How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Under an ash gray sky threatening rain this past April, dozens of people in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cité Soleil (Sun City) gathered across the street from the local police station to survey a flat patch of earth where goats normally graze. As surveyors in helmets and green vests took measurements of the land, residents discussed their plan for this corner of a desperately poor quarter of this impoverished country: the construction of a new library, the Bibliyotèk Site Solèy, funded by small donations from hundreds of Haitians and with books contributed from both within Haiti and abroad.
“This is not just a library. This symbolizes a lot for us,” said Louino Robillard, a native of the northern town of Saint-Raphaël who moved to Cité Soleil with his father when he was three and grew up in the district’s Ti Ayiti section. Robillard is the driving force behind the Konbit Solèy Leve, a social movement whose name refers to both the tradition of volunteer community work in rural Haiti (konbit) and the neighborhood’s name (solèy leve, meaning “rising sun”).
“This symbolizes unity,” Robillard said. “This symbolizes hope.”
A little more than a decade ago, Cité Soleil was a war zone where daily survival, let alone long-term planning, was a Herculean task. It was, and to some degree remains, a redoubt of the armed political pressure groups known as the baz (base) in Haiti, who maintain an uneasy and ambiguous relationship with the country’s political factions. Today, however, grass-roots organizations such as Konbit Solèy Leve and the Sant Kominote Altènatif Ak Lapè have been working to put the konbit model into practice, gathering residents to clean the fetid canals and other areas of the district and trying to sow connections between the sometimes fractious groups in the zone. The grass-roots nature of such initiatives is especially significant given what Haiti has witnessed over the last decade.
In February 2004, then Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a democratic icon who had decided years before that he was not beholden to the rules of democracy, fled the country into exile amid massive street protests and an armed rebellion against his increasingly despotic rule. He left behind a nation devastated by political warfare and environmental crises, with a treasury virtually emptied by years of corruption and theft. After the brief presence of the U.S.-led multinational interim force, in June 2004 the United Nations established the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French-language acronym, MINUSTAH.
The Brazilian-led mission that came for an initial period of six months would stay on for 13 years, tasked with “stabilizing” this often tumultuous country of glittering Caribbean beaches, mist-shrouded mountains, and the syncretic vodou religion. Haiti also boasts the distinction of having conducted the only successful slave revolt in history, which saw it gain independence from France in 1804, making it the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere after the United States.
Although MINUSTAH oversaw three consecutive presidential elections, each more turbulent than the last, the UN Security Council voted unanimously this April to end the mission by October. Yet many of the problems that afflicted Haiti’s tentative democratic gains before the mission landed remain and, in fact, have been codified into practice.
When MINUSTAH arrived, Haiti (and Port-au-Prince in particular) was violently factionalized between Aristide supporters and the former members of Haiti’s disbanded military who had helped oust him, both heavily armed. The unelected interim government in power at the time cut off supporters of the ancien régime from the meager government funds they had been accessing, while some members of the country’s economic elite advocated a policy of repression and revenge against the ousted president’s partisans.
The tensions spiraled into a period of violent anarchy known as Operation Baghdad, which ground on for two bloody years that also saw the suicide of MINUSTAH’s military commander, Brazilian Lieutenant General Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar. The chaos lasted until the election of René Préval in 2006, for what would be his second tenure as Haiti’s president.
Criticized for years for its perceived passivity in the face of relentless violence, MINUSTAH seemed to find its footing under Préval, who had a volatile but ultimately productive relationship with the UN mission’s chiefs, first Guatemalan diplomat Edmond Mulet and later Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi. With MINUSTAH as a reserve force insulating him from the coups that had marked Haiti’s history, Préval, a savvy politician, could set about the work of trying to unite a divided country and attracting foreign investment. To a surprising degree, over the next three years, he largely succeeded. Even when unrest roiled Haiti in 2008, there seemed to be no fear that Préval would be ousted.
All that changed on January 12, 2010, when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and the surrounding regions. Tens of thousands of Haitians and 101 UN employees, including Chief of Mission Hédi Annabi, died. This was the largest single-day loss of life in the organization’s history. The stability that had been so carefully nurtured over the preceding three years vanished within seconds.
After the earthquake, the tense relationship between Préval and Mulet (who returned to head MINUSTAH after Annabi’s death) became even more so. In the words of the Haitian economist Ericq Pierre, foreign aid and organizations poured in with “too many propositions, too many resources, too many promises, too much knowledge, and not enough know-how,” and a sense of drift and curdling directionlessness became palpable.
The culture of impunity within Haiti’s body politic is one of the country’s most destabilizing problems. Yet following the earthquake, MINUSTAH chose to avail itself of this culture rather than combat it.
After video evidence surfaced in September 2011 that Uruguayan peacekeepers might have raped an 18-year-old boy in the southern town of Port-Salut, a local human rights organization, the Réseau National de Défense des Droits de l’Homme, charged that the contingent had been leading “a life of debauchery” for some time. (Four of these peacekeepers were later convicted of “private violence” in the case by a Uruguayan court.) It was one of several sexual assault scandals that rocked the mission, including others involving Pakistani and Sri Lankan peacekeeping forces.
When I visited Haiti around this time, I witnessed a group of surly, well-fed men who identified themselves as Canadian police advisers drink themselves into oblivion and splash around in a hotel pool. Only feet away, in a tent encampment of earthquake victims, thousands sat in darkness through long evenings of pounding rain, creating the perception of a fraternity party amid an apocalypse.
Also in 2011, at a base set up by MINUSTAH peacekeepers from Nepal, a broken PVC pipe was pouring raw sewage into a tributary that fed directly into the Boukan Kanni and Jenba Rivers, which then flowed into the larger Artibonite River, the main water source for the eponymous lush agricultural region. This would lead to a cholera epidemic that has so far killed over 10,000 people. After years of denials, and despite multiple reports conclusively linking the cholera outbreak to the mission, the UN would not admit culpability until August 2016. To this date, it has compensated none of the victims.
Along with the U.S. government, MINUSTAH played a decisive role in Haiti’s acrimonious 2010–11 elections. Préval tried to impose upon a weary nation his successor, the highly unpopular Jude Célestin. But through a combination of international diplomatic pressure (including that of Mulet and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) and violent street protests, he was forced to back down and assent to a runoff that eventually saw singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly inaugurated as Haiti’s president in May 2011.
The record of the Martelly government, whose rise MINUSTAH aided, was a mixed one. It made advances in terms of infrastructure and tourism, and the country’s spirits were often buoyed by the president’s charisma. But many of the salutary effects were undercut by the violence surrounding last year’s aborted election, and the government, like many before it, was marked by a high degree of corruption and impunity.
Both symbolically and mechanically, Martelly represented the return of a political strain associated with the former Haitian dictator François Duvalier and, more closely, his son and successor, Jean-Claude. Whereas Duvalier père presented himself as a noiriste dictator enacting a kind of color-based revenge, the son attempted to portray a more liberal laissez faire image while promoting foreign investment (a dishonest image, as the country remained a brutal police state). This strain historically has often seemed locked in a struggle with the anarcho-populism most vividly typified by Aristide. When elections were finally held in November of last year—again delayed, again disputed—Martelly’s designated successor, Jovenel Moïse, an agribusinessman and, like Martelly, political novice, won an outright majority.
“Perhaps MINUSTAH served to prevent coups,” says Laënnec Hurbon, Haiti’s most eminent sociologist and the author of key works such as Le Barbare imaginaire. “But, while I am wary of the nationalist rhetoric of politicians who make regular criticisms of international interference, I must admit that in the 2011 elections MINUSTAH intervened in the electoral system to impose a candidate in the second round. . . . When this candidate who came to power, a whole new layer of neo-Duvalierist politicians took over the state who were only interested in doing business with the resources of the state.”
Despite MINUSTAH’s long-stated goal of stabilization, Haiti is a country where many appear to have lost faith in the democratic process
Although relatively peaceful at the moment, despite MINUSTAH’s long-stated goal of stabilization, Haiti is a country where many appear to have lost faith in the democratic process, with only the most desultory electoral participation. Haiti remains a kingdom of impunity, with political malefactors who are able to reinvent themselves (one need only look at Haiti’s current Parliament to confirm this) and a police force whose autonomy, cultivated by Préval and former Police Chief Mario Andrésol, had eroded under Martelly, despite the best efforts of many dedicated officers. Many, including the president, speak openly about resurrecting the Haitian army, extraconstitutionally disbanded in 1995, which the police replaced.
Moïse remains an unknown quantity, whose words of commitment to the country’s long-underserved peasant majority bring hope even as what some say are authoritarian tendencies give pause. (One of his first acts as president was to dismiss the head of the Unité Centrale de Renseignements Financiers anticorruption body.)
“The new government will have to be careful of its image and ensure the president's staff is impeccable in terms of honesty,” says Marilyn B. Allien, the president of La Fondation Héritage pour Haïti, Haiti’s branch of the global anticorruption organization Transparency International. “This also applies for cabinet members and members of Parliament. Every effort should be made to ensure to project an image of honesty and integrity. If the president is honest and shows no tolerance for corruption, this will deter those in his entourage and in the government from engaging in corrupt practices.”
In Cité Soleil, fishermen still cast nets into the capital’s polluted bay as schoolchildren in pressed white and green uniforms amble down the now quiet streets.
“Right now Cité Soleil is very cool, very calm,” Phozer Louis, the lead MC for the Haitian rap group Fos Lakay-Majik kleng and a Cité Soleil native, told me. “The young people here have put down the gun and picked up the ball, the book, the microphone. . . . We ourselves have to change Cité Soleil, as no government has ever done anything for us.”
When the MINUSTAH troops leave this nation where they saw so many of their number die and where, intentionally or not, they themselves caused so many deaths, they leave a country where the cost of living is rising ever higher for average citizens, who lost the ability to feed themselves thanks to international agricultural policies foisted on Haiti in the 1990s and where many of the structural problems of its political reality remain unchanged.
It is true that MINUSTAH likely prevented both Préval and Martelly from being ousted, a laudable feat, but the core of the malaise afflicting the Haitian state—the culture of impunity for anyone boasting political or economic influence—remains, with a judiciary as corrupt as it ever was and a police force that has become notably more Balkanized in recent years.
The lives of the moun andeyo—the forgotten rural masses—have, over the last decade plus, benefited here and there from a desalination program to make salt water suitable for human consumption or the restoration of a rural road or other projects, but they remain essentially unchanged. From the shacks of Cité Soleil to the elegant restaurants in the hills above the capital to the small villages that dot the country’s historic Plaine-du-Nord, within this country still in the grip of largely unreconstructed political and economic elites, Haitians now hold their breath and wait to see what will come next.