Crisis in Haiti once more prompts U.S. intrusion
Men accompany a coffin containing the body of a demonstrator killed in a protest, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The country's largest opposition groups have united in a campaign to push U.S.-backed President Jovenel Moïse from office with nationwide protests. Dieu Nalio Chery | AP

Political turmoil is rocking Haiti. It’s the “most serious political and economic crisis in a decade,” according to analyst Kim Ives. Recurring street protests by enraged Haitians have continued after a general strike in July 2018. Fueling the demonstrations are increased fuel and food prices, shortages, and governmental corruption.

Haitians are the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. Income inequality ranks fourth in the world. One child in five is malnourished. Fifty percent of children don’t attend school. Wealthy deal makers monopolize political power. They utilize U.S. loans, advisors, and aid organizations’ goodwill for mollifying the population. Their specialties are privatization schemes, financial sleight of hand, and corruption.

The government of President Jovenel Moïse, in power since 2017, may soon end. Responding to mounting turbulence, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio and State Department officials David Hale and Cynthia Kierscht made separate visits to Haiti in March. They were seeking dialogue, new elections, and U.S. investments, reports Ives. President Moïse recently conferred with President Trump, meeting with him in Florida on March 22 and joined by four Caribbean leaders supportive of U.S. attacks on Venezuela.

A bizarre episode played out recently, as if from the shadows of the U.S.-Haiti relationship. Having arrived in a small plane loaded with guns, hired U.S. thugs headed on a Sunday in February to the Central Bank of Haiti. Their plan was to move $80 million from an account holding Venezuelan PetroCaribe monies to an account controlled by President Moïse. Instead, they landed briefly in prison only to be released courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

They were a mixed bag. One organizer was a Brooklyn resident and friend of President Moïse. The group included a former U.S. Marine pilot, two former Navy SEALs, a former Blackwater contractor, and two Serbian nationals.

The ongoing protests have centered recently on corruption. A news report of March 27 names wheelers and dealers long suspected of corruption. Among them were associates of President Moïse and of former President Michel Martelly. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had engineered the latter’s election in 2011.

The corruption at issue relates to Venezuela’s PetroCaribe initiative that has benefited Haiti since 2007. Haiti received inexpensive oil which the government, in theory, could sell at prices high enough to pay for socially useful projects. Venezuela allowed for a 25-year delay on repaying 40 percent of the total bill.

Haitian Senate investigators in 2016 and 2017 revealed that of the $4 billion derived from the oil program, almost $2 billion was unaccounted for, presumably diverted into private hands. Haiti has paid Venezuela only a fraction of its immediate obligations. Its participation in PetroCaribe ended in 2018, mainly because from 2016 on, U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela prevented Haiti from paying on debts owed to the oil-supplying nation.

Haiti’s loss of PetroCaribe oil played into the street protests that began in 2018. Unable to afford oil on the world market, Haiti had secured a loan from the U.S. and European controlled International Monetary Fund. The IMF prescribed austerity and thus higher gasoline prices. The U. S. – controlled Inter-American Development Bank provided loans likewise conditioned on no more subsidized fuel prices.

The government of Jovenel Moïse received an additional black mark in January 2019 when it backed a U.S. plan for the Organization of American States to delegitimize Venezuela. Haitians recall that Bolivarian Venezuela responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by canceling $295 million in debt owed by Haiti.

The Haiti situation is volatile in other ways. United Nations troops will be ending 15 years of occupation on April 15. And former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide recently delivered a speech, which he has rarely done since returning from exile in Africa in 2011.

Aristide, a politically progressive former Catholic priest, heads the Lavalas Family political party, which has stayed aloof from the popular mobilizations. Elected president in 1990 and quickly removed in a coup, Aristide returned as president in 1994 under the protection of U.S. troops. He won reelection in 2000 but was removed in a U.S. and Canadian-orchestrated coup in 2004. Speaking on March 31, Aristide inveighed against imperialism and demanded justice for victims of the PetroCaribe scandal.

A key question is that of U.S. motivations. The U.S. government has relied primarily on military solutions for problems like mass migrations and chaos following the 2010 earthquake. Should a forceful leftist movement emerge, headed perhaps by Aristide, the historical record suggests probable resort once more to military means for at least neutralizing it. On the agenda would be strong-arm measures employed to maintain imperial control of a subject people. But more is involved.

History reveals an intensity of U.S. purpose uniquely applied to Haiti. Other Caribbean islands and nations also experience ramped-up attention, but they are “enemies” like Cuba and Venezuela, or an ally like Colombia, or a big economic player and nursery of migrants like Mexico. Something is different about Haiti. Setting aside Ronald Reagan’s preposterous invasion of Grenada in 1983, other Caribbean peoples seem to get by without provoking significant U.S. concern of any kind.

Once enslaved Africans had rebelled and in 1804 established an independent nation, the United States did not forget. Slaveholder motivations of revenge propelled continuation of diplomatic non-recognition and a trade embargo over many decades. And a brutal military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 speaks of intense U.S. purpose, and so too does U.S. backing for the criminal Duvalier-era father-and-son dictatorships.

The United States, of course, is no stranger to race hatred. Surely it’s no coincidence that the U.S. government, looking into its “backyard” of less worthy nations, applies special treatment to the only independent nation there existing for black people (although other island nations, such as Jamaica, also have majority black populations). But Haiti can be useful: By showing off misery unique to Haiti, the U.S. government can demonstrate the pain other peoples might face should the almighty United States be displeased.


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.