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The Roots of Haiti’s Latest Problems Are Not Political

This seemingly political standoff is actually a realignment of power and economic structure where light-skinned and Middle Eastern Haitians have controlled commerce and the economy with an iron fist that would make any oligarch envious. 

People participate in a demonstration demanding the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

On the surface, the analysis of the latest round of protests in Haiti is that the people are frustrated with the political class and are taking out their ire on Jovenel Moise, asking for the president’s departure. 

“For a multitude of reasons, most of #Haiti remains on lockdown. The primary cause is political but can’t ignore the fuel and water crisis, hospital problems or insecurity. While the ‘President’ is back to silent mode much of the crisis in (the countryside especially) is worsening,” someone posted on Twitter. 

All this observation is true. But what is going on here is deeper and more serious than these streets protests. After all, Haiti’s string of recent presidents and leaders have faced this situation before. 

This seemingly political standoff is actually a realignment of power and economic structure where light-skinned and Middle Eastern Haitians have controlled commerce and the economy with an iron fist that would make any oligarch envious. 

The clash is a power struggle between dark-skinned parliamentarians and their supporters, who have gotten their own “franchise douanieres” to import goods without paying any taxes and thus competing squarely with the Arab merchants, who have enjoyed a total dominance in these things. 

So in this tug a war, everyone has deployed their goons to take to the streets ostensibly for political reasons. We’ve seen this evolved from gangs being paid to sow fears to now a makeshift protests about government grift and corruption. There is nothing complicated about this situation despite the crippling protests. 

Haiti’s elite has always used brute force to defend its interests. For decades the elite’s favorite instrument was the military where high command officers were paid handsomely to remove a recalcitrant president, who threatened their narrow self-interests. Now that the army has largely been demobilized (although Moise has reconstituted it to a shell of itself) the elite uses goons and gangs to do their dirty work. Jean Bertrand Aristide is a most recent example of this scenario. He was ousted by the military not because of his political polarization but because he was infringing on the private sector’s affairs. 

Moise is just a foil and because he is weak, it’s easy to cast this as a referendum on him instead of this epic economic and class warfare being played out in the streets across Haiti. 

I spoke to several political analysts who made the point that in the last few years, political gridlock were easily solved by handing out bag full of cash to buy parliamentarians and other political party leaders.

Need a prime minister? A million bucks or so will get you one. Want to lower the temperature in the streets? Plunk another half a million and you got a deal. Moise does not have access to hand out cash like in the past, hence his paralysis. Moise is a symptom, not the disease that has ailed Haiti for most of its history as a republic. 

Haiti’s chronic corruption has come home to roost. What is going on in Haiti right now is deeper than anything we’ve seen even in the old days of embargo after Aristide was overthrown in Sept. 30,  1991. Those unrests, which lasted more than a year, look quaint compared to now.  At least the army had total control of the terror and violence. There was a line of command. This situation is totally chaotic and hired guns are running the show. 

We have a realignment of the long tacitly accepted norms in Haiti where dark-skinned Haitians are allowed to hold political power while the lighter-skinned and Arab merchants control the economy through monopolies and  uncompetitive means. When the latter class had a hiccup, it took handing out a few thousand dollars here and there to various politicians to squash the situation. In years past, the military high command played that role before being dismantled by Aristide. 

Now the dark-skinned political operatives have flipped the script and have muscled into the import business and are rejecting the crumbs that they used to be thrown their way to sow discourse. The political class is now importing goods from Miami and the Dominican Republic, bypassing the Arab merchants and eating their lunch. That my friends is unacceptable and it must be dealt with expeditiously. 

Obviously, every action deserves a reaction and this is where we are in Haiti as the unrests enter their second month. Meanwhile, people who can leave the country are doing so in large numbers. Nothing is random in Haiti and the businesses that are being attacked are those of these nouveau hommes d’affaires. Legacy and high profile enterprises are left untouched. Unlike last year, no supermarkets have been attacked, no banks, no car dealership. If the business is new, then it’s on the hit list. 

In a country known for its zero sum solution to any problem, this will not end well.  That is why some of the leading voices from the business class have taken to social media to defend their position by curiously claiming the victim mantle in all of this. 

Don’t be fooled, the only thing they care about is their bottom line. Right now their interest is under blistering attacks from crooked politicians as they see it. This is priceless coming from a class of people who have invested precious little in Haiti, hoarded their money in foreign banks and are holders of foreign passports.

To be sure, the other side is equally cynical and are lining up their pockets at the expense of everybody. Washington and the other so-called “Friends of Haiti” have moved on from Haiti and are dealing with their own internal challenges. 

This situation does not bode well for Haiti and things are falling apart and will get worse before any meaningful changes take place. If we continue to misdiagnosed this cancer, it will be to our peril. We talk often about the democratic process, but we seldom talk openly about the economic unfairness enjoyed by a tiny elite that’s creating a perpetual so called political crisis.

Garry Pierre-Pierre

Garry Pierre-Pierre

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer Prize winning, multi-media and entrepreneurial journalist. Founder and publisher of Haitian Times.
Garry Pierre-Pierre
Oct. 13, 2019

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