For months, Haitians have been protesting en masse against corruption, inflation and the scarcity of basic goods. While the massive demonstrations, which are calling for President Jovenel Moïse to step down, have put the country at a standstill, the Western news media has grossly failed to grasp the significance of the moment.
Contrary to the oversimplified narrative published by the New York Times’ editorial board, what began in July 2018 in Haiti is not a “crisis,” “meltdown” or a “nightmare” where the U.S. needs to “help their poorest neighbor get back on its feet.” Rather, it is an uprising that is generations in the making against the cornerstones of neoliberalism itself.
Coverage of Haiti fails to understand this, relying instead on tired tropes wrought with imperialist amnesia that rob Black people of their agency, silences the voices of Haitians and whitewashes foreign interventions in the Caribbean country.
Haiti has long been fiscally limited as a result of neoliberal economic policies. In the mid- to late-20th century, the U.S.backed the decades-long dictatorship of François Duvalier, which robbed and neglected the nation while, under pressure from USAID, opened the doors to a proliferation of foreign NGOs and oriented Haiti’s production toward exports rather than local food production.
A decade later in 1995, the IMF and World Bank then privatized nine of Haiti’s national enterprises. Soon after, the Clinton administration forced Haiti to lower its tariffs, allowing cheap, subsidized rice and sugar from U.S. farmers to flood the Haitian markets, pushing local agriculturists off their land and into sweatshops in the overcrowded capital and leading to further food insecurity.
More recently, the Obama administration’s refusal to allow Haiti to raise its hourly minimum wage from 24 cents to 61 cents guaranteed U.S. companies cheap sweatshop labor and that Haitians could never rise out of poverty.
It culminated in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake where, rather than homes, schools and infrastructure, $9 billion was squandered on piecemeal projects that enriched disaster capitalists and the Haitian elite.
Neoliberalism requires favorable governments, so it’s no surprise that the last five Haitian presidents all served at the behest of the “Core Group,” an unelected collective of foreign powers that influence Haitian politics and economics. Former President Michel Martelly was picked by this group to govern the country despite losing the election — or “selections,” as Haitians derisively refer to the political process. Both Martelly’s administration and that of his hand-picked successor, current President Moïse, are implicated in stealing $2 billion of Venezuela’s Petro Caribe loan meant for social investments in Haiti. This has currently led to fuel shortages that U.S. oil companies are well positioned to take advantage of.
The months-long protests in Haiti aim to confront the neoliberal policies that have kept the country poor. These demonstrations aren’t just an indictment of one corrupt Haitian president; they’re a charge against the failures of the entire global economic structure, with the U.S. at its center.
If media outlets listened to the Haitian people, they’d understand that protesters have been very clear from the beginning about their demands: “No more foreign military occupation, no more foreign meddling, stop supporting the Moïse regime.”
These are the calls being made by Haitians struggling on the ground.
Public Policies That Invest in Social Programs
Haiti spends less on health care per capita ($13) than the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean ($336). The country has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest literacy rate in the region. Additionally, the homes and infrastructure improvements that were promised after the earthquake never materialized, making access to safe housing a basic unmet necessity. For Haitian protesters, investing in public education, universal health care, dignified housing and infrastructure are cornerstones of a society.
Ending Foreign Dependence & Interference
Haiti has the second-highest number of NGOs per capita in the world. These institutions are accountable to their donors, not the Haitian people, and operate outside of Haitian law and governance, weakening the Haitian state. They execute programs that support the ongoing interference of the “Core Group,” the countries that fund them. The outsized influence of foreigners in Haitian affairs has obstructed Haitian democracy and its economy. Haitian protesters want a country free of NGOs so that Haitians can decide how to design their own democracy and economic structure.
Thriving Democratic Institutions
For much of its history, Haiti has been preyed upon by strongmen, the foreign actors and local businessmen that control them, and the cult of personality that surrounds them. Even if Moïse steps down, questions remain about who would succeed him. Many are concerned that the opposition would take advantage of a leadership vacuum to seize power, much like they have in Bolivia. Protesters are calling for a strong, decentralized political structure that allows new leaders to develop, share power — including outside of the capital — and transition leadership through democratic means for the betterment of the entire country rather than the enrichment of a few.
A society that cannot feed itself isn’t free. Food sovereignty is at the core of economic and political sovereignty. A combination of food aid and cheap imports has resulted in a lack of investment in Haitian farming that keeps Haiti in a state of dependency. Fifty percent of Haitians are malnourished; however, the country still imports 51% of all its food and 80% of all its rice rather than growing it locally. Protesters are calling for a Haiti that invests in domestic food production and determines its own agricultural policies to produce food for local consumption.
Environmental Protections & Climate Change Resiliency
The increase in droughts coupled with more severe natural disasters caused by climate change make Haiti one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Deforestation has also exacerbated these impacts. Unfortunately, the current model of development being pushed on Haiti by multilateral organizations and the private sector focuses on extractive industries, like mining that pollutes the water and depletes the land or sweatshop labor like Caracol Industrial Park, which confiscated the farmland of Haiti’s last remaining mangroves. The heavy reliance of oil for energy also means that many Haitians are without power during fuel crises. Haitians are struggling for a country that is prepared for the reality of climate change, invests in renewable energy and promotes models of long-term development that focuses on human well-being and environmental conservation.
A Strong Judiciary & an End to Impunity
Amnesty International released a report in October accusing the Haitian police of using excessive force toward Haitian protesters. Recently a group of U.S. mercenaries were arrested on the streets of Haiti before being swiftly whisked away to their country. As such, the people have no faith that the judicial system will function to deliver justice. The Haitian elite has kept the judicial system weak and under-resourced, using it as a political tool to insulate themselves and their institutions from the consequences of their actions. Haitians are asking for a reformed, independent and trained judiciary that is immune to outside influences so that it can provide access to justice to all Haitians.
Under French colonialism, Haiti was used as a forced labor death camp where resources were extracted, land was exploited and deforested, and enslaved people did not live past the age of 30, all to fund Europe’s so-called Age of Enlightenment. France and the U.S. colluded to pressure Haiti to pay a $17 billion debt to France for daring to rebel against slavery. This continued with a restructuring of the Haitian economy to be more favorable to U.S. and foreign interests under the first U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934. During this time, U.S. Marines emptied the Haitian National Reserves and moved the money to what is today Citibank in New York. In their protests, Haitians are demanding that the West pay them back for the stain of slavery and colonialism.
The role of women in Haiti has long been marginalized by a patriarchal social structure that leads to discrimination against women and different forms of violence in the home, at work, in politics and in the courts. It is largely the labor of Haitian women being exploited in inhumane sweatshops to fuel the global economy. However, gender equity is central to achieving a just society. As such, Haitians are also demonstrating to bring women out of the margins and empower them to fully partake in the development of society.
New Economic Models
Opening markets to foreign trade, wage suppression, gross inequality, privatization and public spending cuts — the cornerstones of neoliberal policies — have propelled poverty in Haiti and much of the Global South. Even the IMF has admitted that the increased inequality that has come as a result of neoliberalism hurts economic growth and destabilizes a country. Haitians are fighting for a new economic model congruent with an equitable society.
A Haiti for all Haitians
At the heart of the protests is a longing for Haitians to live with dignity and those in the diaspora to be able to return home, reversing brain drain. As Henri Piquion wrote, “Today’s revolution in Haiti must be to replace a fundamental, historical injustice with an essential justice based on providing each Haitian with an equal opportunity to participate in the development of the country and to access the fruits of its development.” That is the Haiti that Haitians want. That is the Haiti that our ancestors fought and died for.