On February 7, 2019, Haiti erupted in revolt. Protesters fed up with miserable living conditions and enraged at recent government embezzlement scandals took their anger out on the luxury cars of the country’s small wealthy minority. In the following days, demonstrators clashed with police, assaulted President Jovenel Moïse’s house with rocks, shut down transportation and commerce with road blockades, looted, burned down buildings, and facilitated a jailbreak in which 78 prisoners escaped. The police were unable to reach the prison because of burning barricades.
While some escaped, others were arrested, injured, or killed by police. The government was not lenient. According to the Haiti Information Project, in the ensuing months the Haitian government has armed and paid gangs to attack and burn areas inhabited by rebels.
The events of February marked an escalation, but it didn’t come out of the blue. Haitians have been out in the streets for much of the past few years, and indeed the entire history of the island country is one of rebellion against terrible conditions. This time, they were adamant about seeking the end of Moïse’s presidency. Moïse is accused of misusing $3.8 billion USD in loan money from Venezuela intended for the development and improvement of Haiti, as well as breaking his promise to address the pressing poverty gripping the majority of the country’s citizens.
More generally, Haitians are calling for an end to what the Haitian-American feminist scholar Gina Athena Ulysse characterizes as “corruption infesting public administration.” According to Ulysse, the uniting determination of the protesters is to “eradicate a state system beholden to the oligarchy and an international community that habitually interferes in Haitian affairs,” a system that’s stalled any possibility for improving the social welfare of the Haitian people.
Certainly, the president and his dishonest predecessors are to blame for many of the problems plaguing the country. However, a focus on obvious local errors without considering the foreign powers that have interfered in Haiti for generations would unjustly exonerate those with the heaviest hand in the country’s decline.
In the early 19th century, Haiti rose to become the first sovereign nation in the Caribbean, as enslaved African people overthrew the yoke of French colonial rule and its system of slave labor. Ever since then, according to even the conservative news outlet USA Today, “Western policies have been punishing Haiti for its independence.” At the time of the slave revolt, the undeniably successful model it presented to those with similar desires for sovereignty – and the threat that Haiti’s example would be emulated in other slave economies – terrified many colonists, including those in New Orleans, the world’s largest slave port, who feared the threat it posed to their unlimited supply of free labor and the empires they sought to extend.
Of course, colonization and the system of slavery it enforced upon those it conquered relied heavily on the illusion that without the governance of the occupier, the country and its native inhabitants would go astray. The colonists deftly crafted the idea that their presence was necessary for the well-being of the country and that their absence would debilitate all independent efforts for success.
Haiti’s newly gained independence – amidst a region still largely run by colonial powers and gripped by slavery – ensured a relentless effort to sabotage the young country. Barrymore Bogues, professor of African Studies at Brown, recalls that the problem in Haiti “was not politics or commerce” but instead, the “fragile example of ex-slaves ruling themselves.” So, despite being the first in the Caribbean to claim its freedom, it has since become the poorest after years of ruthless Western exploitation.
Most of us have only the vaguest notion of the role the US has played in Haiti’s affairs, as the extent of this involvement has been shrouded in secrecy. However, it took acute and visible form on February 16, 2019, when the US undeniably assisted Haiti’s corrupt leader in his efforts to consolidate his power.
On that day, five men arrived in Port-au-Prince with a stockpile of semiautomatic rifles, handguns, bulletproof vests, and knives. They included two Serbian mercenaries and Louisiana’s own Dustin Porte, the son-in-law of another crooked politician— former Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price III, who resigned in disgrace in 2009 and was convicted of tax evasion, perjury an fraud. These five visitors were ushered through the airport in the early hours of the morning, certain that security employees were yet to arrive. Their mission was to accompany a presidential aide to the central bank, where, according to one of the mercenaries, the aide would electronically transfer 80 million USD from a government oil fund to a second account controlled solely by the president. But the operation failed; after spending three days in jail, all of those involved were released without charges and sent back to the US.
This haphazard error only hints to us the full extent of the US’s repressive and illegitimate interference, and it should come as no surprise that the incident took place largely in the margins of the media, with minimal shock and no repercussions for the men involved in the operation.
The US government skillfully employs this type of interference, veiling its occupation beneath the insidious lie of “spreading democracy,” terming the horrors they commit as necessary defense against a raging, inhuman enemy. Indeed, one of the five mercenaries said that the transfer of public funds to the president’s private account was meant to “preserve democracy in Haiti.” In the course of countless illegal interventions orchestrated by the US, the country has been destabilized so severely so as to guarantee that the occupier’s return is seen as both inevitable and necessary.
There remains, however, an insistent call of the Haitian people: a demand for freedom that began centuries before, and which continues today amidst ever more subtle and indirect attempts of Western control. The Clinton Foundation, the Red Cross, and all the big wheels of Western neoliberalism have carved their pounds of flesh from Haiti’s future. The sanctimoniously smiling mask of “aid” conceals the colonist’s face. Whereas it was once clear as day that Haiti was held by a foreign power, subjected to the unambiguous title of colonization, Haiti now struggles to fight a vague and cowardly enemy that hides behind a false moral banner, flaunting a self- righteous concern for a country it has repeatedly debilitated and robbed of the chance to thrive. The rebels in the February uprising offer their people an alternative path to liberation, one that is independent from corrupt governments near and far.