The Caribbean country has been blighted by colonial exploitation, natural disasters and violent gangs – now a food crisis looms. What can be done to fix Haiti?
People displaced by gang war violence in Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters
“Toussaint was a mighty man and to make matters worse he was black / Black and back in the days when black men knew their place was in the back / But this rebel he walked through Napoleon who thought it wasn’t very nice / And so today my brothers in Haiti, they still pay the price / Haiti, I’m sorry, we misunderstood you / One day we’ll turn our heads and restore your glory.”
The haunting song by David Rudder flooded my mind as the aircraft touched down at Toussaint Louverture international airport.
Later, as my taxi weaved through Port-au-Prince, the sight of mountains of rubble lining every street was overwhelming. Makeshift tents occupied every space. It was 2012, two years after a 35-second tremor from a 7.0 magnitude earthquake left an estimated 220,000-316,000 people dead and another 300,000 injured. Some 1.5 million were made homeless in one of the deadliest natural disasters in the world. Poor construction practices and high population density were blamed for the astonishing fatalities.
Fast forward to December 2022 and Haiti is rocked by a different disaster, a perfect storm of violence, poverty, corruption and poor governance, all built on foundations of slavery, colonialism, brutality and exploitation.
The head of the World Food Programme in Haiti, Jean-Martin Bauer, said this week that, with gangs in control, the country faces an unprecedented crisis and could soon see famine. Haiti has run aground.
The streets are owned by heavily armed criminals, while the law enforcement agencies are underequipped, undermanned and undermotivated. Kidnapping is a business model, with more than 1,500 recorded in the last 18 months. Any available fuel sells on the black market at more than $35 a gallon. Food is a desperate challenge for most.
To fully understand a nation’s anguish, examine its history. What has been done to Haiti in the name of “the race for wealth” is the deepest wound to the Caribbean.
The slave trade brought Christopher Columbus in 1492 to the west coast of Hispaniola, then called Ayiti and inhabited by the Taíno people. Columbus renamed the island and claimed it for Spain. Then the French settled to the west and called it Saint-Domingue. By 1767, sugar, coffee, indigo and cotton were booming the economy for the Europeans, as Haiti’s labour accounted for a third of the transatlantic slave trade.
Inspired by the French Revolution, in 1791 the enslaved people rose in revolt, a struggle that continued for just over 12 years, despite invasions by the British, Spanish and French, and led to the creation of Haiti, the first independent black republic outside Africa. It was the world’s only successful slave revolt with the indomitable Louverture defeating the Napoleonic armies. His general, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, authorised a constitution calling for freedom of religion, for all citizens to be known as “black” to dispel colour hierarchy, and for white men to be forbidden from possessing property.
In 1825, France, backed by several warships, demanded from Haiti 150m francs as indemnity for claims over the loss of property during the revolution and, in addition, for diplomatic recognition as an independent state. Reparations for the loss of their “property” – their slaves.
The debt choked Haiti’s economic development as interest mounted, snatching a significant share of GDP and restricting development. Haiti was forced to take loans from Crédit Industriel et Commercial bank, enriching French shareholders. The remainder of Haiti’s debt was financed by the National City Bank of New York, now Citibank, and, in 1915, US President Woodrow Wilson responded to complaints from US banks about Haiti’s debts by invading. Never had a country been invaded for debts owing. That occupation lasted until 1934, deeply resented by Haitians who staged numerous revolts. France only repealed the debt in 2016, however no reparations were forthcoming despite being the root cause of Haiti’s decimation.
Haiti has produced a portentous rogues’ gallery of leaders and coups d’état. From 1911 to 1915, there were six different presidents, each either killed or forced into exile. But the most notorious in the island’s history was François Duvalier or “Papa Doc”, elected in 1957. His regime came to be regarded as one of the most repressive in modern history and, after his death in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude or “Baby Doc”, presided over Haiti’s further economic and political decline. The first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, faced two coups d’état, undone by the second in 2004 and alleged to be US-backed.
US involvement was seen again in Jovenel Moïse, elected in 2016, whose links, along with predecessor Michel Martelly, to grand corruption in the Petrocaribe scandal brought unrest and protest again to Haiti’s streets. That same year, Hurricane Matthew hit the island, causing more than 500 deaths, a cholera outbreak and destruction of over 200,000 homes.
Moïse’s presidential term ended in assassination in July 2021, followed by another natural disaster in August 2021 when a 7.2 earthquake struck. It killed more than 2,200 people.
This year has brought more storms and more cholera. Violence has intensified with rival gangs fighting for control in Cité Soleil, the most impoverished and densely populated neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince. Thousands have been affected, afraid to leave their homes for food or water. Many have been killed by stray bullets. One week in July left 89 dead.
In October, the acting president, Ariel Henry, was forced to plead for the deployment of foreign troops to oppose the gangs and the anti-government demonstrations.
Now Haiti is an “aid state”, almost totally dependent on foreign governments and institutions and remittances from the diaspora. Its underdevelopment can be attributed to corruption and geopolitical manipulation.
Above all, Haiti cannot be held to ransom by the US’s whims any longer
The longsuffering but resilient Haitian people have been victims of centuries of corrupt dictatorial governments. The fortunate have fled Haiti, contributing to a debilitating brain drain. The complicity of the colonists and successive French governments have been fundamental to Haiti’s demise, and the US’s neocolonialist role in enforcing debt repayments and the subsequent 19-year annexation of Haiti’s sovereignty is nothing short of diabolical.
Many believe that Haiti’s problems were ancestral and self-inflicted but there is more to this story. The propensity of the US to prop up strongmen contributed over and over to the sad state of Haiti, and let’s not forget the opportunistic siphoning of aid by the very agencies that collected donations from around the world.
What can be done to fix Haiti? The answer lies in forming a government of integrity and substance without allegiance to any gangs. Eradicating Port-au-Prince of the violence means severing existing ties between gangs, politicians and law enforcement. A robust anti-corruption unit with muscle, a reformed police service and legislative arm is fundamental. Aid must be conditional on showing intent to rebuild a modern nation from ground up. Above all, Haiti cannot be held to ransom by the US’s whims any longer.
In 2013, I travelled to another area of the island and swam in a sulphur spring in the ocean a few metres from shore. I ate the best seafood I have ever had, prepared by the warmest people I have ever met. For that moment this could have been any stable Caribbean island. This is the Haiti we need to see, a Haiti where the people can finally prosper in peace. Haitian lives matter and they are not disposable.
As Rudder sang: “When there is anguish in Port-au-Prince it is still Africa crying … the middle passage is gone so how come overcrowded boats still haunt our lives?”