Back to the future in Haiti
Cholera, violence, and calls for international ‘peacekeepers.’ Where have I seen this movie before?
Before today’s issue, a programming note: For the past year, Substack corporate has supported The Racket with a Getty Images subscription and, most importantly, a part-time freelance editor — currently the great Tommy Craggs. That support is, unexpectedly, being cut off this month. I’m told this is a universal cutback; no idea if that’s true. Regardless it’s a real blow. Unlike some Substackers I could name, I like being edited. Every writer — and every reader! — benefits from the pushback and honing a good editor provides.
But I figure if I can bring in at least fifteen more paid annual subscriptions, I can keep working with Tommy for another year on my own dime. Everyone will get the quality they’ve come to expect. And of course if you pony up for one of those, you’ll get every issue, enjoy full access to the archives, and other paid-subscriber-only benefits. And have my thanks. Sign up here:
Tomorrow is Columbus Day, the anniversary of when the Genoese captain and his mostly Spanish crew stumbled onto what they thought was a island in Asia. Two months later, they landed on a much bigger island to the south and began setting up the first European colony in what would be called the Americas. The settlers dubbed that larger island Hispaniola. The people living there already had a name for it: Haïti, the mountainous place.
Five hundred and thirty years later, the site of the original Columbusing still suffers from an unbroken cycle of predation, exploitation, and imperial neglect. Currently, Haiti is in the neglect phase. Over a year after the assassination of its president, the country is being run, nominally, by a checked-out, unelected prime minister — appointed via Washington-approved press release — as cities including the capital, Port-au-Prince, strain under the control of murderous gangs.
Kidnapping and assassination are rampant. Gangsters are blocking access to Port-au-Prince’s international airport, shipping port, and gas terminal. Cholera, which killed upwards of 10,000 Haitians in the past decade, is back, with hundreds of suspected cases so far. At least 20 prisoners have died in the squalid national penitentiary of cholera and malnutrition in recent days. (Most prisoners in Haiti have never seen a judge, much less been convicted of a crime.)
This week, that prime minister, Ariel Henry, tried clicking that cycle forward when his government called for the intervention of a “specialized armed force.” In other words, the return of foreign troops — most likely United Nations peacekeepers, of the kind that occupied Haiti for thirteen years, from 2004 to 2017. The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) did suppress gangs (and anyone loyal to the ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide), then remained for another decade to systematically crack down on democracy and dissent, while doing functionally nothing to rebuild from the string of catastrophes that unfolded during its tenure. Oh, and it was MINUSTAH that introduced cholera to Haiti in the first place.
As Haiti’s biggest newspaper, the Nouvelliste, noted in an editorial, Henry’s request also evokes other moments of international — generally U.S. or U.S.-led — force, dating back to the 1915 invasion in which Smedley Butler took part. That invasion, too, was justified in the name of security; it followed the assassination of Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The treaty legalizing the invasion began:
Whereas a Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of Haiti having for its objects the strengthening of the amity existing between the two countries, the remedying of the present condition of the revenues and finances of Haiti, the maintenance of the tranquillity of that Republic, and the carrying out of plans for its economic development and prosperity, was concluded and signed by their respective Plenipotentiaries at Port-au-Prince …
This treaty of “amity” and “tranquility” was imposed at gunpoint. It resulted in a brutal 19-year-occupation, which ended in 1934. The next decade, during World War II, the U.S. anchored ships, built a railway using Lend-Lease funds, and stationed a Coast Guard detachment. In 1948, the newly formed U.N. sent one of its first technical missions to the Black republic. The U.S. Army supported the rise of the dictator François Duvalier in 1957, as a check against suspected Marxist influence. From 1959 to 1963, a U.S. Naval Mission was on the island, until its commanders realized Duvalier was siphoning their weapons for his own private guard, the Tonton Makout. After the 1986 overthrow of François’ son, Jean-Claude, there was a succession of coups and violent reprisals, followed by U.S. invasions and U.N. “peacekeeping” missions: the United Nations International Civilian Mission in Haiti (MICIVIH) in 1993; the U.S. invasion of 1994; the United Nations (military) Mission in Haiti (UNMIH) of 1993–1996; the U.S.-French-Canadian invasion of 2004; then the 17 years of MINUSTAH; and finally the police-led U.N. Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), which was disbanded in 2019. In between them all came periods of deprivation and neglect, in which promised aid was withheld, austerity imposed, and the imperium focused on rounding up and forcibly repatriating anyone who manages to get out without approval.
As the Organization of American States (the Washington-based consortium of what Columbus’ successors called the New World) noted in a recent statement: “The last 20 years of the international community's presence in Haiti has amounted to one of the worst and clearest failures implemented and executed within the framework of any international cooperation.”
That statement included this insightful line:
Without the basic conditions of democracy and security, the country today is suffering from the international community’s lack of ideas and real capacity, as well as from its own structural problems. This is the international community that never knew if it should leave the MINUSTAH in place or remove it, an international community that thought that contributing money was the same as having ideas, an international community that thought that paying its own consultants would solve Haitians’ problems. Obviously none of that was possible and none of this is possible.
Those same bureaucrats, unable to get out of their own way, blamed “internal forces—with external complicity—that wanted MINUSTAH withdrawn,” arguing that, “doing so simply paved the way for a situation like the one we have today.” Now many of those “internal forces” are clamoring for another turn of the wheel, back to international force:
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres endorsed that call, recommending the Security Council again deploy troops to “help the country address immense humanitarian concerns.” It is not up to him, of course; the Security Council would have to approve the measure — and the Security Council is not exactly a paragon of unanimity, nor likely inclined to focus on the Caribbean at the moment.
I’m a broken record here, but I have to point out once again that there is a proposed solution to the crisis, from Haitian civil society — one that does not require foreign troops. It’s called the Commission for a Haitian-Led Solution to the Crisis, and its recipe is fairly straightforward: a representative National Transitional Council (on which the commissioners who crafted the proposal have promised not to serve), leading to elections and a return to democratic government. It is the sort of thing that, if handled correctly, and with proper redistribution of resources, could help break the pattern. But so far, those with real power over Haiti, focused for now on neglect, have shown no interest in even trying to find a solution of any kind. They’re likely waiting until they feel they have no choice but to do something, at which point the cycle will begin once more.
Edited by Tommy Craggs
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