August 23, 2023

Yesterday, as television and radio sets across Haiti issued warnings about a tropical storm churning across the Caribbean Sea, its residents could be forgiven for wondering what they did to deserve such torment. Already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, the Caribbean nation is currently in the grip of an unprecedented wave of gang warfare that has claimed more than 2,000 lives and forced 200,000 people to flee their homes. It is estimated that large portions of the country, including up to 80% of the capital Port-au-Prince, are now directly under gang control. The Haitian state and police have effectively been overrun, paralysing economic life and driving a surge in murders, kidnapping and sexual violence.

Amid this anarchy, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, has called on the international community to deploy a “robust use of force” — in the form of a UN-sanctioned multinational peacekeeping mission — to disarm the gangs and restore law and order. After all, the situation in Haiti is, as Guterres put it, “nightmarish” — surely the Haitians would welcome a foreign military intervention with open arms? Not quite. When the Haitian government first called for an international mission at the end of last year, people took to the streets and social media to voice their opposition. For them, the brutal realities of gang warfare were less pressing than the country’s fraught relationship with its long history of foreign interventions and occupations — and the disastrous legacy they have left behind.

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Haiti declared its independence from France in 1804, following a successful insurrection by self-liberated slaves. But foreign powers — first France, then the US — have undermined Haitian sovereignty ever since. Since America’s occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, during which the country was transformed into an official US protectorate where atrocities against the local population were rampant, the country’s reins passed from one US-backed dictatorship to another until 1991. That year, following widespread political mobilisation, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest with strong anti-imperialist leanings, became Haiti’s first democratically elected president.

Within a few months, however, he was removed in a coup, which likely saw the involvement of the CIA. In 1994, amid huge protests, the Clinton administration helped restore Aristide to power, but not before getting him to sign an agreement to introduce market-oriented reforms in Haiti. Years later, Clinton himself admitted that these liberalisation policies had devastating consequences for the poor Haitian economy: “It was a mistake… I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed [its] people because of what I did, nobody else.”

After stepping aside in favour of a close ally in 1996, Aristide returned to office in 2001 in a landslide victory. Three years later, though, he was ousted in yet another coup d’état, after Right-wing ex-army paramilitary units invaded the country from across the Dominican border. Aristide and many others have alleged that the United States had a role in orchestrating the coup against him. At the time, he claimed that US forces, promptly deployed to Haiti, effectively kidnapped him and brought him out of the country against his will. “The way I see it is [US soldiers] came to his house, uninvited,” said Maxine Waters, a Democratic Congresswoman close to Aristide. “They had not only the force of the embassy but the Marines with them. They made it clear that he had to go now or he would be killed.”

The US has always denied that it had anything to do with the 2004 coup or that it forcibly removed Aristide from the country, claiming he acted of his own will. But in 2002, none other than the French ambassador to Haiti at the time told the New York Times that France and the United States had “effectively orchestrated ‘a coup’ against Aristide” by pressuring him to step down and forcing him into exile.

In his place, a transitional government took over, which petitioned the UN Security Council for the intervention of an international peacekeeping force. A few months later, the UN officially launched its “Stabilisation Mission” in the country, comprising a 7,000-strong force led by Brazil and backed by several other countries. However, despite its presence, and the return of formal democratic rule following the 2006 elections, Haiti has continued to be plagued by violence. Several natural disasters, most notably the 2010 earthquake, which killed around 250,000 people, made the situation even worse.

The country was plunged into even further violence following the assassination, in 2021, of President Jovenel Moïse, who had become deeply unpopular amid fuel shortages and spiralling inflation. The 53-year-old president was shot dead inside his home by a group of mercenaries — allegedly 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans. Two years later many questions remain concerning the true motives behind the murder and its potential masterminds. Not a single person has been charged for the crime in Haiti, while only one person — a Haitian-Chilean businessman — has been sentenced in the US.

In the vacuum left by his death, a power struggle ensued between Claude Joseph, the country’s acting prime minister, and Ariel Henry, a neurologist by training, who was named prime minister by Moïse just two days before his murder but was never officially sworn in. Major foreign powers, as well as the Organization of American States and the United Nations, backed Henry, who was officially sworn in shortly thereafter.

But Henry, who was effectively anointed by foreign powers, led by the United States, lacks any real political (or even legal, some argue) legitimation and remains deeply unpopular. The Montana Accord opposition group, which represents a broad spectrum of Haiti’s civil society, has contested the legitimacy of Henry’s government and has been demanding elections for more than a year. Last December, Henry finally reached an agreement with opposition groups to hold elections this year — but no date has yet been set. Adding to the distrust are rumours that Henry may be implicated in Moïse’s killing. The country’s chief prosecutor claimed that he had been in touch with one of the chief suspects in the killing in the days before and hours after the assassination, and asked the justice minister to formally charge Henry. They were both swiftly fired.

If Henry hoped to project an image of strength, it didn’t last, as rival armed gangs started to exploit his weak and controversial rule, effectively taking control of large portions of the country. In recent weeks in particular, the violence has intensified. And yet, as noted, there continues to be widespread opposition among Haitians to a foreign intervention.

Part of this has to do with mistrust in Henry, with many of his opponents convinced that he is calling for foreign intervention in order to strengthen his grip on power and control the outcome of the next elections (or even postpone them indefinitely). But, on a deeper level, it has to do with the Haitians’ resentment over more than a century of disastrous neocolonial interventions and occupations — mostly by the US. As the Haitian sociology professor Jean Eddy Saint Paul recently put it: “Throughout Haitian history, the US has been actively engaged in undermining the legitimacy of Haitian leaders who refused to bow to American imperialism.”

And unfortunately, as the current chaos demonstrates, the latest UN peacekeeping mission — which left the country in 2017, replaced by UN police until 2019 — is no exception. During their 13-year-long stay, the UN peacekeepers raped hundreds of women and girls, or sexually exploited them in exchange for food or support. UN peacekeeping forces were also responsible for dumping toxic waste into the Artibonite River, the longest on the island of Hispaniola, causing a cholera epidemic in 2010 that cost the lives of 10,000 people. Despite acknowledging its responsibilities, the UN has failed to pay any compensation to the victims or their families.

No wonder Haitians revile the prospect of a new UN army coming to their country. For all the responsibilities that Haitians themselves may have for the sorry state of their country, Haiti is clearly paying the price of the West’s systematic interference in the country’s affairs. Rather than infringe once again on its sovereignty, the best thing America and other countries can do is help Haitians recover it. A good starting point would be to stop the massive flow of weapons into the country — the majority of which come from, you guessed it, the US.