Haiti’s failures worsened by international aid and US propping up of strongmen

Assassination of president Jovenel Moïse leaves country on verge of political void

 Citizens take part in a protest near the police station of Petionville after Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated this week. Photograph:  Richard Pierrin/Getty Images

Citizens take part in a protest near the police station of Petionville after Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated this week. Photograph: Richard Pierrin/Getty Images

 

The streets of Haiti had been clogged for months with angry protesters who burned tyres, stormed banks and robbed stores. Gangs, with the sometimes tacit permission of the police, have been kidnapping nuns, fruit vendors and even schoolgirls for ransom.

And then on Wednesday, the country slid deeper into turmoil when a convoy of gunmen brazenly rumbled up to the home of the president, Jovenel Moïse, in the middle of the night and shot him dead.

Almost every time that Haitians think their circumstances cannot get any worse, it seems the nation takes another ominous turn, and it is now teetering on the verge of a political void, without a president, a parliament or a functioning supreme court.

The country’s morass has for decades put it near the top of a list of nations, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, that have captured the world’s imagination for their levels of despair. In the shadow of the richest country in the world, people wonder, how could this happen to Haiti?

Haiti’s troubled history goes deep, lying in its roots as a former slave colony of France that gained its independence in 1804 after defeating Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces and later suffered more than two decades of a brutal dictatorship, which ended in 1986.

Police officers guard a group of men arrested over the killing of Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. Photograph: Jean Marc Herve Abelard/EPA
Police officers guard a group of men arrested over the killing of Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. Photograph: Jean Marc Herve Abelard/EPA

Then, after an earthquake devastated the country in 2010, an influx of foreign aid and peacekeeping forces appeared to only worsen the country’s woes and instability.

Haiti’s failures have not occurred in a vacuum; they have been assisted by the international community, which has pumped $13 billion (€11 billion) of aid into the country over the past decade. But instead of the nation-building the money was supposed to achieve, Haiti’s institutions have become further hollowed out in recent years.

Rule by decree

When the president let parliament’s term expire last year, it left Haiti with 11 elected representatives – Moïse and 10 senators – for its population of 11 million, eliciting a strong condemnation but little repercussion from Washington. For the next year and a half, until his assassination, Moïse increasingly ruled by decree.

Haiti is less a failed state than what an analyst called an “aid state” – eking out an existence by relying on billions of dollars from the international community. Foreign governments have been unwilling to turn off the spigots, afraid to let Haiti fail.

But the money has served as a complicating lifeline – leaving the government with few incentives to carry out the institutional reforms necessary to rebuild the country, as it bets that every time the situation worsens, international governments will open their coffers, analysts and Haitian activists say.

Jovenel Moïse, then president of Haiti, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York in July, 2021. Photograph: Chang W Lee/The New York Times
Jovenel Moïse, then president of Haiti, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York in July, 2021. Photograph: Chang W Lee/The New York Times

The aid has propped up the country and its leaders, providing vital services and supplies in a country that has desperately needed vast amounts of humanitarian assistance. But it has also allowed corruption, violence and political paralysis to go unchecked.

Although they deny it, Haitian politicians have traditionally relied on gangs to sway elections in their favour and to expand their political turf. In the last three years of Moïse’s term, more than a dozen massacres by gangs linked to the government and police forces have killed more than 400 people in anti-government neighbourhoods and displaced 1.5 million people, yet no one has been held accountable for the crimes.

When a political or human rights scandal erupts, the US government issues paper-tigerlike condemnations. Instead of embracing the long road to reforms and creating a system that works, Haitian civil society leaders contend, the United States has propped up strongmen and tied the fate of the nation to them. Many Haitians repeatedly denounced the US’s support of Moïse but said they had little power to stop it.

“Since 2018, we have been asking for accountability,” said Emmanuela Douyon, a Haitian policy expert who gave testimony to the US Congress earlier this year, urging Washington to change its foreign policy and assistance approach to Haiti. “We need the international community to stop imposing what they think is correct and instead think about the long term and stability,” Douyon said in an interview.

Conditioning aid

The United States needs to condition aid to Haiti on its leaders cleaning up and reforming the country’s institutions, Douyon and other analysts said. And powerful figures need to be held accountable for the violence and corruption that permeate every aspect of the country.

The assassination of Moïse on Wednesday punctuated yet another chapter in the country’s violent decade. The assassins who raided Moïse’s compound killed a president who was brought to power in 2016, winning the election with only about 600,000 votes. Just 18 per cent of voters cast ballots, and there were widespread accusations of fraud.

Yet the United States propped up the unpopular and controversial leader, supporting Moïse amid calls for him to be ousted in 2019 when it was discovered that international aid given to the government had gone missing.

Moïse insisted in February that he would stay on for an extra year as president because he had been prevented from taking the post for that long while the electoral fraud accusations were investigated. Despite demands from civil society leaders that he step down, Washington supported him. Critics said his holding onto the office was unconstitutional, and anger boiled over on the streets, throwing the capital Port-au-Prince into more uncertainty and violence.

With continued US backing, Moïse had grown increasingly autocratic, passing an anti-terror law late last year that was so broad it could be wielded against his opposition. Earlier this year, he declared he would write a new constitution, giving broad powers to the military and allowing future presidents to run for a second consecutive term.#

Protesters calling for the resignation of then-president Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince in October 2019. Photograph: Meridith Kohut/The New York Times
Protesters calling for the resignation of then-president Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince in October 2019. Photograph: Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

He scheduled a referendum on the constitution and a national election for September, despite warnings that holding an election amid so much violence would suppress voter turnout and bring the same political figures to power that have helped cause Haiti’s struggles. Yet the United States supported Moïse’s plans.

“It’s hard to think of the present moment as an opportunity, as it will likely create more chaos,” said Alexandra Filippova, a senior staff attorney with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, an organisation that provides legal representation for victims of human rights abuses.

“If the US and other international partners are serious about helping Haiti,” Filippova added, “they need to listen to Haitian civil society and take the hard road: building an actual foundation for democracy.” – New York Times

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