Not since the former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture successfully revolted against the island’s colonial masters has Haiti’s politics inspired anyone’s admiration. Toussaint’s quixotic adventure predictably ended badly for himself and perhaps even worse for his nation, whose political independence he single-handedly crafted. The French duly liberated the slaves several decades after Toussaint’s revolution but replaced the chattel slavery with economic slavery that would last for nearly two centuries and has left indelible traces today.
Last week, chaos returned in the most absolute form to a nation in a perpetual state of chaos. A hit squad assassinated President Jovenel Moise in the middle of the night. Days later, the media are left wondering about the “continuing mystery over who was behind the attack on Mr. Moïse’s residence.”
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In the immediate aftermath, Al Jazeera reported the “shock and revulsion to the assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise” by world leaders. Colombia’s notably urged “the Organization of American States [OAS] to send an urgent mission to Haiti to ‘protect the democratic order.’”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Arbitrarily imposed military and economic control by any powerful nation or group of nations that claims to believe in the principles of democracy without the inconvenience of having to practice them
The author of the message urging the OAS intervention was none other than Colombian President Ivan Duque Marquez, who deplored “a cowardly and barbaric act against the entire Haitian people” and expressed his “solidarity with the sister nation and the family of a great friend of Colombia.”
Almost simultaneously with Duque’s impassioned call for democratic order in Haiti, the BBC reported on condemnation of Colombia by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for “‘excessive and disproportionate’ use of force in response to this year’s anti-government protests, in which dozens died.” Since April, Colombia has been riddled by daily protests calling for Duque’s impeachment. The New York Times explained: “The fuse for the protests was a tax overhaul proposed in late April by Mr. Duque, a conservative, which many Colombians felt would have made it even harder to get by in an economy squeezed by the pandemic.” Duque has been consistently supported by the US, which sees him as the key to undermining the current government of Venezuela.
Covering the events in Haiti, CNN reporter John Berman asked the White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki, an extraordinary question that clearly reveals how both the political class and the media see everything that lies beyond the borders of the US. “What is the United States willing to do,” he asked, “to keep that island stable?”
The first thing a quibbler might notice is that Haiti is not an island. Instead, it occupies just over one-third of the surface of the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic occupies the other two-thirds. A more obvious problem lies in Berman’s uncritical supposition that the US has the capacity to guarantee another nation’s stability. Worse, Berman’s suggestion that it is a question of keeping the nation “stable” reveals his ignorance of the growing instability that surrounded the personality of Moise and his style of governance.
Moise’s combination of action (consolidating his personal power, removing judges from the supreme) and inaction (allowing parliamentary rule to expire while insisting on his right to remain in office for another year) produced conditions that led to severe unrest. In such circumstances of grave democratic disorder, no one should be surprised that the assassination of a contested leader might take place.
Psaki, apparently at a loss for words, called it a “tragic tragedy.” Her pleonastic epithet is revealing. In the language of Washington, DC, the death of any politician who is not an enemy of the US is by definition a tragedy. But the death of one who had been cooperating with the US and depends on its aid — however corrupt and unpopular that leader may be among the people — merits the dual qualification of “tragic tragedy.”
Colombia’s Duque, the White House, the OAS and American media appear to agree that any government supported by the US — no matter how fundamentally chaotic or despotic its mode of governance — can be thought of as an example of “democratic order.” The US supported Moise’s controversial election back in 2016, an election in which only 18% of the electorate voted.
The United States also supports Duque’s contested leadership in Colombia and Jair Bolsonaro’s in Brazil, where today a clear majority wants to see him impeached. At the time of the 2018 presidential election, the US knew that Bolsonaro’s chances of victory depended on a fabricated accusation of corruption (since annulled by the courts) against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva by a group of politicians who were truly and visibly corrupt. US support of assaults on popular democracy in Bolivia and Ecuador reflects the same trend.
Most Haitians understood that, according to the terms of the constitution, Moise’s term expired at the beginning of 2021. Tamanisha John, writing for The Conversation, explains that in March, “the U.S. State Department announced that it supported Moïse’s decision to remain in office until 2022, to give the crisis-stricken country time to ‘elect their leaders and restore Haiti’s democratic institutions.’”
In all fairness, given Haiti’s permanently dysfunctional history, the case could be made that Moise was doing his damnedest to reform a dysfunctional system and pushing for a long-term solution. That was the official view Haiti’s ambassador in Washington formulated in February. But the reality of the situation in Haiti has long been evident. As Maria Abi-Habib points out in The New York Times, “Haiti is less a failed state than what an analyst called an ‘aid state’ — eking out an existence by relying on billions of dollars from the international community. Foreign governments have been unwilling to turn off the spigots, afraid to let Haiti fail.”
The US, of course, has been foremost among them. But besides providing aid that goes into the pockets of politicians, it notoriously used its brutal, if not sadistic, sanctions against Venezuela to deprive Haiti of that nation’s generous offer to provide oil on favorable conditions. The US sanctions policy magnified the crisis not just in Venezuela, but also in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
CNN’s John Berman clearly has a weak understanding of Haiti’s geography. But when he assumes the US can simply step in to restore stability, there is a precedent in this sometimes forgotten historical fact: “Following the assassination of the Haitian President in July of 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent the United States Marines into Haiti to restore order and maintain political and economic stability in the Caribbean.”
For its readers, The New York Times sums up Haiti’s history in three chapters: “Haiti’s troubled history goes deep, lying in its roots as a former slave colony of France that gained its independence in 1804 after defeating Napoleon’s forces, and later suffered more than two decades of a brutal dictatorship, which ended in 1986.” Then it mentions the 2010 earthquake, an occasion for a display of charity by the Clinton Foundation.
For The Times, Haiti disappeared from history between the 1820s and “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign of terror, largely supported by the US, that began in 1957. What events has The Times forgotten between 1804 and 1986? France’s second abolition of slavery followed Napoleon’s restoration of the institution first abolished by the French Revolution in 1794. But France’s definitive abolition in 1838 saddled the nation with a monumental debt in the guise of reimbursing slaveowners. The repayment of that debt, finally acquitted in 1947, crippled Haiti’s economic development. The Times also forgets another significant event: the US occupation of Haiti that resulted in decades of forced labor, an effective modern version of slavery.
Ever the optimist, Toussaint L’Ouverture famously proclaimed: “In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep.” Were he in a position to look back from today’s vantage point, he would probably end up agreeing with Mexico’s 19th-century dictator, Porfirio Diaz: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.