The Foreign Roots of Haiti’s “Constitutional Crisis”

Photograph Source: Medyalokal – CC BY-SA 4.0

As per usual, news on Haiti in the U.S. remains limited, except for periods of ‘crisis.’ As if on cue, U.S. media began reporting on Haiti’s “constitutional crisis” this week.

Sunday, February 7, is the end of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse’s term according to the constitution. He refuses to step down. Last week, the opposition called for a two-day general strike, uniting around a transition with the head of Haiti’s Supreme Court stepping in.

Most reporting failed to note the international role, and particularly the U.S., in creating this “crisis.” And nearly all focused only on one segment of the opposition: leaders of Haiti’s political parties.

Predictably, foreign media led their stories with violence. True, the security situation is deteriorating: Nou Pap Dòmi denounced 944 assassinations in the first eight months of 2020. But leaving the discussion at “gang violence” whitewashes its political dimensions: on January 22, leaders of the so-called “G9” (the group of 9), a federation of gangs led by former police officer Jimmy Chérisier (a.k.a. “Barbecue”) held a march in defense of the Haitian president. Human rights organization RNDDH reported in August 2020 that the government federated them in the first place.

This “gangsterization” occurred without Parliamentary sanction, since January 13, 2020 – a day after the tenth anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake – Parliament’s terms ended, leaving President Moïse to rule by decree. One such decree in November, as the wave of kidnapping increased, outlawed forms of protest, calling it “terrorism.”

Readers in the U.S. should not need to be reminded of white supremacists’ violent attack on Congress and the U.S. Constitution on January 6 that killed at least 6, on the heels of other coup attempts in Michigan and other vigilante attacks. In the U.S., police killed 226 Black people last year. The irony of U.S. officials opining on violence, democracy, or rule of law, is apparently invisible to some readers.

In addition to parallels of state violence against Black people in the U.S. and Haiti, missing from most stories are specific roles played by previous U.S. administrations – from both parties – in fomenting and increasing it.

Haiti’s ruling Tèt Kale party got their start in 2011, when bawdy carnival singer Michel Martelly was muscled into the election’s second round by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the United Nations Special Envoy and co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) Bill Clinton.

This support from the Clintons, the U.S., and the so-called “Core Group” (including France, Canada, Brazil, the European Union and the Organization of American States [OAS]), never wavered, despite the increasingly clear slide toward authoritarianism. In 2012, Martelly installed mayors in all but a handful of towns with allies. Then Parliament’s terms expired in 2015, the five-year anniversary of the earthquake, with promises to hold elections never materializing. The election that did finally lead to Martelly’s hand-picked successor, Jovenel Moïse, was fraudulent, yet the U.S. and Core Group continued to play along – and offer financial support – until finally the electoral commission formally called for its annullment. Because of international pressure, the final round was held weeks after Hurricane Matthew ravaged large segments of the country, with the lowest voter turnout in the country’s history.

Why would so-called ‘democratic’ countries continue to support the Tèt Kale state? What was in it for empire?

Having to thank his friends in high places, Martelly’s reconstruction effort focused on providing opportunities for foreign capitalist interests in tourism, agribusiness,sweatshops, and mining. Not surprisingly, donors to the Clinton Global Initiative made off like (legal) bandits.[1] Ironically $4 billion for this disaster capitalism was Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program, offering low-cost oil and low-interest loans. With the Haitian State safely under the Clintons’ watch, the transformative potential of this alternative to neoliberal globalization and example of South-South solidarity was squandered. Cue foreign mainstream media’s focus solely on “corruption” of this complex movement demanding #KotKobPetwoKaribe? Where did the funds from PetroCaribe go?

This popular movement was an extension of the uprising against International Monetary Fund imposed austerity. On July 6, 2018, during the World Cup, the Haitian government announced a price hike for petroleum products. Right after Brazil lost the match, the people took to the streets – all across the country – and shut it down. In Kreyòl, this was the first peyi lòk – lockdown or general strike.

Faced with this popular swell of dissent that for the first time in my twenty years working in Haiti brought together people from every socioeconomic status, at one point reaching 2 million people across the country (out of a population of 11 million), the government increasingly turned to violence, including a massacre in Lasalin, a low-income neighborhood near the port and a stronghold for the party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

I was in Haiti during the 2003-4 coup. Comparing the people on the streets then and now, Jovenel Moïse would have been forced out by November, 2018, and certainly would have been gone by February 7, 2019, two years ago.

So why is he still in office?

Like his predecessor “Sweet Micky,” Martelly’s stage name, the “Banana Man” as Moïse was known during the campaign, had friends in high places. President Trump met with Moïse and other right-of-center hemispheric heads of state at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Haiti was crucial in the U.S. ouster of Venezuela from the OAS. Despite the billions in aid from Venezuela, and bilateral cooperation that began in 1815 when Haitian president Alexandre Pétion provided crucial arms and support for Simón Bolívar, President Moïse sided with Trump. In 1960, Haitian president “Papa Doc” Duvalier – whom history and solidarity movements judged as a dictator – did the same thing to Cuba, and the U.S. generously rewarded him.

Given the new White House occupant, and campaign promises to the key battleground state of Florida, one might think that President Biden would reverse course vis-à-vis Haiti. Why, then, would Immigrations and Customs Enforcement continue to deport 1800 people, some not even born in Haiti, sending not one, but two, deportation flights this Thursday?

Making the connections, The Family Advocacy Network Movement (FANM) sent an open letter denouncing both forms of state violence and violations of human rights.

Voices within Haiti amplified in foreign corporate media are political parties. The Kolektif Anakawona outlined three other – much larger – segments. On November 29, popular organization coalition Konbit issued a five-language call for solidarity. Batay Ouvriye outlined popular demands for whomever takes office. A group of professionals, FPSPA, denounced the United Nations’ rushing elections and their support for what they qualify as a dictatorship. David Oxygène, with popular organization MOLEGHAF, critiqued the political party consensus as olye yon lit de klas, se yon lit de plas. Rather than a class struggle, it’s a struggle for position (power). Both he and Nixon Boumba underscore that the opposition plan is a short-term solution, when Haitian movements are asking for long-term solutions, changing the system. Activist journalist Jean Claudy Aristil and others point out the fundamental hypocrisy and limits of “Western democracy.” Moneyed interests – including imperial powers – who dominate the political process in Haiti are by no accident the same transnational capitalist class who have rigged the system in the U.S., the model for other political systems in the Americas.

These Haitian activists and scholars are not asking for U.S. intervention in support of what Oxygène called 2 zèl yon menm malfini – two wings of the same vulture.

They are asking for us to dismantle imperial interference and join them in transforming our institutions so that people-to-people solidarity and a democratic global economy can then be possible.


[1] One of Martelly’s albums was called Bandi Legal, “Legal Bandits” – see Sabine Lamour’s forthcoming essay in North American Congress on Latin America

Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts.