The World This Year

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The World This Year
Haiti in 2023: The Humanitarian Crisis

  Aprajita Kashyap
Aprajita Kashyap is a faculty of Latin American Studies, School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi.

Haiti has descended into a multidimensional crisis marked by political deadlock, extreme violence and dire humanitarian conditions. Toussaint Louverture, the Black rebel leader who forced the abolition of slavery in Haiti paved the way to independence and helped precipitate the downfall of European colonialism in the Western hemisphere. The US occupation between 1915 and 1934 followed by the Duvalier dictatorship from 1957 to 1986 had worsened the scenario. Haiti, the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to have attained independence and proponent of the first ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is now at the mercy of the world. The country lacks a single democratically elected official as the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Ariel Henry struggles to reach a political settlement with opposition groups to organize elections. Politically connected criminal gangs have taken over an estimated 80 per cent of Port-au-Prince, the capital, fuelling unprecedented levels of violence.

Major Developments in 2023
First, the 2018 crisis and its fallouts in 2023. In 2018, when Haitians took to the streets to protest against the theft by Jovenel Moïse and his political allies of money from a development fund linked to Petro Caribe, a now-defunct Venezuelan program that sold oil to countries in the Caribbean and Central America. An investigation by the Haitian senate has found that 1.7 billion US dollars disbursed over eight years had been grossly mismanaged or stolen. Moïse faced criticism throughout his term, which, according to Haiti's constitutional calendar, should have ended in February 2021. But, instead of holding an election, he stayed in office, leading to further protests. No functional elections have been held since 2019.

The assassination of the country's President, Jovenel Moïse, in July 2021 exacerbated political and economic fragility that facilitated the ability of gangs to grow their power and take over its capital, bringing daily life to a standstill. Since January 2023, no single elected government official has held a position. A cumulative impact of diverse problems has further pushed Haiti into a cesspit.

Second, natural calamities and diseases. Famine, earthquakes, heavy rainfall and massive flooding have ravaged Haiti. Diseases like cholera have accompanied these calamities. The local government cannot respond due to inadequate equipment, medicines, and crumbling health infrastructure. The associated diseases like cholera, TB and HIV/AIDS are compounding the crisis. Multiple factors, including social unrest and power outages, have also affected public health infrastructure and health security. 

Third, food insecurity. Haitians are finding it increasingly difficult to afford food amid soaring inflation. Nearly five million have to skip meals or make other compromises to eat. Aid workers cannot reach or support those in need because of gang violence. Factors like climate change responsible for extreme weather events like drought, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and soaring prices of food, fuel and fertilizer due to the conflict in Ukraine have added towards worsening the situation.

Fourth, gang violence. Another development is proliferating gang violence, especially activities by the notorious coup leader Guy Philippe, who returned to Haiti in November 2023 after the US government repatriated him. His presence could unleash further upheaval in a country already reeling from gang violence and political instability. It is unclear what role Philippe would play after his return to Haiti. Philippe was a charismatic leader who was instrumental in the 2004 rebellion against former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and had powerful ties to police, politicians and the business elite, said Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics expert and professor at the University of Virginia.

Fifth, economic downslide. Haiti is under siege by gangs that grew powerful amidst the political vacuum created after the assassination of President Moïse. Natural disasters, disease and political instability have diverted the sparsely available funds from development to address these imminent threats. Besides, mismanagement of humanitarian relief and a depreciation of the gourde, Haiti's currency, have further strained the economy. Revenues from tourism, which was once a vibrant earning sector, have declined. Fuel shortages are rampant. The population now is surviving at a meagre USD two per day and relies on aid.

Sixth, peacekeeping operations. The UN has decided that a 'time-bound, specialized and human-rights compliant support force' would be deployed by the international community in the country. This decision has many ramifications. Haiti, which has suffered due to international interference throughout its history, may not accept this as the best solution. The apprehension is that this translates to discussing intervention in Haiti again. In October 2023, the UN Security Council convened a historic meeting where it authorized the deployment of an international security force led by Kenya to assist the Haitian national police in addressing gang violence and restoring stability and accountability. Additionally, a report by the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) has called for urgently deploying the Multinational Security Support Mission, already authorized by the UN Security Council in October, by international human rights norms and standards. Furthermore, the report emphasizes strengthening Haiti's institutions of the rule of law, specifically the police, the judiciary, and the prison system.

Major Issues in 2023
First, the demand for foreign intervention. In the Freedom House Index, Haiti stands at 31 out of 100, which translates to being 'not free'. The incumbent Haitian government is not a proper stand-in for its people. Headlines such as "Haiti calls for help" are misleading. Thousands of Haitians across the country have objections to the idea of foreign intervention, even though it may be for humanitarian reasons, rejecting Ariel Henry's effort and demanding his resignation. Though sending foreign troops to Haiti might halt violence and temporarily restore basic governance, it would only be a stop-gap arrangement and not a long-term solution. Intervention would not be able to address the 'root causes of a social structure' that is distinctive to the social realities in Haiti that have cyclically produced gang leaders who lead mass uprisings resulting in government overthrows.

Second, reparations claims from France. Haiti had to pay reparations to France after 1825, spending nearly 40 per cent of government revenue. The former slaves, and not the French slaveholders, were forced to pay reparations. Haitians compensated their oppressors and their oppressors' descendants for the privilege of being free. It took Haiti more than a century to pay off its reparation debts. The United States worked to isolate a newly independent Haiti during the early 19th century and violently occupied the island nation for 19 years in the early 20th century. While the US officially left Haiti in 1934, it controlled Haiti's public finances until 1947, siphoning away around 40 per cent of Haiti's national income to service debt repayments to the US and France. After the 2010 earthquake completely devastated Haiti, scholars wrote to the French President demanding that France pay back Haiti. In support of this demand, French economist Thomas Piketty resurrected the idea in 2020, arguing that France owes Haiti at least USD 28 billion. For France's role in Haitian history, this claim appears justified.

Third, socio-economic problems. The feedback loops that reproduce Haiti's crises cannot be problematized. Many issues identified in this paper- the lack of distributive justice, rising urbanization, scarcity of food and fuel, diseases due to natural calamities, and political interruption by domestic and foreign elites- have made the situation complex. Much of the developing world currently experiences these issues; what makes the Haitian situation deplorable is the unpleasant patriarchal, colonialist institutions that have posed an existential threat to democratic efforts. 

2024: Looking Ahead
The US, France, Canada, members of the Caribbean Community, and other concerned governments have been asked by the UN to urgently support Haiti in overcoming its crisis and ensuring a democratic transition. Foreign intervention can be allowed, led by the Canadian government, which has not ruled out participating in a foreign deployment, if there is a consensus across political parties in Haiti. Canada has more acceptability due to its liberal internationalism and middle powermanship, which will hopefully work. Haiti may not have objections to Canada's mediation in the crisis. With the deployment of a consensual international force to help restore security, Kenya has taken the lead and provided 1,000 police officers for a multinational force.

The world, especially the better-off Latin American countries, should begin to accept more Haitian refugees. This would not only be a humane policy that would improve their future lives. It would also boost the Haitian economy. According to the World Bank, Haitian expatriates sent three billion dollars in remittances back home to Haiti in 2018.

Ending the local gang's power with a meagre army and understaffed police force seems difficult. To tackle this, strengthening the National Police with UN intervention in recruitment would be a worthwhile exercise. Besides, clamping a check on Ariel Henry's power is essential given the trend of the government towards authoritarianism. Stopping the flow of drugs and arms that are fuelling the violence needs attention, too. 

Free and fair elections are the only path and the only imperative to restore democratic institutions in Haiti. Holding meaningful elections through UN intervention in Cambodia's patterns would bring about meaningful democracy. Ushering in democracy and adherence to the rule of law can form the basis for Haiti's development and growth. Empowering the police is a prerequisite for holding a credible and inclusive vote, and deploying the multinational force brings hope that things will improve.  

There is a disconnect between Toussaint Loverture's dreams and the state in which Haiti is now. While it is imperative to defuse the increasing gang violence somehow and address the roots of gangsterism in Haitian culture, this in itself will not resolve the Haitian crisis. A policy option to change the cultural mindset of patriarchal colonialism and foreign-bred elitism is difficult to envisage. 

About the authors
Aprajita Kashyap is a faculty of Latin American Studies, School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. 

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