Haiti is undergoing one of its most severe prolonged crises—one that has left vast swaths of the capital in the hands of gangs, left journalists and protesters dead, and shut down social services and the distribution of gasoline. In October, the country’s prime minister—who is also its de facto president—called for the deployment of foreign militaries to combat the unrest.
The unrest and political crisis comes in the aftermath of the July 2021 assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse. Following the murder, Prime Minister Ariel Henry took power, further limiting Haiti’s democratic process by continually pushing back elections at all levels of government. Investigations into the assassination of Moïse have stalled.
“Prime Minister Henry has not been doing anything,” Rosy Auguste Ducena, a human rights defender with the Port-au-Prince-based human rights organization Réseau National de Défense des Droits de l’homme, tells The Progressive. “This is the reason why the population is asking for him to step down.”
She adds, “The government is using the gangs to maintain power.”
The assassination occurred as the country had already seen its democratic institutions begin to fail. Since 2020, the country’s parliament has remained inoperable, local governments have had their terms end without new elections, and the country’s supreme court has lacked a quorum. Corruption has grown and gangs have increasingly gained more power and influence throughout the country.
In September 2022, protests erupted across Haiti after Henry announced that fuel subsidies would end. But the unrest was driven more by popular anger over the lack of democratic elections and functioning social services pushed by a U.S.-backed de facto leader. Protesters demanded that Henry resign, a guarantee of safer streets, and a decrease in the cost of goods. The situation grew worse when gangs allied with various politicians and began to expand their influence through violence.
At least eight journalists have been killed by police during the unrest.
Haitian police have responded by repressing the protests with tear gas and live ammunition. Despite this, the protests have continued. According to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, more than 96,000 Haitians have been forced to flee their homes because of the violence.
“This is what we are living with today,” Auguste Ducena says. “The government is not doing anything to make sure they are able to survive or that they will be able to go back to their homes. It is a very bad situation.”
Faced with the growing unrest, the de facto government of Haiti has requested that the international community send military forces to the country to assist in controlling the crisis. The United States and Canadian governments have continued to seek support from the United Nations to deploy soldiers to the Caribbean country, but some UN members have condemned efforts to escalate the situation.
International organizations, too, have denounced the efforts to deploy soldiers. The Haitian lawyers group Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, or BAI, issued a letter to the intergovernmental organization Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, calling on the region to reject the militarization of the crisis.
“Any support for the intervention by [CARICOM] would violate CARICOM’s democratic principles, betray Haitians’ centuries-long struggle for democracy and sovereignty, and implicate CARICOM in attacks against civilians exercising their basic human rights,” Mario Joseph, the director of BAI, wrote in the letter. “We do not want our CARICOM sisters and brothers to come with guns to help powerful countries impose a repressive regime on us. We want our sisters and brothers to come in solidarity, with respect and democratic principles.”
There is a long history of the use of foreign military interventions in Haiti to maintain the influence of the United States and other international powers. United States troops first occupied the island nation in 1915. These interventions have had the effect of rolling back democratic institutions.
“The only explanation for the policy of powerful countries like the U.S., Canada, and France over that time period is a persistent fear of popular democracy breaking out in Haiti,” Brian Cancannon, a lawyer and board member of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, tells The Progressive.
In 1804, Haiti became the first former slave colony to rise up in revolution against an unjust colonial power. That year, revolutionary former slaves declared their independence from France, liberating themselves but also denying France’s claim to the spoils of one of the richest colonies in the New World.
But since the 1804 independence from France, foreign powers have long sought to invade or extort Haiti . These invasions culminated in 1915, when United States Marines invaded the country and carried out a brutal occupation after National City Bank, now Citigroup, expressed fears of the country defaulting on their loan payments. The Marines would not be forced out by popular protest until 1932, after years of brutal occupation.
“[Marines] shot and killed all the Haitians that were resisting the U.S. occupation,” Concannon says. “The U.S. did not install or do anything to advance Haitian democracy and in fact, deeply corrupted Haitian democracy, because they overthrew presidents and members of parliament who didn’t do the United States’ bidding.”
The occupation had a long lasting effect on Haitian democracy, and ushered in a string of dictators like François Duvallier, commonly known as Papa Doc. While Haiti would briefly have hope of democracy in the 1990s, the coup d’etat in 2004 against democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who previously had been the country’s first democratically elected president in 1991, further eroded the country’s fragile democracy.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission, led by Brazil following the 2004 coup d’etat, also undermined Haitian democracy. The peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSTAH, was marked by numerous human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, the rape of children, and further destabilized the country’s democratic institutions.
United Nations troops were also responsible for the introduction of cholera in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, when a Nepalese unit dumped raw sewage into a river in the highlands. Amidst the current unrest, cholera has once again emerged, leaving at least 136 people dead.
As the country continues to face political crisis and violence, the number of people fleeing the island and seeking to migrate to the United States has steadily increased. While 2021 saw a sharp increase of Haitian migrants arriving to the southern border of the United States with Mexico, now many have once again sought to reach the United States via boats.
“If the situation does not improve, then people will always try to flee the country,” Auguste Ducena says. “These victims will not want to stay here.”
The return of people seeking to flee on boats reflects what occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the unrest following the overthrow of Papa Doc’s son Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc. Nearly 40,000 Haitians took to the seas to Florida to flee the violence as the country transitioned to democracy.
The United States had been deporting Haitian migrants back to Haiti amid the unrest, but according to the U.S.-based migrants watchdog group Witness At The Border, the U.S. did not carry out a single deportation flight to Haiti in September of 2022. The United Nations issued a statement on November 3, calling on countries to not remove or deport Haitians back to Haiti during the current crisis.
The blockade of fuel distribution by gangs associated with the Henry regime briefly limited the ability of people to escape the island, but now that that blockade has been lifted there is a renewed fear of an exodus of refugees from the country. According to NBC News, the Biden Administration is considering policy that would lead to Haitian migrants who arrive to the United States being sent to a “safe third country” or to the Migrant Operation Center at the military installation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a horrific plan that echoes the U.S. response to Haitian migrants in the 1990s.
The use of the facility echoes the United States’ pattern of racist discrimination toward Haitians. Prior to becoming a prison for alleged terrorists, the U.S. military installation at Guantanamo Bay was used as a prison for Haitian refugees who were fleeing the violence in the early 1990s following the first coup d’etat against President Aristide, that unleashed a wave of violence against Aristide’s supporters and pro-democracy activists. The facility was also used to imprison Haitians who tested positive for HIV.
These echoes of past U.S. human rights violations against Haitians led nearly 280 migrant and human rights groups and faith-based organizations to issue a letter in early November condemning the possibility of sending Haitian migrants to Guantanamo.
“Your administration should not add yet another chapter to the shameful U.S. history of mistreatment and racism toward Haitian people seeking protection, including those forced to take to the seas,” they wrote in a letter.
The increase of people seeking to flee the island via boat is reflective of changes in immigration policies across the hemisphere, pushed by the United States, that have left Haitians with few other options.
“People could physically leave for a destination, but now that’s all been made impossible,” Nicole Phillips, the legal director of the Haitian Bridge alliance, tells The Progressive. “It is like [the United States] is setting fire to the house and then locking the door of the house so no one leaves.”
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