Haiti’s history of resilience – beyond coups and natural disaster

Haiti’s history of resilience – beyond coups and natural disaster

Matias Delacroix/AP

A poster on a Port-au-Prince street in July 2021 bids farewell to Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated July 7, and compares him to a Haitian revolutionary hero.

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August 3, 2021

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Dire headlines out of Haiti punctuate the decades since the 1986 fall of the Duvalier family dictatorships: several coups, violent civil unrest, failed elections, apocalyptic natural disasters, and – on July 7 – the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. 

And always, lament Haitians and those who care about the place, the media shorthand the richly colorful Caribbean nation as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”

Why We Wrote This

Haiti was created by the only successful slave revolt in history. The resilience of that act is a theme of hope that threads through its tremendous political and economic struggles – perhaps never more than in the wake of the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

There are complicated political and economic factors behind that dark moniker that often overshadow this nation’s tradition of resilience stretching back to its birth from a slave revolt in 1791.

A broader look at Haiti’s history gives insight into the deep roots of current challenges and the way toward establishing public trust, and legitimate governance backed by popular mandate.

After a hundred years of foreign isolation by slave-owning nations, the 20th and 21st centuries brought undemocratic intervention by Western powers. That, says Mamyrah Prosper, a Haitian professor of international studies at the University of California, Irvine, means Haitian leaders are accountable to foreign powers rather than to their own people.

In this post-assassination period, she adds, there needs to be a Haitian-led solution: “Haitians are looking to be able to set a new tone for what kind of country that they want.”

Dire headlines out of Haiti punctuate the decades since the 1986 fall of the Duvalier family dictatorships: several coups, violent civil unrest, failed elections, apocalyptic natural disasters, and – on July 7 – the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. And always, lament Haitians, the media shorthand the Caribbean nation as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Here’s a brief on the complicated factors behind that dark moniker. 

Is there more to the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere”?

Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is only a two-hour flight from Miami. Yet the standard of living is far below that of the United States. Less than half of the people have electricity, only 55.4% of rural inhabitants have safe drinking water, and more than half the population lives on less than $2.41 per day, according to the CIA World Factbook and World Bank. 

Why We Wrote This

Haiti was created by the only successful slave revolt in history. The resilience of that act is a theme of hope that threads through its tremendous political and economic struggles – perhaps never more than in the wake of the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

“[But] Haiti has a very proud history as the second independent nation in the hemisphere and the first and only nation where slaves rose up to overthrow their masters,” says Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert and retired professor at George Washington University.

Africans enslaved in the French colony launched a rebellion in 1791, beating Napoleon’s army. They formally declared independence from France in 1804.

Haiti’s first constitution, written in 1801, stated outright “servitude is therein forever abolished.” It included fundamental rights for all men, regardless of race, that other nations would not adopt until the next century.

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP/File

Haitian students celebrate the 216th anniversary of their national flag in Port-au-Prince in May 2019. The flag was inspired by the French tricolor.

Is Haiti to blame for its challenges? 

Despite Haiti’s proud launch as a nation, the Western world – part of the global economy that still profited from slavery – wasn’t ready to cooperate with the new country. France, the U.S., and Britain refused diplomatic recognition, depriving Haiti of a market for its coffee and sugar exports. 

“Haiti was singled out for punishment … as a bad example for the rest of the world,” says Mr. Maguire.


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Finally relenting, but for a price, France in 1825 demanded an indemnity of 150,000 francs, today’s equivalent of more than $21 billion, says Jean Eddy Saint Paul, founder of the Haitian Studies Institute at the City University of New York. “That money that Haiti paid for the recognition of independence opened the international debt of Haiti.” And, he adds, that debt drained the country of funds needed for foundational infrastructure and investment.

After a hundred years of foreign isolation, the 20th century brought foreign intervention. When the Haitian president was assassinated in 1915, the U.S. invaded and occupied the nation for 19 years, installing leaders and constitutional changes without popular vote. U.S. intervention in Haiti had mixed effects: The U.S. supported the brutal, three-decade dictatorship of the Duvaliers and encouraged foreign investment in export manufacturing. After a popular uprising in 1986 ended Duvalier rule, the U.S. and other nations helped launch Haiti’s first democratic election in 1990. The result was a decisive 67% victory for the populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide

But a democratic vote does not make a democracy: The military overthrew Mr. Aristide within a year, and the U.S. reinstalled him in 1994. Haiti has struggled to gain democratic footing since then, but U.S. and United Nations intervention did little to check political instability, corruption, and the economic devastation of a series of natural disasters.

Mr. Moïse’s presidency was troubled: He failed to instate the legislative check of a new parliament and he ruled past Feb. 7, 2021, which many cited as the end of his five-year term. A group of U.S. human rights clinics issued a statement warning of deteriorating human rights conditions, and Haitian civil society leaders testified before U.S. legislators explaining Mr. Moïse’s consolidation of power. 

“The U.S. should recognize the situation in Haiti today as a struggle by the Haitian people to take ownership of their government and build democracy, not simply a fight between politicians for power,” said Emmanuela Douyon, a Haitian activist, in her testimony.

What is the path forward? 

Breaking patterns of foreign intervention and rule by elites disconnected from the masses – what Mr. Maguire terms the “carousel of failure” – requires tipping the balance of power toward civil society actors who’ve long protested corruption, gangs, and inequality. 

“[Those in power] have legitimacy because they are able to shake the hand of the U.S. ambassador or U.N. representative. That is the only thing that gives the current standing government power. Nothing else. It is not being held by any kind of popular support,” says Mamyrah Prosper, a Haitian professor of international studies at the University of California, Irvine. Leaders are then accountable to foreign powers rather than to their own people, she says.  

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The answer, say many, is to let Haitians control their own electoral process. Already, a Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, representing hundreds of civil society organizations, has plans for what a Haitian-led solution entails.

As when the Duvalier regime collapsed in 1986, says Ms. Prosper, this moment is another “that Haitians are looking to be able to set a new tone for what kind of country that they want.”

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Mark Sappenfield
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