By Joaquim Stevenson-Rodriguez
Though the recent protests in Haiti respond to the injustices wrought by sitting President Jovenel Moïse, the people’s complaints address issues rooted in a history far longer than his presidential term. The country’s state is the cumulative result of corruption, greed, and imperialism left completely unchecked, and the Haitian people have channeled their distaste into mass civil interference and disobedience. There is much immediate anger surrounding the abuse and theft of money by the country’s government — specifically funds from PetroCaribe, a program which allowed Haiti to purchase oil from Venezuela on a long term, low interest loan — but it is clear that protestors are acting against symptoms of American intervention and invasive foreign policy.
The protesters share one common goal: they want Jovenel Moïse to resign immediately, largely because of his theft of around over 400,000 USD from PetroCaribe. This program, between Venezuela and numerous Caribbean countries, was supposed to save beneficiaries money, which they could invest in desperately needed social services and infrastructure; however, in the case of Haiti, nearly two billion dollars was pocketed by politicians, according to a Haitian Senate investigation, and their plans to invest in services for their citizens stagnated. The Senate commission found that 14 government officials falsified numbers in financial reports to cover their tracks; in the case of Moïse, the fruit company which he headed prior to becoming president received several hundred thousand dollars in government funding — the quantity allocated, according to government finance reports, for road repairs. In the wake of this theft remains a population plagued by a pre-existing fuel shortage, increasing inflation, a shortage of potable water, worsening ecological degradation, food insecurity, and the looming threat of electrical outages: further evidence that the money never reached the people.
The protests began in July of 2018, when Moïse attempted to raise the price of fuel during the shortage. Protesters began blocking roads, businesses, schools, police stations and government buildings for weeks in cities such as Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital, and Jacmel. Although Moïse backed off from this plan, the protests have gone on indefinitely, and perhaps will until he leaves office. An incendiary photograph, posted in August 2018 by activist Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. on his twitter, aptly sums up the energy of the nascent protest movement: blindfolded, he holds a sign that says “Kot ko petwo Karibe a?” — “where is the PetroCaribe money?” in Haitian Creole. The image was shared on Twitter by several popular Haitian musicians and celebrities and prompted some to organize protests via social media.
However, the protests are about more than the theft of money, or the fuel hikes. These scandals came to public attention at a time when the majority of people in the country literally could not pay for basic goods. The government, in essence, practiced de facto abandonment of the country’s populace, and, in turn, people from numerous backgrounds and social classes have turned up to express their collective anger — artists, teachers, workers, even police — though the backbone of the protests are undoubtedly the working poor of the country, who make up most of the population.
The fuel shortage has made transportation of goods and food difficult, and in October, Sogeneur, a large electrical company in Haiti, said the absence of fuel meant that the country’s electrical grid could the risk of collapsing. In that same week, many national police officers joined the protests, saying that the government had failed them too, by not giving them adequate resources to control crowds, such as cars and protection, and by withholding their pay for nearly six months. The national police are known for their violent repression of protestors; this change of sides comes after numerous demonstrators and journalists reported seeing police officers shooting firearms from unmarked cars. As a result, several among the masses have been shot dead.
Last month, demonstrators specifically singled out Canadian and American embassies in Port-au-Prince. This target reminds onlookers that Moïse’s administration, and that of his predecessor, Michel Martelly, were backed by the United States, despite their internationally known corruption. This stands in congruence in the past; the U.S. has had a long history of favoring political instability in the region, so they can in turn enact foreign policy that governs smaller countries on American terms. For instance, from 1915 to 1934, the U.S. occupied Haiti to protect its sugar enterprises, following unrest in the country after the 1915 assassination of Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. This presence allowed for U.S. involvement in Haitian politics — as explained on the U.S. State Department history website, they chose the successive president and successfully pressured him to adopt a new constitution. Finally, in 1930, the U.S. prepared to exit the country — a process that took four years — following numerous anti-occupation strikes and revolts.
Decades later, in 1994, Operation Uphold Democracy further set a precedent for modern U.S. intervention in the Caribbean. After a military coup d’etat deposed President Jean Bertrand Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected president, Operation Uphold Democracy restored his office and was heralded as an exercise of “democratic virtue.” However, American support for his presidency was contingent on him signing agreements with the IMF and the World Bank, which forced Haiti to consent to economic measures conceived under American terms. As the country’s budget changed to conform with these conditions, the country’s industry became increasingly privatized, forcing the Haitian economy to rely on foreign capital and free trade to sustain itself.
Further, this “democratic virtue” did not last long: there was another coup against Aristide in 2004, following his public demand in 2003 for billions of dollars in reparations from France — the modern equivalent of the amount that France forced Haiti to pay them after the Haitian revolution. Enacted by the enslaved against their owners, the Revolution managed to abolish slavery under French rule, although the French slave-owners demanded compensation for their lost “property.” In his own words, Aristide was “kidnapped” and placed on a plane to the Central African Republic by U.S. security forces.
Haiti is not the only country to experience such treatment: virtually every country in the Caribbean and Latin America has been the target of similar interventions. As the U.S. has such a long history of acting on these countries, it would follow that the instability they foster not only serves to protect the American hegemony over them, but also to mask their fear of the communal power of these countries. If each is distracted by internal problems, it makes organizing together much more difficult, something that the U.S. actively acts against: the U.S.-imposed economic sanctions against Venezuela earlier this year provides a good example. These sanctions intentionally affected the sale of Venezuelan oil in order to disrupt not only Venezuela’s economy but also PetroCaribe member countries’ access to resources: in the words of Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, “Venezuela doesn’t have any account systems where they can pay [to transport oil]. So it’s a question of the shipping. It’s as simple as that. The sanctions are adversely affecting payment for the shipping.”
Despite restricting the outflow of oil from Venezuela, the American government further continued to intervene in the oil scheme. In March 2019, roughly two months after his “shithole” country comment, Trump met with the leaders of five Caribbean nations, all once PetroCaribe members — the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St Lucia, and Haiti — to discuss U.S. actions in Venezuela. As each country mentioned was now aligned with the American pro-Guaido stance, thanks to pressure from the U.S., the talks also addressed how the United States can be a “better partner” to each country. Though Haiti obviously once benefited from cheap Venezuelan oil and supported the Maduro rule, former National Security Advisor John Bolton swayed Moïse to vote against Venezuela in meetings of the Organization of American States; Bolton also explicitly tweeted his support for a Moïse-ruled Haiti. According to the Miami Herald, the leaders, excluding Trump, said most of the talk concerned trade and investments, and explained that the U.S. has committed to sending a representative from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to visit each of their respective countries. The Trump administration has not only pressured Moïse into economically disadvantaging his country by withdrawing from the Petrocaribe agreement, but is at the same time clearly trying to extract capital from Haiti despite their current troubles.
The intent of the PetroCaribe program, enacted in 2005 by then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was to not only provide aid to beneficiary countries, but also to harbor political allyship between member states. Clearly, this poses a challenge to the U.S.’ entitlement to control in Latin American and Caribbean politics. As a result, its sanctions and diplomatic pressures undermine solidarity and material progress among Latin American countries — and so Haiti loses a cheap source of oil, adding strain on top of their existing and growing debts and socio-political challenges.
It’s clear that the people of Haiti have much to deal with, moving forward, and the recent protests may be seen as an appropriate response to their situation. They come during a broader wave of revolutionary uprisings around the world: this year has seen protests in Hong Kong, where people have resisted the influence of the Chinese government over their autonomous law, as well as other mass demonstrations around the world, such as in Chile, West Papua, and Ecuador, where people are rebelling against unpopular and greed-ridden governments who don’t represent the people or their interests. In these places, people are simply fighting to live a normal existence, without obstacles like rising train fares and other costs of living. The situation in Haiti is perhaps an extreme example, but it should serve as a warning and an inspiration: when greed, corruption, and imperialism are left unchecked, the continued function of society as a whole becomes untenable, and the people begin to move toward revolution.