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Dhaka Tribune

Haiti on my mind

Studying Haiti's plight serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a government loses control of law and order, and as an exemplar of state failure

 

Update : 16 Mar 2024, 11:31 AM

Haiti is competing with other headline-grabbing news in the world today. A country of 11 million people is held hostage by rival gangs where the government is all but dysfunctional and the UN is trying to deploy a police force from Kenya to restore order.

Haiti’s land and resources attracted colonizers. Christopher Columbus and his crew landed at the island of San Salvador and as they searched for gold, they were directed to Haiti which was rich in gold.  

Haiti today is plagued by a dysfunctional government, resembling a failed state; its society torn apart by factionalism, and its land ravaged by a series of natural and man-made disasters in recent years. The catastrophic earthquake of 2010 claimed around 300,000 lives, followed by a devastating cholera outbreak. 

On July 7, 2021, the country's democratically-elected president Jovenal Moise was gunned down in his residence by Colombian mercenaries in a targeted assassination. Despite promises of elections, his successor, Prime Minister Ariel Henry repeatedly postponed elections using spiralling violence as an excuse.

Studying Haiti's plight serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a government loses control of law and order, and as an exemplar of state failure, where rampant corruption and foreign interference have allowed armed gangs to seize control of 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince, leaving the government with a mere 20% foothold.

At one level, Haiti is a classic case of interlacing problems of disasters such as earthquake, typhoons, epidemics, corruption, resource misuse, political failure, and foreign intervention. 

At another level, Haiti is the first colony that was successful in overthrowing the yoke of the foreign rule back in 1803 and became the first post-colonial, self-ruled society as of January 1, 1804. 

Haiti is the second country after the United States to overthrow colonial rule in the world.

Yet, for long, Eurocentric historical studies marginalized Haiti as a post-colonial republic that was successful in defeating Napoleon’s military that overthrew slavery and colonialism at the same time. Independent Haiti was the first country in history to be ruled by the subalterns, the former slaves. 

Haiti was a trailblazer for the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean region in their struggle for independence from colonial rule in the early part of the Nineteenth century. 

Haiti's journey to independence was marred by a dark legacy, including reparations paid to France for lost slave labour and property -- a stark contrast to the reparations demanded by former colonies today. 

Moreover, Haiti's struggles were exacerbated by foreign meddling, including the 1915–1934 US occupation, which left a bitter imprint on the nation's history.  The departure of the US was not the end of its continued hegemony.

The Duvaliers, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986 with the blessing of the US administration. Their regime, particularly during Papa Doc's tenure, was characterized by authoritarianism, human rights abuses, and the establishment of the Tonton Macoutes as a paramilitary force to suppress opposition and maintain control. 

The Tonton Macoutes were active primarily during the presidency of François from 1957 to 1971, but their influence persisted during Jean-Claude’s presidency until his overthrow in 1986.

The legacy of oppressive regimes, such as the Duvaliers and their dreaded Tonton Macoutes, continues to haunt Haiti, perpetuating cycles of oppression and resistance. 

After experiencing a period of political turmoil between 1987 to 1990, a populist priest Father Jean- Bertrand Aristide won a landslide victory in the presidential election, Haiti's first free and peaceful polls.

When Aristide was overthrown in a military coup in 1991, turmoil followed. In 1994 the United States sent 20,000 troops to restore democracy.  

Haiti was also the first black country to be independent. A slave society that became an independent country. The rich political and revolutionary legacy Haiti has to offer to the world, however, is now almost all but erased.

The present-day reality of Haiti paints a grim picture of poverty, hunger, and state failure. Gang violence grips the nation, with over 200 armed groups vying for control, exploiting the void left by weakened state institutions. The recent prison break in Port-au-Prince, which helped 4,000 inmates escape, was facilitated by drones, underscoring the extent of lawlessness plaguing the country.

One of the gang leaders is Jimmy  “Barbeque” Cherizier who was a police officer, now heads G9, a coalition of nine gangs. The gangs collaborate and form alliances. Altogether there are 200 armed gangs in Haiti.

The gangs have connections with rival political parties. G9 was a supporter of the slain president Moise.  Chrizier has persistently demanded for the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who finally resigned on March 12.

It is worth remembering that the state, in the words of Max Weber, the most perceptive German sociologist, is an organization that has the monopoly over the legitimate means of violence. That monopoly has given way to a free market of violence in Haiti where the armed gangs outgun the police. The gangs flaunt the most sophisticated weaponry. 

Understanding Haiti's plight requires acknowledging its tumultuous history and rejecting simplistic narratives. While international assistance is crucial, Haiti also deserves respect for its sovereignty and a commitment from the global community to refrain from further interference.

Haiti's struggles serve as a stark reminder of the consequences of neglect, exploitation, and foreign intervention. 

 

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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