Editorial note: Orinoco Tribune does not generally publish articles that are over 10 days old. However, in this case an exception is being made, as the subject matter of the following piece remains as significant today as at the time of its publication.
By Jake Johnston – May 23, 2022
Twin crises hit Haiti last summer: the assassination of its president and a major earthquake. And once again, Haitians have very little say in how their state is governed and rebuilt.
In the early hours of 7 July 2021, Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, allegedly by a group of former Colombian army officers. Seven months later, the murder investigation is going nowhere: though more than 40 people are now in jail, there has been little progress in identifying who masterminded the killing.
The last time a Haitian head of state was assassinated, in 1915, US Marines invaded the country within days. They stayed for 19 years. This time, many argued for the same. Former acting prime minister Claude Joseph, who controversially stepped into the presidential role following Moïse’s killing, asked the US for military assistance. The Washington Post called for a new UN peacekeeping force to deploy to Haiti as a matter of urgency, ‘to prevent a meltdown that could have dire consequences’ (7 July 2021).
On 14 August, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake devastated Haiti’s southern Tiburon peninsula. In Afghanistan, the next day, Kabul fell to the Taliban. The two countries have more in common than most people realise, quite apart from lengthy US interventions: Haiti’s early 20th-century occupation has only recently been surpassed by that of Afghanistan as the longest in US history. After the 9/11 attacks, George W Bush and his coterie of neocons and cold warriors saw an opportunity. Launched under the banner of combatting terrorism, the US military forays into Iraq and Afghanistan were classic examples of ‘nation-building’. Those weren’t the only such efforts by the Bush administration, however.
Not a failed state, an ‘aid state’
On 29 February 2004, a coup supported by the US, France and Canada forced Haiti’s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to resign. Though elected by a landslide with a turnout of near 70% in 2000, Aristide was flown to involuntary exile in the Central African Republic. Although France had ceased military cooperation with the US in protest at the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in Haiti the two powers once again worked together. After Aristide’s ouster, French forces deployed alongside US Marines before being replaced by several thousand Blue Helmets as part of the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah), a new attempt at nation-building.
I do not believe Haiti can enjoy stability until her citizens have the dignity of truly choosing their own leaders fairly and acceptably
Minustah was tasked not just with maintaining order, but with reforming state institutions, building a functioning justice system and local police force, overseeing elections and ensuring political stability. But make no mistake, the mission in Haiti was a military one. For years, Minustah soldiers carried out violent raids on neighbourhoods of the capital known to support Aristide, to break resistance to the 2004 coup. In a single raid on Cité Soleil, they fired more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition, killing several civilians. This was not an isolated event.
The twin crises that struck the country last summer led many observers to declare Haiti, like Afghanistan, to be a ‘failed state’. I use a different term: it is an ‘aid state’, formed and shaped more by foreign interference — often premised on humanitarian support — than by local actors.
In Afghanistan, the US spent billions of dollars propping up unpopular presidents, from Hamid Karzai to Ashraf Ghani. As evidenced by Ghani’s rapid fall, the only thing keeping him in power had been foreign support. He had won re-election in 2019 in a voting process heavily financed and backed by the US, the UN and other outside actors. Turnout was only about 20%. A similar dynamic has played out in Haiti, where elections have likewise been managed by external actors, in particular the US, the UN and the Organisation of American States (OAS).
After the January 2010 earthquake, the Haitian government decided to postpone the general election scheduled for February and March. Donors insisted the election should take place that November, though more than a million people were still homeless. The first round was a disaster. Yet, rather than organise a rerun when conditions improved, or even a recount, an OAS mission headed up by the US, France and Canada recommended, without justification, overturning the official results so that the rightwing pop star Michel Martelly could go through to the runoff. When the Obama administration threatened to suspend desperately needed humanitarian aid, the Haitian authorities buckled and accepted the ‘recommendation’. The process reinforced the idea that it would be donors choosing Haiti’s presidents and not the Haitian people.
Jovenel Moïse’s mandate, which began in February 2017, turned out to be just as fragile. Moïse was elected in autumn 2016 (in a rerun of the 2015 election due to allegations of widespread fraud). But, as in Afghanistan, participation was less than 20%. Moïse won 590,000 votes in a country of 11 million with around six million eligible voters. Street protests, allegations of high-level corruption and calls for his resignation, began soon after. With such a weak mandate, widespread opposition was inevitable.
A recipe for disaster
Foreign troops left Haiti in late 2017, but Moïse’s presidency continued. Unlike in Afghanistan, there was no armed opposition on the scale of the Taliban. When 7 February 2021 came, and Haiti’s political opposition, constitutionalists, human rights organisations and myriad other actors argued that Moise’s mandate had expired and he should leave office, the US, UN, and OAS all intervened to defend the presidency. As in Afghanistan, it was outside support that politicians needed to remain in office.
Whether in Afghanistan or Haiti, that was always a recipe for disaster. A state cannot be imposed from outside. Rather, for a state to become established, its legitimacy must come from internal support.
In Haiti, foreign-led nation-building efforts kicked into overdrive after the 2010 earthquake. Governments across the world pledged more than $10bn in aid (equivalent to Haiti’s GDP at the time), and Minustah increased the number of Blue Helmets from just under 7,000 in 2004 to more than 12,000. But for US policymakers, building a modern state was not just about military force, and humanitarian aid was mobilised in an attempt to ‘rebuild’ Haiti — largely without the Haitian people.
NGOs, for-profit development companies, and international organisations descended on Haiti, with the idea that Haiti was inherently backward and unstable, and that only Western-educated ‘experts’ had the knowledge and wherewithal to truly ‘build back better’. In recent decades, the aid industry has followed its big brother in the military down the path of privatisation. The result is the aid-industrial complex, and its roots are closely related to the US war effort in the Middle East.
The largest single recipient of US foreign assistance in Haiti was a for-profit company based in Washington DC, Chemonics International. A decade earlier, the company had barely existed. But, fat off contracts for development work in Afghanistan and Iraq, by the time of the Haiti quake, it was getting hundreds of millions of dollars each year in US taxpayer funding.
In the decade after the quake, less than 3% of US foreign assistance went to local organisations. More than half went to a handful of companies located inside the Beltway, in Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia. Thousands of Westerners now live off ‘aid’ of which Haiti sees very little. And whether projects succeed or fail, the money continues to flow.
As in the realm of politics, economic development cannot be willed into existence by foreign experts. International aid that bypasses local institutions ends up undermining the very state that is ostensibly being ‘built’. In Haiti, some 80% of basic public services like health and education are provided by NGOs, church groups and the private sector. Meanwhile, local industry can get crowded out by the aid industry’s reliance on imports.
In search of a better life
In the case of agricultural products, recipients of US foreign assistance are banned from buying goods locally, and the money Congress appropriates for aid effectively subsidises domestic business interests. Today, after 20 years of nation-building in Afghanistan and Haiti, about half the population in both countries face food insecurity — roughly the same proportion as 20 years ago. It is no wonder that many people are attempting to leave both countries in search of a better life elsewhere.
In September 2021, more than 10,000 Haitians arrived at the US’s southern border hoping Joe Biden’s administration would grant them refugee status, as it had for 37,000 Afghans after the debacle of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. They were mistaken.
Mounted border patrol agents charged at Black families crossing the Rio Grande, in some cases appearing to use their reins as whips, evoking memories of the slavery era. Within a week, the Biden administration had overseen one of the largest mass expulsions of asylum seekers in decades. By November, the administration had sent more than 8,000 back to Haiti.
The US special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, who had only been appointed to the position two months earlier, resigned after the expulsions began. ‘I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees,’ Foote wrote in his resignation letter (1). Interestingly, Foote himself, like many diplomats who pass through Port-au-Prince, had experience in Afghanistan too, having overseen all civilian foreign assistance at the embassy in Kabul. If the public doesn’t always see the similarities between the two countries, foreign diplomats surely do.
Foote was not just protesting over the deportations. Writing that his advice had been ignored or misrepresented, he made a direct connection between the thousands of Haitians seeking asylum and US policy towards their country. ‘I do not believe that Haiti can enjoy stability until her citizens have the dignity of truly choosing their own leaders fairly and acceptably,’ he wrote, citing a history of ‘international puppeteering’. ‘The hubris that makes us believe we should pick the winner — again — is impressive.’
Foote was referring to the latest instance of foreign interference in Haitian politics. After Moïse’s killing, his former acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, stepped into the executive role. Joseph had resigned two days earlier, after Moïse nominated Ariel Henry to replace him, but Henry had yet to formally take office. With Moïse’s own legitimacy in question, either man would have been controversial, but the US and UN threw their support behind Henry, perpetuating the reality that Haiti’s leaders are ultimately chosen behind closed doors by foreign diplomats rather than by the Haitian people.
The battle for Haiti is not over
For more than two centuries, since the enslaved population overthrew their French colonisers and established the nation of Haiti, foreign powers allied with a small local elite have sought to control the country. The consolidation of the ‘aid state’ through 21st-century nation-building is simply the latest manifestation of this.
But their efforts have encountered fierce resistance, beginning with the late 18th-century Haitian revolution. When US forces occupied the country in 1915, the Cacos, a peasant militia, fought back. After the 2004 coup and deployment of UN troops, armed civilian groups in the capital fought a guerrilla war against the invaders.
The US, UN and EU have seen their credibility in Haiti crash. Today, even those who supported the 2004 US intervention condemn foreign interference and call for a Haitian-led solution.
While donor nations were quick to support Ariel Henry, hundreds of local organisations representing all forces of Haitian life, from the peasantry to neighbourhood organisations and the private sector elite, have come together around a common agenda to resist the influence of international actors and reject the perpetuation of the aid state. The battle for Haiti is not over.