As anti-government demonstrations make headlines around the globe, dissidents in Haiti have been staging protests for over a year, in an effort to end the systematic corruption in the country.
Shifting tactics toward smaller, unplanned demonstrations, protesters hope their efforts will avoid a repeat of recent violence, which has resulted in several deaths.
At the same time, they are not backing down from their demands: that government officials be held accountable for embezzling money, including foreign aid, meant to help ordinary Haitians, and that foreign nations stop dictating how Haiti handles its domestic affairs.
“It’s about accountability, it’s about making politicians accountable to society,” said Emmanuela Douyon, a 29-year-old economist who lives in Port-au-Prince and has been participating in demonstrations. “In Haiti, we can fight corruption as well. And it’s about time they stop and listen to us.”
Haiti has seen poor economic conditions for decades, but in the past few years the situation has gotten much worse. High levels of inflation, soaring prices for basic goods and visible public corruption have ignited the mass movement of young Haitians who have taken to the streets.
The country has been on lockdown for months because of the civil unrest. Haitian children have been in school for the equivalent of just a couple of weeks this year, many only returning this week. The country has very little gasoline, a few hours of electricity a week, and some people can’t find even charcoal to cook any food they can get their hands on. Haitians are also still recovering from the 2010 earthquake and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, as well as a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 8,000 people.
Violence linked to gangs and clashes with police during protests has also hurt Haiti. Four people were shot and wounded at anti-corruption demonstrations last month in Port-au-Prince, after a speech by President Jovenel Moïse. In the speech, Moïse publicly acknowledged the killings of Haitian civilians in the Lasalin neighborhood of Port-au-Prince last year, and asked justice officials to look into the case. In early November, armed clashes blamed on gangs killed another 15 people in Port-Au-Prince’s Bel-Air neighborhood.
A year earlier, men in uniform entered the same neighborhood and opened fire, killing more than 20 people. Local rights groups and the United Nations linked the killings to gang members and police, and some tied it to the national government.
Last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution concerning the human rights situation in Haiti, “strongly condemn[ing] the brutal repression of recent peaceful protests by Haitian authorities, as well as the use of lethal force, arbitrary detainment, intimidation, harassment, and secual violence.”
Analysts say Haiti’s struggle for a sense of self-determination is resonating throughout the Americas, where protests are ongoing in Bolivia, Colombia and Chile.
“We cannot frame this as only, ‘Haiti is in crisis.’ All of Latin America is in crisis, and in fact the resistance itself is a global phenomenon that has been lead by Haiti for quite some time,” said Gina Athena Ulysse, a professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University.
Why are Haitians protesting?
The people of Haiti have been in the streets for nearly a year and a half, and protests have been on and off for much longer.
Discontent with systemic corruption, the impunity of the upper class, and a system that, protesters and ordinary Haitians say, structurally disadvantages the poorest among them has kept their protest movement going.
The demonstrators are united in their call for the resignation of Moïse, who was elected in 2016. But they don’t want government officials to flee the country. Haitian protesters want their officials to stay and face trial for allegedly embezzling public funds into their own pockets.
In 2006, Haiti signed the Petrocaribe agreement with Venezuela. Under that pact, the Haitian government could buy oil from Venezuela but only pay 60 percent of the cost upfront and defer the rest of the debt over the next 25 years. The program would supposed to allow Haiti to invest in crucial education and health-related development projects funded by domestic oil sales. But Haitians say they never saw the money.
Last August, Haitian filmmaker Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. tweeted a picture of himself blindfolded with a question: “Kot Kòb Petwo Kirbea a???” From Haitian creole that translates as “Where is the Petrocaribe money?” Soon after, the hashtag #KotKòbPetwoKaribea took off on Twitter and sparked more protests.
Beyond widespread concerns about corruption and the Petrocaribe controversy, analysts say the country is also facing a crisis of inequality. Haiti has one of the highest numbers of millionaires per capita in the Western Hemisphere, while the majority of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
The Haitian political and economic elite, or politique de doublure, control the country but manage to hide their influence. They are a group of Haitian families who have worked with authoritarian regimes, enriching their private companies through government contracts.
Ulysse said that it’s a small group of the elite that controls resources and everything else, while the mass population lives way below the poverty line.
More than 3.5 million Haitians are experiencing crisis and emergency levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations. In an interview last month, Moïse said the country is in a “humanitarian crisis” and needs emergency aid support.
“You can never be well if other people around you are not well. So it’s a matter of everyone having the opportunity,” said Velina Charlier, a 29-year-old protestor.
Meanwhile, the country’s leadership is in disarray. In March, lawmakers voted to oust Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant over the many unsolved problems roiling the nation. Since then, all of Moïse’s official nominations for prime minister have been rejected by the opposition. Despite all of this, Moïse has resisted calls to step down.
In addition to pushing back on their own government, demonstrators in Haiti are protesting against what they see as foreign meddling in domestic affairs — protestors say Moïse would not still be in power without international aid and support.
Distrust of foreign intervention
Multiple incidents over the years have left Haitians distrustful of other nations’ governments and even nonprofit groups.
In the wake of the 2010 earthquake, for example, the Haitian government received $13.5 billion in humanitarian aid. That aid was essentially placed in a trust fund account managed by former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, without giving the Haitian government any decision-making role.
“After the earthquake, these big numbers were floated around, $5 billion, $10 billion from donor conferences, but very little of that money arrived in Haiti and even less of it benefited the poor,” said Robert Maguire, author of “Who Owns Haiti?: People, Power, and Sovereignty.”
In post-earthquake Haiti, the re-opening of hotels was touted as an achievement. But critics point to the Best Western Premier in Port-au-Prince as a symbol of how foreign investment did not help the country. Though it had been the first U.S.-branded hotel to open in the country in more than a decade, it later closed in October 2019.
“For a Haitian, an NGO is an organization of white people who ride around in fancy cars and make promises,” Maguire said.
An entire generation of Haitians have come into adulthood seeing government corruption play out repeatedly, foreign policy analysts note.
“They’ve seen the foreign aid that comes in — whether for reconstruction or development — just go missing. So they don’t trust the international community or the government,” said Greg Beckett, a cultural anthropologist at Western University whose research focuses on Haiti. “They don’t believe the solutions they’re being sold again and again will solve the crisis.”
In 2018, facing the collapse of the Petrocaribe program, the Haitian government sought financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund. To receive the money, Haiti had to agree to implement reforms that included an end to energy subsidies. That caused fuel prices to spike and inspired more people to join the protests.
Then the IMF put on hold a $229 million loan to the country in June, citing changes in the “economic situation” of the country.
After officials from the IMF visited Haiti last week, they warned that, “A continuation of the current political crisis would have devastating consequences for the country over the longer-term owing to the likely losses of physical and human capital.”
Beckett said Haiti’s reliance on international groups like the IMF for aid is creating a “crisis of sovereignty.”
Basic decisions “can’t be made by the Haitian government without approval from those who fund its budget abroad,” he said.
On top of all this, the UN last month ended its 15-year-long peacekeeping mission, even as it expressed concerns about the continued protests. Now, most hospitals don’t have enough oxygen for patients, which the UN had been delivering to hospitals across the country.
The U.S. response
Moïse gained the favor of the Trump administration in January 2019, when his government voted not to recognize the legitimacy of the regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela at a meeting of the Organization of American States, or OAS.
“The United States wanted one thing from Moïse, and that was a vote from OAS to isolate Maduro, and they got it,” said Robert Fatton, a politics professor at the University of Virginia.
At the same time, President Donald Trump has sent mixed signals about U.S. policy on Haiti.
Also in November, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft visited Haiti and met with Moïse. She tweeted that he and other government officials “have an obligation to put aside differences and find an inclusive solution to benefit the people of #Haiti. The United States stands ready to support.”
But Fatton said that the Trump administration appears to have no interest in getting involved.
While avoiding any public criticism of Moïse, the U.S. has occasionally provided emergency assistance during the current crisis. The U.S. Agency for International Development distributed 2,000 tons of food through the UN, and the U.S. Naval Ship Comfort arrived in Haiti to provide medical assistance to the country.
U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison helped distribute the aid. At the National Alliance for the Advancement of Haitian Professionals Conference last week, Sison said the country needs investment.
Haitians say they also want investment — as long as they have control over what happens to the money, and there is a policy in place domestically to invest in already-existing social programs.
It’s unclear what could push the country out of its standstill. The president has said he’s not going anywhere. Protestors say they won’t budge, either.
Demonstrators promise ongoing street protests even if Moïse steps down.
“We will keep asking for a trial to make sure politicians are accountable. We are not going to close our eyes to this,” said Douyon, one of the protesters.
They emphasize that Haiti’s entire governance system needs to be reformed, and say they have a transition framework for what happens after Moïse.
“The system is not for us. It’s for politicians to come in, get rich, and do all kinds of corrupt activities in accord with the private sector,” said Daphne Valmond-Bourgoin, a 40-year-old protester.
The protesters are a mix of young Haitians, Petrochallengers — who are focused on demanding accountability for the Petrocaribe scandal — and opposition groups who want to take over if Moïse resigns. But there are also divisions among the protesters — some accuse opposition group leaders of monopolizing on the uprising for their own political gain.
“Some of those in the political opposition are as corrupt as the president — but our plan is for us to take over, the young people,” Charlier said.
Watchers are concerned about what would follow Moïse’s departure. What kind of government would take over, and what would be the position of the international community, particularly the United States?
“I think as bad as things are now, there are people who fear that if Moïse goes there will be a power vacuum. You can create a constitutional committee, but under what authority?” said Marlene Daut, a professor in African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia.
And yet young people all over the country are picturing a new reality for their country, one shaped by struggle and lack of autonomy.
“All they’ve ever known is a so-called democracy or liberal state backed by the U.S. and other powers, and it has catastrophically failed them,” Beckett said.
Now, young Haitians say, when a shift in power comes, they are primed to lead.
“When the time comes for the next election, we have a new generation of honest, young people willing to run,” Charlier said.