As headlines move beyond the initial shock of Haitian (de facto) President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination, the question looms of who will fill the so-called “power vacuum” in Haiti. In the immediate wake of the assassination, certain international observers cried out for “swift and muscular intervention,” while Claude Joseph, the self-appointed interim leader of the Haitian government, requested U.S. troops. The international community can now decide to chart a different course by listening to Haiti’s popular sector and to Haitians demanding a seat at their own table.
The possibility of foreign soldiers, yet again, occupying Haiti’s sovereign soil is but the most obvious symbol of how the international community dictates what happens in Haiti. The United States, the United Nations, and other powerful actors will play a pivotal role in Haiti’s immediate future, whether they send troops or not. Those clamoring for international action — and those with power to wield — should be haunted by the legacy of foreign influence in Haiti, and consider what it means when the actors “fixing” problems are the same ones who created them.
“Among the firefighters, were there none who started the fire?” Those were the words of Jean Dominique, the outspoken director of Haiti’s most prominent independent radio station, Radio Haïti-Inter, speaking of the 1994 U.S. invasion that restored democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. Aristide had been overthrown in a coup three years earlier, and though Dominique had worked for Aristide’s return, he worried that “the firefighter had a box of matches in his pocket in ’91.” The 1991 military coup that killed some 5,000 Haitians and displaced hundreds of thousands more was both the direct result and the long-term legacy of U.S. involvement in Haiti: the Forces Armées d’Haïti were originally created by the U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, and the military leaders who overthrew Aristide were trained and sponsored by the United States.
“Starting the fire,” as Dominique put it, meant much more than direct U.S. military intervention. From support of antidemocratic regimes, to neoliberal policies that drive Haitian farmers into poverty, to shaping the outcome of Haitian elections through “quiet diplomacy,” U.S. military, economic, and political influence cannot be teased apart. It is not only the threat of direct foreign military intervention in Haiti, but this entanglement of military, economic, and political force, to which Dominique’s warning still applies today.
The last time a Haitian president was assassinated, in 1915, it precipitated 19 years of U.S. occupation. Like those calling for intervention in Haiti today, the United States used “stability” as a justification for promoting U.S. economic and business interests. They rewrote the Haitian constitution to allow foreigners to own land, and replaced Haiti’s original army, born of enslaved people’s struggle for independence, with an army created to suppress dissent among its own citizens. The occupation brought about the return of the same kinds of exploitation that Haitians had destroyed when they became the world’s first independent Black republic little more than a century before.
Dominique was born in the final years of that occupation, and recalled his father taking his hand as they watched the Marines march by, saying, “Don’t look at them. Don’t look at them.” His father displayed the Haitian flag, telling his son, “That means that you are Haitian. That means that my great-grandfather fought at Vertières,” the decisive battle of the Haitian Revolution. “Never forget that. You are Haitian. You are from this land.”
From 1957 to 1986, Haiti was ruled by the totalitarian Duvalier regime, which remained in power through U.S. support. Whatever human rights abuses it committed against its own people, Haiti’s right-wing dictatorship was a U.S. Cold War ally, right next door to communist Cuba. After the dictatorship fell, it was replaced by a violent military government (also supported by the U.S. government) that slaughtered citizens en masse as they lined up in 1987 to vote in the nation’s aborted first democratic elections.
In 1990, Vice President Dan Quayle visited Haiti, where he met with military leaders and warned them, “My message is: no coup, no murders, no threats and instead, free and fair elections that will bring honor to the brave people of Haiti.” Jean Dominique was struck by the words spoken by the “Number Two of the empire,” reminding his listeners that those very Haitian officers were the “heirs” of the military established by the U.S. occupation 75 years earlier. Truly democratic elections wouldn’t happen until December 1990, which Aristide won in a landslide. Seven months after his inauguration, he was overthrown by the military — backed by the foreign “arsonists.”
Beyond the historical connections between the 1915-1934 occupation and abuses by the Haitian army, that occupation is part of a long trajectory of intervention, including the 2004-2017 U.N. occupation, the legacy of which includes a cholera epidemic, rape, and sexual exploitation. There are more guns in Haiti now than before U.N. intervention, and despite billions of dollars in international aid, most Haitians are deprived of basic human rights to shelter, food, health, education, and security. This legacy should give anyone outside of Haiti pause before clamoring for foreign intervention.
Any viable way forward must reckon with the painful irony of calls today for “free and fair” elections in a country whose original efforts to determine its own fate were met with invasion and monetary punishment from the slaveholding world. Haiti is not inherently poor or unstable — it was made poor and unstable. U.S. policy has continued to impoverish and destabilize Haiti by installing and propping up Moïse’s neo-Duvalierist PHTK party, which in turn incited mass displacement, physical and food insecurity, and a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. If the international community stops assuming that Haitians are incapable of self-determination, it becomes harder to justify interventions, like the U.N. occupation, that kill people in the name of “stability.”
“Il faut que les choses changent en Haïti!” declared Jean Dominique in one of Radio Haiti’s on-air spots. “Things must change in Haiti!” Dominique, who amplified the voices of marginalized Haitians and denounced impunity, was assassinated in 2000. What did he, and other fallen defenders of human rights and democracy, die for? Under Moïse, doctors, nurses, and university and high school students were killed in violence fomented by his increasingly authoritarian regime.
A week before Moïse became the latest victim of the insecurity he created, activist Antoinette Duclaire and journalist Diego Charles were murdered. There are many more victims, whose names we will never know. Haitians demand an end to legal impunity for elite actors, state provision of housing, schools, electricity, water, and hospitals, and land redistribution. Listening to the voices of Haitian people, past and present, is crucial to breaking the pattern of harmful international interventions that have contributed to the instability Haitians are forced to contend with today.