The international community’s treatment of Haiti for 200 years has contributed to the country’s extreme vulnerability to earthquakes and other stresses. We now have an opportunity to do better, and must seize it.
Each event in Haiti’s crushing series of calamities over the past two months seems to have a different cause – the movement of tectonic plates, tropical weather patterns, and assassins’ bullets. But the suffering those calamities have inflicted is not random. They are the predictable consequence of centuries of policies by Haitian and international leaders that have limited the Haitian government’s ability to provide basic services to its population. The limited government capacity, in turn, generated an extreme vulnerability to any stress, whether natural, economic, or political.
Lethally Weak Governance
It is still early to evaluate the damage from the 14 August earthquake and the 16 August tropical storm, but it appears so far that inadequate preparations, unenforced building codes, the slow arrival of rescue and relief, and gangs cutting off aid routes – all related to government weakness – contributed significantly to the suffering and death toll.
We know that weak governance contributed to the damage in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Most of those killed lived in neighbourhoods perched on slopes so steep that construction codes – which were not enforced then either – prohibited building there. Their homes were built from cinderblocks or concrete, contrary to basic engineering standards. Residents knew their houses were unstable, but could not afford a safer place to live.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew killed hundreds of Haitians when it struck the Tiburon Peninsula, the same area hit by this year’s earthquake. The storm then hit Cuba with almost the exact same winds and rain, but no one died there.
President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination at his house on 7 July was facilitated by a government so dismantled by his Partie Haitienne Tet Kale (PHTK) party’s corrupt rule that the few bodyguards who resisted the attack quickly ran out of bullets. The judicial inquiry into the killing has been hobbled by the political violence that Moïse and the PHTK cultivated – violence so widespread and systematic that a recent report categorised it as a crime against humanity. Death threats sent two clerks and a judge working on the case into hiding. A third clerk died under suspicious circumstances, and the investigating judge leading the pursuit quit the case for security reasons. Choosing a president to replace Moïse is complicated and delayed by his having allowed the terms of most members of Parliament to expire in 2020, and his naming an unconstitutional electoral council.
The International Community’s Cultivation of Vulnerability
While decisions by Haitian leaders contributed to the country’s extreme vulnerability, so did actions of the international community. In fact, Haiti’s vulnerability has been carefully cultivated from abroad ever since Haiti emerged from a slave revolt in 1804 into a world run by slaveholding countries that felt threatened by the example of successful, self-emancipated Black people. For the first half century of Haiti’s independence, the world powers refused to even recognize Haiti’s sovereignty. Trade embargoes, export bans, and an illegal “independence debt” imposed by France to compensate its slave owners for their losses – including of the newly freed people – prevented Haiti’s economic development.
More recently, the former slave-owning powers imposed a development assistance embargo on Haiti in 2000 because elected Haitian leaders resisted the powerful countries’ economic policy prescriptions. When Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide persisted in refusing to bow to international dictates and demanded restitution of the debt from France and stolen territory from the United States, he was whisked away on a US government plane to exile in the Central African Republic in 2004.
The international community then sent the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the first UN peacekeeping mission to be deployed, without a peace agreement, to monitor the country. MINUSTAH stayed thirteen years, spent over $7 billion, killed over 10,000 Haitians by introducing cholera, engaged in widespread sexual exploitation and abuse, and left the country with weaker democratic institutions than Haiti had before Aristide’s ouster.
President Moïse was the handpicked successor of President Michel Martelly, a singer who came to power in 2011, after the US government forced Haiti’s electoral council to change the first round results to place him in the runoff. Martelly and Moïse, who came to power in 2017, ruled for almost ten years, through massive corruption scandals and widespread protests, but never running a single election that was timely or fair. They nonetheless received the persistent support of the US, Canada, Europe, and the United Nations, in large part because they complied with dictates from abroad.
A prominent example of President Moïse’s bargain with the US is his January 2019 recognition of Juan Guaido as President of Venezuela, which contradicted long-standing precedent, Haitian public opinion, and the position of the other members of the Caribbean Community, but advanced a key Trump administration objective. Payback arrived two years later on February 7, 2021, which most Haitian experts, including the bar associations and judicial oversight agency, concluded was the end of President Moïse’s term under Haiti’s constitution. The Biden Administration weighed in and backed Moïse’s insistence that he had another year in office, which allowed him to stay, until July.
Even the international response to disasters in Haiti has increased vulnerability to future disasters. Volunteer foreign doctors who responded to the 2010 earthquake displaced Haitian professionals, leading medical practices to close and doctors to emigrate, ultimately decreasing Haitian capacity. A reliance on food donated from abroad instead of local sourcing put Haitian farmers out of business. Sex abuse by aid workers affiliated with some of the world’s most well-known humanitarian organisations compounded the harm facing earthquake survivors.
Supporting a Sustainable, Just, and Haitian-led Response
As soon as the earth stopped shaking on August 12, Haitians started advocating for a more effective, Haitian-led response that respects basic human rights. One of these efforts, the Pledge for New Minimum Standards for Haiti, calls on anyone operating in Haiti to promise to build accountability, transparency, capacity-building, and long-term resilience into aid programming.
Haitians have also insisted that the international community stop propping up the PHTK party, which still controls the government. They see deeply flawed but internationally-supported elections, and an illegal constitutional referendum scheduled for November as an effort to maintain PHTK power despite widespread opposition by voters. Haitian civil society leaders believe that if the powerful countries stopped propping up the PHTK, a consensus government could emerge that would create the conditions necessary for fair elections that will actually help move Haiti out of its serial crises.
The international community owes Haitians- because they showed us what “liberty for all” meant in 1804, and because powerful countries have punished them ever since for doing so. We can start paying this debt right now, by implementing policies that reduce Haiti’s vulnerability by strengthening its democracy and capacity to provide basic services. Haitians have suffered enough. The least we can do is to seize this moment’s opportunity to let them have a brighter, less vulnerable future.
Brian Concannon is a human rights lawyer and founder and a board member of the US-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. He worked in Haiti from 1995-2004, as a UN human rights observer and a lawyer with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.