Written by Anoushka Patel
Edited by Annika Lilja
Once a country known for its overthrowing of French colonialism in 1791, Haiti has found itself in deep trouble. In 2023, Haiti is in a humanitarian crisis; violent gangs run amok, more than 600 people have been murdered this year, and 4.9 million people (almost half the country's population) are facing acute food insecurity. So, how has Haiti ended up in such a catastrophic position?
Many people blame Haiti’s lack of elected officials as the reason for the chaos. In January this year, the terms of Haiti’s 10 remaining senators expired, leaving Haiti without a single elected official. The country has been in political turmoil since the assassination of the president, Jovenel Moïse, in 2021, but Haiti’s crisis can be traced back much further. Haiti has not held functional elections since 2019, and its susceptibility to earthquakes led to 300,000 people to die in 2010, and more than 2000 people to die in 2021. Moïse was replaced by Haiti’s current president, Ariel Henry, who is viewed as illegitimate and has been unable to keep Haiti’s criminal gangs under control, due to Haiti’s shrinking police force and non-existent army. In September of 2022, the G9 gang coalition blockaded the main port and fuel terminal, after Henry caused fuel prices to double when he announced a cut to fuel subsidies. At a time when 1.8 million Haitians face emergency levels of hunger, Henry’s decisions have only emboldened criminal gangs, and left civilians feeling hopeless at the government’s lack of action.
Due to Haiti’s political abyss, gangs have rushed to fill the void. Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, has been subject to a brutal turf war where there are 95 gangs involved, and an estimated 60% of the capital is under their control. Kidnappings, murders, rapes and beatings are commonplace, and vigilantes have taken to killing gang members, frustrated by the barbarity of the criminals that have taken over their neighborhoods. According to the UN, more than 165,000 people are internally displaced in Haiti due to the violence.
Corruption in Haiti is widespread, with politicians openly discussing bribes and oligarchs monopolising resources and paying few taxes. This is not a new phenomenon - the Duvalier dictatorship from 1957-1968, led by François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, was characterised by the oppression of the Haitian people and the Duvalier’s thirst for money to fund their lavish lifestyle. Duvalier stashed away his stolen funds in banks in Switzerland, and the Swiss government estimated that Duvalier had stolen between $400 to $900 million during his rule. As of now, the Swiss government has yet to release these stolen funds to Haiti.
Haiti’s crisis can also be attributed to international intervention, including US occupation from 1915-1934. The National City Bank of New York had a vested interest in Haiti, and City Bank’s initial investments in Haiti came through their participation in the financing of dock and railway projects in 1910. They used these initial investments as a springboard to take over control of Haiti’s economy and financial system. Roger Farnham and John Allen (both managers at City Bank) were instrumental in this process, and were able to persuade the Secretary of State, William Bryan, to support the American takeover of customs in Haiti, as well as sending US Marines to take $500,000 worth in gold from Haiti’s national bank. The US took direct control of customs, banks, and the national treasury of Haiti and seized 40% of the government's revenue for the payment of debts to loans held by the US and France. Thousands of Haitians died as a result of the occupation, and it left Haiti trapped in a cycle of poverty.
France is also culpable for leaving Haiti in crippling debt. For generations after Haiti secured its independence in 1804, Haiti had been ordered to pay “reparations” to France, despite the French enslaving an estimated 500,000 Haitians. This has been aptly named Haiti’s “double debt” - in exchange for France allowing Haiti to be independent, Haiti would have to pay enormous sums of money to France, often exceeding the government’s total revenue. According to The New York Times, Haitians paid approximately $560 million to France, which fueled Paris’ fledgling banks and even funded ventures like the construction of the Eiffel Tower. This money could have been spent on developing Haiti to become as prosperous as its neighbour, the Dominican Republic – instead, Haiti has been saddled with mountains of debt, and remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
To describe their dire situation, Haitians have a word called “mize,” which translates to “misery.” With pitiful wages, lack of opportunities, starvation and the threat of gangs looming over them, it will take Haiti an awfully long time to crawl out of its miserable situation.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Haiti: Gangs use sexual violence to instill fear – UN report.” United Nations, 14th October 2022, https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/10/haiti-gangs-use-sexual-violence-instill-fear-un-report
France 24. “More than 600 people killed in Haiti gang violence in April, UN says.” France 24, 9th of May 2023, https://www.france24.com/en/americas/20230509-more-than-600-people-killed-in-haiti-gang-violence-in-april-un-says
UN News. “Nearly half of Haiti going hungry, new food security report warns.” United Nations, 30th May 2023, https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/05/1137152#:~:text=A%20total%20of%204.9%20million,a%20new%20UN%2Dsupported%20report.
Catherine Porter, Constant Méheut, Matt Apuzzo, Selam Gebrekidian. “The root of Haiti’s misery: reparations to enslavers.” The New York Times, 20th May 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/20/world/americas/haiti-history-colonized-france.html
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Tom Phillips, Harold Isaac. “‘It’s hell’: vigilantes take to Haiti’s streets in bloody reprisals against gangs.” The Guardian, 30th of April 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/30/haiti-port-au-prince-violence-gangs-police
Edwidge Danticat. “The long legacy of occupation in Haiti.” The New Yorker, 28th July 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/haiti-us-occupation-hundred-year-anniversary
IOM UN Migration. “Gang violence displaces 165,000 in Haiti, hinders aid efforts.” IOM UN Migration, 8th June 2023, https://www.iom.int/news/gang-violence-displaces-165000-haiti-hinders-aid-efforts