Understanding the Historical Roots of the Humanitarian Crisis in Haiti


What is happening in Haiti is without a doubt a major humanitarian crisis that exhibits the insecurities that can be generated when certain state actors embrace extremism. Following the assassination of democratically elected President Jovenel Jovenel Moïse in 2021, Prime Minister Ariel Henry assumed power, with the support of several nations, including the U.S. Henry promised that there would be a presidential election soon after his accession; however, he did not deliver on that promise due to concerns regarding logistics and the issue of violence. Many Haitians questioned Henry’s reasoning and accused him of delaying the elections with the objective of staying in power for the foreseeable future. Henry rapidly became unpopular with the public, and as a result, protests ensued across the nation. The infamous criminal syndicates of Haiti, which mostly were opposed to Henry’s government, took advantage of the disorder caused by the protests and attempted to take over the territories controlled by the state. In an unprecedented fashion, most of the major gangs in the country formed an alliance against Henry and his administration. The gangs were able to achieve a number of key victories because of the fact that Haiti does not have a functioning army. This has been the case for Haiti since 1995, after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide dismantled the army due to years of military interference in politics. Consequently, Henry made the decision to leave the country on a mission to convince several international actors to intervene militarily. However, the gangs utilized Henry’s absence and took over most of Port-au-Prince, which fully halted Henry’s jurisdiction. President Henry, who now resides in Puerto Rico, eventually decided to resign from his position in an effort to convince the criminal organizations to reduce the violence; however, this resignation has yet to be effective. Haiti is still in a state of disorder, and violence can be seen everywhere. According to a report released by the United Nations, the violence in the country has claimed the lives of at least 1,554 people in the first few months of 2024. An estimated 53,000 people have fled Port-au- Prince, adding to the 116,000 people who were displaced in 2023.  

One of the main reasons why Haiti’s gang culture was able to emerge is because the institutions of the country have never been strong enough to prevent such a development due to a ceaseless, ailing economic situation. The economic misfortunes of Haiti are a product of its colonial past. Following the Haitian Revolution in 1804, France asked Haiti to pay 150 million francs in reparations, and Haiti agreed because they wanted France and the rest of the international community to recognize its independence. Haiti found it difficult to keep up with the payments, and France used this opportunity to convince the Haitian state to take loans from French banks in order to be able to keep up with the payments. Ultimately, Haiti became another victim of France’s debt-trap diplomacy, and it took 122 years for them to repay these loans. Haiti’s debt condition is one of the main reasons why the country was not able to develop accordingly following the revolution. This lack of economic growth created the necessary setting for illicit activities to emerge. The gang culture of Haiti took shape in the 20th century under President Francois Duvalier. Duvalier did not trust the national army, as he was suspicious of a number of his generals. As a result, he created a private army by the name of Tonton Macoute to take over the role of the military. This group was responsible for targeting the political opponents of Duvalier and crushing all dissent through violent measures. It is estimated that the Macoutes killed nearly 60,000 people in the course of two decades. Acts such as immolation, stoning, rape, decapitation, and crushing were used regularly. The Macoutes operated similarly to gangs in the sense that they used graphic violence in order to demoralize their opponents. Ultimately, anyone who challenged Tonton Macoute and Duvalier risked facing assassination. In 1971, Duvalier infamously declared himself president for life and made sure that his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, became the next president following his demise. Jean-Claude Duvalier’s presidency did not last long, as he was ousted from office as a consequence of the anti-Duvalier protest movement in 1984. With the coming to power of Henri Namphy, who was a military man and a major part of the mentioned movement against the Duvalier dynasty, an attempt to revive the national army started. Namphy pushed for the Tonton Macoute to be dismantled, but he made one crucial mistake in the process. The Macoutes were dismissed, but they were not disarmed. As a result of that, 25,000 fighters with minimal moral conscience took over the streets and kept terrorizing the public. Most of the members of this group were separated into different gangs, and they planted the seed for future generations of extremist groups that are currently devastating Haiti.  

Another wave of new criminal syndicates emerged during the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In 1991, the military ousted Aristide; however, with the intervention of the US, Aristide was able to reverse the coup and become president again. This coup had Aristide distrusting the military, and consequently, he dismantled the entire army. Similar to Duvalier, he formed a private army that consisted of regular people from his leftist base. These people trained to become fighters, and they successfully managed to keep the nation’s control in the hands of Aristide for the next few years. The turning point for Aristide was when the Haitian oligarchs started to question his leftist policies. They managed to shift public opinion through propaganda and started a major movement against Aristide’s government. Aristide was not able to find a solution to this new uprising, and in the end, he decided to flee the country. Identical to the aftermath of the Tonton Macoutes, the armed groups under Aristide stayed in the country and many of them formed different groups that eventually turned into crime syndicates. The future governments were not able to deter these groups because there was no Haitian army. Some governments even decided to embrace some of these groups and employ them in order to push their policies which gave the gangs more influence. In 2017, under President Jovenel Moïse the army was re-established; however, there are only 500 active soldiers and 1,500 police officers. The police and the army are understaffed, underarmed, and underfunded. The crime syndicates are superior in every department and that is why they have been able to overpower state forces in many instances. The army does not get much support from the state partially due to economic reasons. Haiti’s financial capacity does not allow major spending in any public spheres. There are also concerns regarding the nature of Haiti’s military. This military has been known for its human rights violations and corruption. Furthermore, they started several coups and they all threatened the stability of the nation. This is why many of the modern presidents of Haiti decided not to re-establish the army and consequently, the gangs have been able to add to their influence. The fact that most of the political parties in Haiti have either worked with or are responsible for the formation of the crime syndicates is the reason behind the current situation in the country and the suffering of its people.   


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