The Tragedy in Haiti

Foreign Policy Brief #128 | By: Abigail Hunt| March 15, 2024
Featured Photo taken from: www.usatoday.com, edited by Indy Silva for US Renew Democracy News, 2024

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On March 3rd, 2024, Haitian gangs stormed the nation’s largest prison, freeing more than 3,500 inmates. Gangs now control 80 percent of the capital city, Port-au-Prince (PAP), which has a population of 3 million. Haiti has a population of more than 11 million, with a national police force of about 9,000 officers. CNN reports that, in the past week, gangs have engaged in a series of planned and systematic attacks, targeting police stations, taking over courthouses, and freeing the incarcerated.

The recent announcement of the U.S. plan to send “military aid” to Haiti in the form of Marine Corps troops may further disturb the natives. President Biden said he plans to deploy troops as a stabilizing force. Throughout its history, Haiti has been often occupied by western countries, to its detriment. There is nothing a nation of freed slaves likes more than a military occupation, so surely the gang leaders will give U.S. troops a warm reception.

The Haitian government has not held parliamentary or general elections in the past several years. The current prime minister was sworn in, in a moment of crisis, when the previous president was assassinated in 2021. It comes as no surprise that Haiti would have an uprising – today’s citizens are descended from former African slaves turned victors, captured by the French in the 18th century, who revolted and liberated themselves in 1804. The fight to lose Haiti so depleted Napoleon’s resources at that time that he chose to sell the Louisiana Purchase to the U.S., effectively doubling the nation in size.

Haiti occupies the west end of an island called Hispaniola. The other two-thirds of the island belongs to the neighboring Dominican Republic (DR). As the only nation founded by slaves who won their freedom, Haiti is known as the first Black Republic. Of course, the U.S. government refused to acknowledge Haiti as a nation until 1862 (they worried that a bunch of freed slaves would encourage their own slaves, and they did). Haiti, unshackled, was a beacon of hope for those still in chains.

Following their revolution, France taxed Haiti for property lost in the uprising, a total that amounts to $21 billion in today’s dollars. During World War I, the U.S. installed a presence in Haiti, keeping troops there for almost 20 years.

The 2010 earthquake killed 300,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more; according to a report from The Center for Global Development, since that time, $6 billion has been paid out to non-governmental organizations (NGOs, like non-profits, they are intended to focus on a greater good, often on an international level) and private contractors. There is little to no accounting of how that money was spent.

Right on the heels of – and, as it turns out, in a roundabout way because of – the earthquake, a cholera outbreak killed 10,000 Haitians and sickened 800,000 more. The outbreak was determined – by a 2011 U.N. review committee panel – to have been caused by sewage from a U.N. peacekeeper camp contaminating the area water nearby. The U.N. has not yet taken legal responsibility for the contamination, likely due to the potential cost of restitution.

In 2013, as part of a documentary project detailing the state of the nation, I traveled for a week through the country. Three years after the earthquake, there was still a sea of tents, a bright patchwork stretching up and over the hillside, many of them constructed in part with the left-behind banners of western aid organizations.

Abject poverty is stressful, and Haiti is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Gang members stopped us on our way out to an orphanage. After some negotiations, we were allowed through. There were regular power outages. People sped through the streets on motorbikes, holding babies, children hanging onto their backs, no helmets, no road signs. We stayed in a commune with a compost toilet where my crew partner and I slept in bunk beds inside a shipping container. There was an unease that was palpable. The gangs at that time were somewhat contained in certain areas on the outskirts of PAP, but hostility toward western interlopers could be encountered anywhere.

While greeted with kindness, we were watched with suspicion. Many westerners used the tragedy of the nation to come there, perform some limited good deeds, then pat themselves on the back on the plane ride home, so the jadedness is warranted. In the year after we left, one of the men we interviewed during our visit, a childhood friend of the president, was kidnapped and murdered. In 2021, mid-pandemic, an August earthquake claimed another 2,000 lives.

In a nation so poor, people are desperate for survival. The heartbreaking reality of restaveks, child slaves, is an accepted part of life in Haiti. These children are emotionally, mentally, physically, and often sexually abused. There are between 150,000 and 500,000 restaveks in Haiti according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; that study used data from the 2012 Violence Against Children Study, information that is now 12 years old, the average age of a Haitian child slave. Restaveks are as young as five and as old as 24.

U.S. Southern Command’s March 13th Press Release stated: “At the request of the Department of State, the U.S. Southern Command deployed a U.S. Marine Fleet-Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) to maintain strong security capabilities at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and conduct relief in place for our current Marines, a common and routine practice worldwide.” U.S. Marines have conducted operations already to get Americans out of Haiti, but some remain stranded. The release continued: “This week, the Department of Defense doubled our funding for the Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission, and we are working with Haitian, Kenyan, and other partners to expedite its deployment to support the Haitian National Police and to restore security in Haiti.” Any planning on Kenya’s part to lead a U.N.-backed international police force to Haiti by sending 1,000 officers there is on hold due to the state of chaos in the nation.

The Independent reports the most prominent gang leader is a former police officer named Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, leader of the gang coalition, G9 Family and Allies, comprised of more than a dozen gangs. Cherizier claimed responsibility for the attacks on the prisons and on the airport, the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, named for the revolutionary leader who trained Haitian forces and led them to independence. The airport was closed at the time of the attack. Another notorious gang leader is Johnson “Izo” Andrï of the 5 Seconds gang. In all, there are an estimated 200 gangs. Approximately 23 of those gangs control the areas in and around PAP.  Gang leaders interviewed by media outlets have stated that they want to overturn the national government, force the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, and restructure the entire governmental system. Some want civil war. Prime Minister Ariel has said he will resign. If and when he does, then the gangs have the power. What will happen next remains to be seen. The track record for “absolute power” is not great, but, who knows, maybe we will be surprised.

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