiti. It hasn’t helped that many of the best and the brightest brains have drained into Haitian neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, Miami, Boston, and Montreal. Who’s left to run the country? The grotesque, corrupt, and profoundly incompetent Moïse—a former banana farmer and exporter from the destitute northwest of Haiti, who eventually made his way down to Port-au-Prince and the corruption-creation machine that is the Haitian government.
Let’s look at the history that led to this. Aside from a few bumps and stutters, the same mostly light-skinned and mixed-race elite has ruled Haiti since 1804, when Haitians, led toward this victory by the former slave Toussaint L’ouverture, won their nation’s independence from Napoleon’s France. During the US occupation of 1915–1929, the boujwazi (the Haitian word for the elite), protected by the Marines from an ongoing rebellion in the countryside, along with US banks and businesses, continued to suck the country dry.
So it went until Francois Duvalier came to power in 1957. Ruthless, brutal, a killer, but a friend of sorts to Haiti’s black middle class, Papa Doc—at the beginning of the Black Power movement across the globe—called himself a noiriste. Unfortunately, he believed the only way to lift up that growing middle class in Haiti was literally to destroy the old elite class, which he did with stunning cruelty. Decent middle-class people who got in the way were also viciously wiped out, along with whole elite families. If you kept your head down, you could eat and live. Although Papa Doc was an unacceptable blot on the Caribbean, the United States didn’t try to remove him because it saw his rule as a counterweight to Castro’s Cuba. He understood that this status gave him a full green light to go ahead with his depredations. Meanwhile, he let US companies in Haiti go about their business.
In 1971, Papa Doc died an unmerited natural death and his son Jean-Claude took over as President for Life, continuing the dictatorship—with less-visible but often just as repulsive violence, and much less ideology. Although he was on better terms with the elite, Baby Doc couldn’t handle the rough and tumble of Haitian power grabs, and at a moment when popular unrest in Haiti looked as if it might actually push the young dictator out in favor of someone more useful for the Haitian people, the United States moved in to pluck him out and ensure a transition that would meet its need for stability in the region. That is to say: to ensure the continuation of the same system under a new ruler. The United States has always feared what real popular rule would mean in Haiti.
But the people the United States selected to run Haiti post-Duvalier were abysmal failures. In reaction, during the long aftermath of Baby Doc’s fall, the former priest and popular leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president with an overwhelming electoral mandate. The Haitian elite and the United States were completely freaked—that’s the term of art for it. Immediate plans were made to destroy Aristide’s presidency, because it seemed to threaten a rise to power of the actual Haitian population—real popular rule—and this would without question menace the elite’s control of, basically, everything in Haiti. But Aristide, though smart and watchful, couldn’t handle the many powerful sectors arrayed against him: the international community, the elite, the narco-traffickers, the Haitian Army, other political operatives, and so—certain the whole time that he was cleverer than his enemies—he fell.
Papa Bush was president at the time. Then Bill Clinton was elected. Aristide was in Washington, plotting and planning his way back to the presidential fauteuil. Incredibly, he managed it, carried there in the arms of a Clinton military intervention to reseat him. He was back in power, briefly. Then, just to make sure the lesson of his first ouster escaped no one, Aristide was shoved out of power and the country again, this time under the reign of Baby Bush. The message was clear: Republicans in the United States would not countenance a popular leader as president of Haiti, especially one who did not seem fully to control the situation.
Aristide, though special in many ways, was not unique as a failure. No Haitian president in recent memory has been able to do the bare minimum: feed, shelter, care for, and educate the people. But then few have even tried.
It’s both strange and familiar to watch the current unrest in Haiti. It’s as if the old protests against the Duvaliers and other demonstrations about the cost of living and gas prices and other leaders’ misdeeds over the years have been magnified until they’re giant. The fiery roadblocks erected by protesters still include burning tires, but the roadblocks are bigger than they used to be; they include dumpsters and pieces of already burned vehicles as well as tires and branches, and sometimes piles of rubble left over from the massive earthquake of 2010. The properties being burned are also more numerous and bigger. The protests have continued over a full month, and also this time they’ve gone nationwide—in all the biggest towns. As always, the police are armed for the confrontations, but instead of the rifles they used to carry that dated seemingly from World War I, they now have been supplied with automatic weapons and riot shields, and they wear helmets, combat camouflage, and bulletproof vests instead of pressed trousers, button-down shirts, and cop caps. Many of the protesters travel on motorbike and cover their faces—not just to protect against police tear gas but also to hide their identities. That’s new. Sometimes they too have guns. There are more people out in the street because there are more people in Haiti, especially young people, and everyone has a cell phone that can be used as a call to action.
The violence brought to bear against protesters and their class is serious. At the end of last year, 2018, shadowy forces, some connected to gangs, others to the regime, attacked one of the capital’s most important open-air markets, leaving dozens of men, women, children, and babies raped, shot, macheted, and burned. At least four protesters have been killed in the more recent unrest, and two journalists injured by Haitian authorities. The police, who’ve stepped in to do the job of keeping order after the dangerous and cholera-spreading UN peacekeeping forces finally left in 2017, have not been competent.
Beyond all of these extremes, there is the simple duration of the protests. They’ve been going on for almost a year, not always at the same level, but on a national scale. There are two reasons for the intensity and seeming endlessness of the protests. Anger and hope. Anger: for more than 15 years, the entire population has been left to deal with life without infrastructure, order, or a foreseeable future. Some of the protesters have never had a reliable way of life. Hope: the belief or wish that there might be another vision for this dreamlike, tropical, fabulous green land, now wasted, destitute, deforested, and beaten down by human and climatic systems.
Here’s the biggest difference between the old unrest and the new. Normally, when the street situation becomes too severe in Haiti, the United States and other “friends of Haiti” (Canada, France, and the UN) step in to handpick a new regime that satisfies their requirements and eases the rejected executive out of the country.
But today, the Trump administration seems to back the threatened regime of Jovenel Moïse. They don’t support Moïse because he’s a great Haitian democrat and good for Haiti (hardly)—or because he’s a wonderful counterbalance to Cuba. They back Moïse instead because in January, in order to curry their favor, he cast his vote on the OAS permanent council with the winning side, rejecting the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s new term as president of Venezuela. The Trump people also appreciate Haiti’s recognition of Taiwan; Haiti is one of only 18 countries that consider Taiwan a sovereign nation. Last year, Moïse’s government received a $150 million economic assistance package from Taiwan. Moïse has visited Taiwan, and Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, has visited Haiti. Other countries in the region have begun to peel away from Taiwan in order to gain a more lucrative relationship with the People’s Republic.
Moïse’s vote on Venezuela was important for two reasons. One is historic. In 1815 (often one must resort to the 19th century to understand things in Haiti), President Alexandre Pétion, who had helped lead Haiti’s revolution, welcomed Simón Bolívar to Haiti’s shores and rearmed “the Liberator” for his continuing onslaught against Spanish domination in Latin America. Pétion’s sole demand, in return for sheltering Bolívar and his cohort, arming them, and advising them on military strategy, was that Bolívar free the slaves in every country that he liberated from Spain. The two countries share a history of revolution against outside powers and a feeling of solidarity between their peoples. Both the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Maduro, his successor, are seen by many Haitians as part of that revolutionary tradition. To Haitians, Moïse’s vote came as a shock and looked like a betrayal of Haitian values on behalf of the white masters to the north. It made the president seem un-Haitian, a tool of the United States.
The second reason Moïse’s OAS vote mattered was that Venezuela has been an important, even crucial, part of recent Haitian political and economic history. In 2005, Chávez—vying with US oil companies for domination of the regional market—initiated a program called PetroCaribe, which allowed Haiti to purchase Venezuelan oil but only pay for 60 percent of what they bought, deferring the other 40 percent of the payment for up to 25 years at 1 percent interest. The deferred funds—essentially a development loan from Chávez’s Venezuela, amounting to over $2 billion—was supposed to go into the PetroCaribe Fund, to benefit the Haitian people.
Instead, it’s estimated that about 75 percent of the PetroCaribe Fund monies went missing, or were spent in schemes and on contracts that never benefited the people for whom PetroCaribe was created. Much of the money disappeared after the post-earthquake election of 2011, in which a right-wing, US-backed president, Michel Martelly, replaced the more socialist-minded government of President René Préval. During Martelly’s administration, it’s estimated that about $1.3 billion of the PetroCaribe Fund money simply vanished. Martelly then tapped his associate Moïse to run for the presidency in 2016—the latest in a series of questionable Haitian elections overseen by the United States and the OAS.
Although Venezuela forgave much of Haiti’s debt in 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Haiti still owes Venezuela billions—billions that are now in the pockets of all the corrupt actors involved in the now nearly decade-long thievery. In 2017, in the midst of economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the Trump team, Maduro ended the oil program, and severe fuel shortages ensued, crippling Haiti’s already stagnant economy. Thus the Haitian people, who never gained anything from a Venezuelan program that was supposed to help them, now are in hock to Venezuela, while those who stole the money have been enriched with impunity.
Moïse just can’t wash the gas off his hands. Before the PetroCaribe scandal fully emerged, his government announced a cut in government subsidies for fuel, which meant that prices would go up for consumers by about 50 percent in the case of kerosene, which is of crucial importance to the poor for light and cooking; this was part of an austerity plan conceived of by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a promise of $96 million in low-interest loans and grants. No doubt Moïse and his crew saw a further opportunity for corruption. When an outraged population took to the streets en masse, Moïse had to step back from the subsidy cut. Later a movement called Kot Kob PetwoKaribe-a?, or Where’s the PetroCaribe Money?, began calling for ongoing protests.
Gas shortages related to the government’s inability to pay for shipments have plagued the country since the end of PetroCaribe, and continue today. When there is no gas, hospitals can’t provide medical care, bodies can’t get transported for burial and morgues begin to stink, transit stops, markets languish, schools shut, all industry collapses, and the gas-fueled generators that small businesses and better-off homeowners use for electricity during the long daily power outages shut down.
Meanwhile, in less than a year, the gourde, Haiti’s national currency, has lost a third of its value, with inflation up 20 percent. Thanks to runaway inflation, the little Haitians do manage to scrape together is now worth half of what it was worth four years ago. The price of chicken has doubled over the past few years, a liter of milk can cost as much as half the daily $2.50 minimum wage—which most people don’t even make because they operate in the “parallel” economy where the minimum wage is often $0. The annual per capita income is about $350 in the countryside and $410 in the city, and the price of a cup of rice, the national staple, has been rising by about 10 percent every 10 months. Meanwhile, families have already paid their school fees this year, but because of the protests and the lack of gas, they haven’t been able to send their kids to school. In a world without fuel and without jobs, there’s nothing to do. Except protest. Each week, the protests grow. They’re organized, too. One important group organizing marches in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora is, fittingly, called Nou pap domi, or We Will Not Sleep.
On my most recent trip, just before the protests began in earnest, I could already feel something ready to burst, and this is not hindsight. Port-au-Prince has grown from 800,000 at the end of the Duvalier dynasty in 1986 to a sprawling, dusty, fourmillante cité of about 2.6 million today. Earthquake rubble still hasn’t been entirely cleared away, and this is almost a decade after the quake. People are still picking away at the remains of the cathedral downtown. The presidential palace has been razed but—fittingly—nothing has been built to replace it in the heart of the Champs de Mars.
Climate change has been taking its toll, too. Haiti is one of the countries most threatened by rising temperatures and changing weather patterns. Hurricane Matthew, for example, destroyed the southwestern part of the country, ripping away what tree cover remained and destroying some 80 percent of the buildings in the area. Two previous megastorms destroyed large swaths of the fertile Artibonite Valley. Larger and more powerful than before, hurricanes hit Haiti, which lies in their usual path across the Caribbean, harder and more brutally every time they pass. Domestic agriculture bears the brunt of this. When the hurricanes stop, drought sets in: Municipal water supplies can run very low, and urban populations end up drinking expensive, trucked-in water. People sell water in little plastic bags by the side of the roads and on street corners; they sell rice in even tinier bags. In town, it seems as if all food is imported, mostly from the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Things had seemed a little better and more hopeful when I’d visited Haiti just a few months after the earthquake. People were trying to build new lives out of the rubble and hadn’t given up on everything, PetroCaribe was still in operation, and the government, while inept in the face of massive geological disaster and the Bill Clinton steamroller that followed it, hadn’t made the choice to go full-throttle corrupt. Clinton, along with his successor George Bush, put together a fund that raised about $55 million for post-earthquake reconstruction. In the end, much of the money disappeared; the rest went to projects created and steered by the elite Haitian business class. Post-earthquake hotels built for relief and reconstruction officials in Port-au-Prince, some of them with loans from the Clinton-Bush fund, are now closing because of the unrest.
The mood was more chipper and engaged then, but it’s nihilist now, and you can see it in the streets. Protesters are playing the zero-sum game the elite has handed them. Thick exhaust from the minibikes of protest organizers and smoke from burning tires and plumes of tear gas blanket the protests. Fires rage through banks and businesses, crowds run through the rubble; families cower inside. The streets can sometimes look like screens from Battle Tech: Urban Warfare, with camouflage-wearing police shooting in the direction of young men throwing rocks, their faces covered by bandanas. After more than a month, people still are committed to the protests, even though those protests have further eroded an almost nonexistent economy. Almost every day, they march through the streets, calling for Moïse to leave.
But if Moïse goes, who will follow him, and what kind of government is likely to come to power? Groups like Nou Pap Domi have suggested a kind of cooperative government. Others are proposing new political figures and figures from the past. Like the return of the repressed, Nicolas Duvalier, grandson of Papa Doc, son of Baby Doc, is waging a subdued but significant campaign, visiting with groups likely to support him, haunting the uptown restaurants in the evenings, and working on his future political career by announcing his aspirations to the Haitian presidency at a recent Connecticut event.
In another sign of how things have degraded economically since his father’s departure from the country back in 1986, many older and not so much older people seem a little nostalgic for the rough, cruel days of the Duvaliers, when government brooked no protest and the kids could get to school and Haiti grew its own food. I remember those days; except for the possibility of being beaten to death in the street by secret police, or left to starve in a foul prison cell, or burned alive with your whole family, or executed by firing squad, and (it goes without saying) not being able to speak out against the government, or to protest anywhere, ever, at all, things were somewhat better.
But there is no reason to think Grandbaby Doc could run the country with any authority, given his total lack of political experience and a youth spent in exile—to say nothing of the forces that profit from the kind of governmental weakness, corruption, and anarchy over which his father presided. No one, in fact, has presented a path toward a new government that’s plausible, though as we have seen in the United States, sometimes implausible things do come to pass. The young have taken over the fight in the streets, as they usually do, because they have dreams and time and can imagine new things and believe in change. But after lives led in dire poverty, neglect, and mistrust, will they have the ability to remain firm against corruption? There are plenty of people who believe that the protests will finally peter out and Moïse will remain in office for the three years left of his constitutionally mandated (sort of) five-year term. Whereas this reporter believes he should probably go to prison for corruption. Too bad there’s barely a legislature and barely a justice system right now—in part, thanks to Moïse himself.
Haiti cries out for an upright, honest leader with real credibility among the poor majority, someone who responds to the public need and creates incorruptible institutions that work for the public good. This is not hard to figure out—or at least not hard to write down. Over the years I’ve met some people who seem as though they’d really be good for the job—but how can an outsider even measure that? We know where that kind of thinking leads.
In any case, it’s hard to see where the powerful social and civil groups are who would stand by such a figure—a Gandhi, say, or a Mandela, or one of Haiti’s outstanding women leaders—and keep a good government safe from overthrow. Certainly, there are many decent, honest people in what’s called the political class of Haiti. But it has been difficult to be strong and organized after so many years under attack, and so many years ignored. Social and civil groups here in the United States have not given us such a leader. Weak and in disarray, it’s unclear that their counterparts can do it in Haiti. Watching the demonstrations the other day, a Haitian friend commented on politics there right now: “By the way, they’re all fucked up, so I am not for anyone.”