Briefing

Haiti's spiral of misery

The assassination of President Moïse was just the latest calamity to befall Haiti. Why is the country so dysfunctional?

The assassination of President Moïse was just the latest calamity to befall Haiti. Why is the country so dysfunctional? Here's everything you need to know:

Who's in charge?

No authority has legitimacy right now in the Western hemisphere's poorest country. Acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph was nominally left in charge after Jovenal Moïse was gunned down in his home by a hit squad working on behalf of unknown actors. But Joseph, who was appointed by Moïse in April, had little legitimacy, and this week, he agreed to transfer power "for the good of the nation" to Ariel Henry, a 71-year-old neurosurgeon who is being backed by the Core Group, an informal bloc of foreign ambassadors from the EU, the U.N., and six nations, including the U.S. Under Moïse's rule, violent gangs had terrorized Haitians, killing dozens and engaging in kidnapping and rape; now the country is in turmoil, with Haitians afraid to leave their homes. Joseph has asked the U.S. to deploy troops to protect critical infrastructure. But previous U.S. interventions have failed, and President Biden said that while Marines would protect the U.S. Embassy, sending troops is "not on the agenda."

Who colonized Haiti?

France first colonized the western third of the island of Hispaniola that became Haiti. Unlike the Spanish, who ruled what became the Dominican Republic in the east, the French denuded the land, cutting down nearly all the trees for timber. French colonizers also wiped out the indigenous Taino people and brought in hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans to work on sugar and coffee plantations under brutal conditions. The enslaved people revolted and pushed out the French in 1804. But in its settlement with France, Haiti had to pay 150 million francs in reparations for the loss of slaves — an impossible sum, 10 times what the U.S. had just paid Napoleon for the Louisiana Purchase. Haitians borrowed from French banks and spent a century toiling not to build infrastructure but to pay that debt. In 1915, fearing that the Germans would take Haiti over to establish a Caribbean base, President Woodrow Wilson sent in troops to protect U.S. business interests. The U.S. occupied the country until 1934.

Did the occupation help Haiti?

No. It was devastating. The U.S. confiscated Haiti's gold reserves, imposed racial segregation and forced labor, and created a gendarmerie controlled by Marines. American authorities consolidated Haiti's debt to France, but replaced it with debt to U.S. banks. Haitians repeatedly rebelled against foreign occupation, and the U.S. responded with violence, killing 2,000 protesters in just one skirmish. When the U.S. finally gave up and pulled out, it left a desperately poor and unstable nation. In the 1950s, the U.S. feared that Haiti would turn communist, so Washington supported the ruthless Duvalier regime of dictators "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc." The Duvaliers looted Haiti of hundreds of millions of dollars and "disappeared" some 30,000 people with death squads trained by the U.S. In 1990, Haiti finally got a democratically elected president, former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but he was deposed in coups in 1991 and 2004, and both times the U.S. military intervened with U.N. approval. The political chaos was compounded by a series of natural disasters.

Why so many disasters?

Haiti lies on an earthquake fault and smack in the middle of a hurricane zone, so it has been pummeled by a series of quakes and floods that keep wiping out whatever Haitians manage to build. The first decade of this century saw 15 such disasters. In 2010, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake killed nearly 250,000 people and left at least 1.5 million homeless. When the U.N. sent peacekeepers for the relief effort, they brought a cholera epidemic with them that killed some 10,000 people, mostly children, and sickened hundreds of thousands. And when international donors pledged $16 billion to help rebuild, they found no reliable authority to distribute the aid, and less than $3 billion was actually spent. Most of it went to international workers or fueled corruption.

Who has governed since?

In 2011, Haitians elected Michel Martelly, a pop singer with no political experience but with the explicit backing of the U.S. government. He and other Haitian leaders were accused of embezzling and mismanaging some $2 billion in loans from Venezuela's PetroCaribe, and his tenure was marked by near-constant protests. He tapped Moïse, a banana exporter, to succeed him. With a shaky claim on power, Moïse used violence to repress opponents, and he was widely detested.

What happens next?

American officials fear a repeat of the "boat people" exodus of the 1970s, when tens of thousands of Haitians fled Baby Doc's repression and reached Florida by boat. U.S. and foreign diplomats are pressing Henry to form a unity government of several factions until elections can be held. Jonathan Katz, a journalist who has reported extensively on Haiti, says the U.S. must let Haitians choose their next leader and not force on them someone from "the corrupt class of politicians the U.S. has spent decades elevating."

Aristide's tumultuous reign

Haiti's first freely elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was a former Catholic priest who believed in liberation theology and promised to redistribute wealth. But after just eight months, he was toppled in a 1991 military coup, by ­officers who had been trained by the U.S. years earlier. In 1994, President Clinton restored Aristide to the presidency via a U.S. military invasion. But in 2004, he was deposed from his second term by another military coup, which he blamed on the George W. Bush ­administration. He left the country on an American chartered plane, saying he had been kidnapped. The U.S. sent in troops again along with Canada and France to restore order, and then handed ­military control to a U.N. peacekeeping force that stayed until 2017. Aristide returned to live in Haiti in 2011, and last month he was flown to Cuba for medical treatment — reportedly for COVID-19. Last week, he returned to Haiti, where he was greeted at the airport by hundreds of supporters.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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