As protests again sweep Haiti, how can the nation move forward?

By Jon Lee Anderson, the New Yorker, Oct. 24, 2019

The Republic of Haiti is suffering a meltdown. It has been for decades, but lately things have got much worse. Severe energy shortages, harsh levels of inflation, and sharp price increases have ignited public anger over suspected official corruption, and led to widespread demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse, a businessman who came to power in 2017. The protests, now in their sixth week, have virtually shut down the capital of Port-au-Prince, with schools, gas stations, and most other businesses closed; streets blocked by barricades of burning tires; and looting and arson attacks breaking out every few days. In a recent piece about the crisis published here, Edwidge Danticat wrote that, while most of the protesters echo a common desire to see President Moïse leave office, few are able to articulate a plan for what should follow. Among young Haitians, she observed a more existential longing for something greater, for a “tabula rasa.” “They want a more egalitarian, inclusive, and just society, where the rights of every citizen will be respected,” Danticat wrote. “They want Haitian-led solutions. They want institutions that work. They want an end to impunity.”

Unless something truly radical occurs, such aspirations will remain out of reach for the foreseeable future, which seems certain to remain unstable. Just hours after Danticat’s piece was published, Néhémie Joseph, a prominent Haitian radio journalist who was critical of the government’s handling of the crisis, was found dead in his car, murdered execution-style, with several bullets to his head. The next day, using tear gas, police pushed back a crowd of angry demonstrators attempting to march on Moïse’s residence. Last Wednesday, thousands of Haitians attended funerals across the country for eleven of the more than twenty people who have been killed in the protests so far. On Tuesday, the Catholic clergy broke from its traditional political neutrality, as priests led thousands of people in a peaceful march in Port-au-Prince, calling for a change of government in order to end the crisis.

Moïse was elected in 2016, after winning a runoff in which only eighteen per cent of eligible voters participated. His rival had angrily rejected the results of the first round of voting, setting off unrest that forced another round to be postponed for a year, and accused the U.S. of backing Moïse. Suspicions of U.S. support for Moïse remain widespread, especially since he acceded to pressure from Washington, earlier this year, and extended diplomatic recognition of Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s legitimate President, withdrawing it from Nicolás Maduro. Previous Haitian governments had been supportive of Maduro and of his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in a relationship that was bolstered by oil subsidies in a now-defunct arrangement known as Petrocaribe, which provided for Haiti’s energy needs and provided funds for social projects. (Moïse is involved in a corruption scandal concerning his alleged receipt of Petrocaribe funds, in 2014, before he became a candidate, for contracts to build and repair a road that apparently was never constructed. He denies any wrongdoing.) Yet there appears to be little interest from the U.S. government in Haiti’s current crisis. Nor are many U.S. legislators clamoring for attention on Haiti’s behalf. An exception is Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, who has generally stood up on immigration issues for Haitians and other foreign-born Florida residents. (There are some three hundred thousand Haitian immigrants in Florida; twenty per cent of Haitian-American Floridians in Palm Beach and Broward counties voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but support for him in the community has been falling.) Another advocate is the Democratic Representative Frederica Wilson, who, on October 3rd, hosted the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, at a roundtable meeting in Miami with members of the Haitian-American community.

Pelosi has been courting Florida’s émigré communities on behalf of the Democrats for some time. At the meeting, the unreconciled nature of the U.S.-Haitian relationship was apparent, with several speakers complaining that the U.S. had “forgotten” Haiti, while others said that it needed to “stop meddling” in Haiti’s affairs. Pelosi listened courteously, said “I love the people of Haiti,” and managed to avoid taking a clear position on Moïse. (Rubio has done the same, insisting that the U.S. does not have a direct role to play in Haiti’s political crisis. He recently said, “We are not going to interfere.”)

In a telephone interview, Ann Lee, the C.E.O. of Sean Penn’s international-relief organization, core, described what she saw as an inadequate response to Haiti’s crisis from the outside world. “The only thing the international community seems to be concerned about is drug-trafficking and the movement of people,” she said. “And that’s especially true of the U.S., which is just crazy, as well as contradictory, because the U.S. has always been so involved with whoever’s in power there.” Lee has lived in Haiti off and on since 2006, and said that she has never seen the mood as “heavy” as it is today. “It feels like, Holy shit, this system no longer functions,” she said. “There seems no way out. No options.”

Lee noted that Haiti’s security situation had worsened significantly since 2017, when the United Nations withdrew its contingent of international peacekeepers, which once numbered in the thousands, at the end of a controversial fifteen-year tenure. They left a small advisory force in place, which helped train the police force. (Haiti’s own military disbanded in 1995.) “With no U.N. boots on the ground, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing a spike in insecurity, but that’s not all this is about,” Lee said. “Most people just want to be able to buy enough food to feed their families and to send their kids to school. Right now they can’t. So here’s an existential question: Do we keep on working with what we’ve got, or is it so broken that we have to change the whole system?”

I asked several Haitian and American diplomats and analysts that question. Vicki Huddleston, a former career State Department diplomat who served as the Deputy Chief of Mission to Haiti from June of 1993 to September of 1995, and still visits the country, said that “a Marshall Plan for the Caribbean and Central America” is necessary. It is an idea that she been trying to promote for some time—“unsuccessfully,” she added. She said that “for the U.S. to be prosperous and secure, we need our neighbors to be successful, as well. Yet, we’ve done so very little for the region. We are willing to spend millions on intervening in Haiti and El Salvador, but in comparison, nothing on insuring that these countries and their citizens have a chance of success and solid growth. It would be relatively easy. If Venezuela could provide Haiti an oil facility”—a reference to the Petrocaribe subsidies—“why can’t we, with our surplus oil?  And why not more programs for investment and trade? Obviously, our big issue, immigration, would be resolved—over time—if there is opportunity and safety in our near neighbors.”

Pamela White, a former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, where she served from 2012 to 2015, said that the nation has suffered from unrealistic expectations that the international community placed on it over the years. “The Western solution to immediately hold elections in countries that have been controlled for decades by dictators and ruthless militias has never worked and never will,” White said. “We need some creative thinking about how a country with low education and high poverty levels can function in order to provide basic services to its citizens. Elections are so corrupt and the people running so inexperienced that they cannot possibly be considered a good solution. In the best of all worlds, a council of well-educated and experienced Haitians would form a coalition government—it would include business and civil-society representatives—with senior Western advisers.” She added, “A realistic development plan would be detailed so all citizens could see it, with a realistic budget, no big fancy buildings, no fancy cars or lucrative travel budgets. A strong police presence would also be a huge help, especially if they were trained to render real services to the people, not only security. But if anyone thinks another election is going to solve all of Haiti’s woes, they are sadly mistaken.”


As the founder of prodev, a foundation that promotes education in Haiti, Maryse Pénette-Kedar is one of the nation’s most prominent civic leaders. When I asked her what was needed for Haiti to find lasting stability, she e-mailed me an ambitious, but carefully considered, wish list. Among her starting points was for the international community to “come to terms with the fact that Jovenel Moïse’s presidency is no longer viable,” and then to “support the transition that Haitians from all walks of life are requesting.” She went on to outline some of the issues that Haitians need to address for themselves, such as requiring “a new class of political leaders who are committed to respecting the oath of office and operating within the framework of the rule of law, ensuring that public resources are not wasted through misuse and corruption,” and “a concerted effort by elected leaders, civil servants, civil society, including private sector leaders, to stop the continuing deterioration of the rule of law.” Finally, she stressed the need for Haiti to strengthen and reinforce its anti-corruption laws, the independence of its judiciary, and to carry out a reform of Haiti’s constitution; nothing less, in other words, than a re-foundation of the Haitian state.

Haiti is not a large or powerful nation, nor a U.S. strategic partner, but it is a neighbor. Port-au-Prince is almost as close to Miami as Pensacola is. And, after the United States, Haiti is the oldest democracy in the Western Hemisphere. It was the world’s first black republic, created in 1804 by former slaves who had freed themselves, taking their inspiration from the French revolution, and finally overthrew their French colonial rulers after a bloody twelve-year rebellion. It became a model for other would-be revolutionaries in the region and, during the early decades of the nineteenth century, its leaders offered refuge and material aide to Latin Americans, including Simón Bolivar, fighting Spanish colonial rule.

Yet Haiti has been plagued by despotic rule and political instability for much of its tenure as an independent state. In 1915, U.S. troops invaded, after the assassination of the country’s pro-American dictator. They remained until 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pulled them out as part of his new Good Neighbor Policy, which called for regional nonintervention. The back-to-back dynastic dictatorships, of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, from 1957 to 1971, and of his son, Jean-Claude—Baby Doc—from 1971 to 1986, replaced Haiti’s rule of law with one of violence and fear, a system that was enforced by a thuggish cadre of secret police known as the Tonton Macoutes. The reign of the Duvaliers coincided with the Cold War, however, and their anticommunist stance earned them the tacit backing of the U.S. government. (When the younger Duvalier finally fell from power, a U.S. Air Force plane flew him to exile in France.) The U.S. intervened twice more, first in 1994, to oust a military dictator who had deposed Haiti’s first democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and then in 2004, when, amid spreading political violence, Marines were sent in and a U.S. aircraft flew Aristide to exile. Since then, Haiti has formally been a democracy, but one fractured by bouts of social disorder, military coups, and gang violence.


Year after year, the State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy report has listed Haiti as a transshipment point for illegal drugs coming to the U.S. from South America; the narcos use Haiti as a refuelling stop, flying in and out of clandestine airstrips in the un-policed rural backcountry. Haiti is also the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest in the world. It is Haiti's poverty, as well as its blackness, that lies at the root of the nation's tortured relationship with the U.S. Because of the two nations’ closely shared geography and conjoined histories, Haitians have historically looked to the United States for refuge. A half million or so have settled in the U.S. since the Duvalier tyranny began, but they have rarely received a warm welcome. From the seventies to the early nineties, tens of thousands of Haitians set sail for the U.S. on rickety boats. Most were detained at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and ultimately deported, after successive Administrations chose to classify them as “economic migrants” rather than as political refugees. Only twenty-eight out of the twenty-five thousand Haitians who applied for political asylum in the United States during the nineteen-eighties were granted it.

Hilda Baker, a Haitian business consultant and specialist on local and political governance, said that the tendency to typecast Haitians as “boat people” has undermined Haiti’s ability to develop itself. “The U.S. has always been afraid of an influx of ’Haitian refugees’ on its shores,” she said. “It has stigmatized Haitians for decades, and that has been perhaps the single greatest damage done, because it has hurt tourism and investment.”

There have been some exceptions to the American cold shoulder. In January, 2010, Haiti was hit by an earthquake that killed more than two hundred thousand people and left more than a million homeless. In response, among other humanitarian measures, the Obama Administration designated a humanitarian-immigration program called Temporary Protected Status, or T.P.S., for the estimated hundred thousand to two hundred thousand undocumented Haitians believed to already be living in the U.S. at the time. Donald Trump’s determination to sabotage his predecessor’s legacy includes scrapping the humanitarian provisions that Obama left in place. In November, 2017, Trump’s acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke, announced that, as of July, 2019, T.P.S. would be terminated for the nearly sixty thousand Haitians still living here under that provision. Following court appeals, an extension was granted until January, 2020, after which, presumably, they will have to leave the United States.

Indeed, the only times that Haiti has made the headlines during Trump’s Presidency have been prompted by his ill-will toward the country. In January of 2018, at the White House, while meeting with a group of senators about immigration, Trump reportedly referred to Haiti and a few other nations as “shithole countries.” The slur came as he expressed irritation with immigrants from the countries he insulted, as opposed to those from “places like Norway.” The President said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out,” to which an official reportedly responded, “Because if you do, it will be obvious why.”

A few days later, the Department of Homeland Security removed Haiti from a list of more than eighty countries whose citizens could be granted low-skilled-worker visas. In August of this year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cancelled the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program, under which Haitians eligible to receive their immigrant visas within two years were allowed to come early to the United States and live with relatives. Both the low-skilled-worker visas and the family reunification program were Obama initiatives.

Then, last month, after Hurricane Dorian devastated parts of the Bahamas, Trump ordered U.S. immigration officials to deny customary humanitarian visas to Bahamians seeking emergency refuge here. “The Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there,” he said. It was an obvious allusion to Haitians, thousands of whom have lived for years in the Bahamas in informal shantytowns, several of which were flattened by Dorian.

The Bahamian Prime Minister, Hubert Minnis, seemingly taking his cue from Trump, seized the opportunity to clear out the country’s Haitian population. He ordered work crews to bulldoze the tattered remnants of the Haitian settlements and the police to arrest and deport any undocumented Haitians they found. Regardless of how they had been affected by the storm, he announced, Haitians would be deported if they didn’t have documents proving their right to stay. Minnis also prohibited local businesses from hiring migrants without work permits, and, according to the Times, “Even those Haitians who were working legally but lost their jobs as a result of the storm were told that applications for new work permits must be filed from outside the Bahamas.”

Such treatment has triggered a shape-shifting pattern of emigration. As many as a hundred and twenty thousand Haitians have arrived in Chile in the past five years, drawn by a booming economy and a lax immigration system, which has been tightening. And there are now more than three thousand Haitians living in Tijuana, Mexico. Prevented from entering the United States after T.P.S. was halted for newcomers, the Haitians were encouraged to stay by the Mexican authorities, who gave them work permits. The city has a “Little Haiti,” with beauty parlors, restaurants, and shops, and many of the migrants are apparently planning to remain permanently. In the unfolding epic of Haitian survival, Tijuana is a rare success story.

Hilda Baker said that her country’s essential problem is chronic inequality. “Haitians have no choice but to work out a consensual plan for a social and economic reëngineering of the country,” she said. “It is time for Haitians to recognize their own failures, and the consensus to move forward must be to stop perpetuating an inequitable system that can no longer survive. The daily demonstrations show that a growing cross-section of Haitians are aware of the inequities. All of Haitian society must face the facts and allow the poor to have access to education, health, work, a roof over one’s head, and the possibility to move forward, to give people who have proven they can work hard the possibility of securing bank loans, and a little support from the state.”

Somewhere, between Baker’s lucid proposals, Maryse Pénette-Kedar’s forward-looking outline, Pamela White’s vision for a political transition under international custodianship, and Vicki Huddleston’s new Marshall Plan, are the probable building blocks for a new Haitian starting point. Therein lies the dilemma. How to start? One pessimistic international-relief official working in Haiti expressed disbelief that anything short of a revolution would affect change. The official doubted that there would be one, however, because of “the lack of unity amongst Haitians, and because, even though the riots and demonstrations are destructive, they’re never wide-scale enough to bring real change, but just enough to really hurt ordinary people.”

Last Tuesday, Moïse made an unexpected appearance at the National Palace. It was the first time he had been seen publicly since he appeared on television at 2 a.m., on September 25th, to call for a “truce” and for a “government of national unity.” He said that it would be “irresponsible” for him to step down before his term ends, in 2022, and reiterated his previous exhortations to the opposition “to enter into a dialogue” with him “to find a peaceful resolution” to Haiti’s political crisis.

Moïse’s reappearance coincided with the departure of the last of the United Nations peacekeepers, the small advisory group, given the grand title of U.N. Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, which replaced the much larger force, known as the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The police have assumed sole responsibility for security. Since the peacekeepers were first stationed in Haiti, in 2004, during the chaos that followed the fall of Aristide, their deployment cost the U.N. more than seven billion dollars. They had also earned a great deal of public animus after becoming embroiled in a number of scandals, including, in 2010, the deaths of thousands of Haitians from an outbreak of cholera, a disease that had been unknown in the country for nearly a century, after raw sewage from a camp housing Nepalese peacekeepers flowed into a river. Additionally, there were allegations of sexual abuse, including rape, and operations in which civilians, including women and children, were killed, in circumstances that remain uninvestigated. (One of the most violent incidents allegedly involved the Brazilian general Augusto Heleno, who is now the national-security adviser to President Jair Bolsonaro.) Even so, Ann Lee noted, “Without them, it’s even worse. They weren’t good, but they provided a modicum of security. And a modicum is better than nothing sometimes.”

Lee stressed that the international community urgently needs to come up with a new approach. “We need to get our act together, and actually support the will of the people of Haiti,” she said. “Even if right now they don’t know what that is." Maryse Pénette-Kedar agreed, saying, on Wednesday, “I think Haiti can be fixed, but not with the friends we have. The Americans don’t care about Haiti, for all their talk about democracy and elections here.” She added, “We’ve never had the right international friends, who talk to the right people in Haiti. They need to leave us alone to find our own leaders, and then we can find a way forward.”


Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer, began contributing to the magazine in 1998. He is the author of several books, including “The Fall of Baghdad.”


Posted Oct. 27, 2019