By Onz Chery and Sam Bojarski | onz@haitiantimes.com, sam@haitiantimes.com

A man sitting in La Saline, Port-au-Prince, where over 400 houses were destroyed in a 2018 massacre and residents had to build new homes. Photo by Georges H. Rouzier for The Haitian Times

In 1806, just two years after Haiti’s first head of state, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, led the revolt against the French army, residents called him a “monster.” They accused Dessalines of starting slavery again. Members of Dessalines’s own administration launched the first opposition party and murdered him that same year.

The opposition rejoiced at the death of the “monster,” two of its members — Alexandre Pétion and Henri Christophe — turned Haiti into a warzone as they fought for the country’s highest seat, William Brown writes in “The Rising Son,” a history book on the Black race.

Haiti’s political instability and many other ongoing crises started then, from that first Haitian government. It happened because after Haiti became the first independent Black nation, it lacked qualified people who could govern, some experts say

The trend of unskilled leaders has remained a constant throughout the centuries and the root of so many of Haiti’s deep problems, including insecurity, high unemployment and poverty. With each administration, the problems have snowballed and appear to be reaching a tipping point, especially the insecurity crisis. 

On Friday, residents in Village de Dieu, Port-au-Prince, led police officers into an ambush. Gang members killed four of the police officers and injured eight of them, police said. Residents and members of the Diaspora felt like it was the last straw. Unable to bear with the pain Haiti’s current state brings, they started a #FreeHaiti movement on social media to cry out.

Translation: “I’m not going to hide it, I’m really stressed out because I force myself to think about when Haiti will get back in order. Even babies who are inside their mothers’ wombs are afraid to come out just to avoid this phenomenon. Be careful you in Haiti who’s not safe anywhere. #FreeHaiti”

President Jovenel Moïse advised the gang members to put their guns down because law enforcers are “coming” for them in an address to the nation Friday. However, Pierre Espérance, a human rights expert, has accused Moïse and his administration of running the country in a way that benefits gang members. 

“The bandits think little of people’s lives just like the regime in place,” Espérance, the National Network of Human Rights Defense’s director, told Juno7.

The cycle of Haiti’s beleaguered presidents is in its latest incarnation with Moïse, the 57th head of state, at the helm of the increasingly despairing populace. Moïse has accused an opposition group of trying to assassinate him and of attempting to execute a coup d’etat on Feb. 7, the day many residents believed that his term was supposed to end.

People have been taking to the streets regularly to demand Moïse leave office. The democratic sector and civil society groups even chose a president to replace Moïse, ex-Supreme Court Judge Joseph Jean-Louis. 

It’s a story that sounds far too familiar, another coup d’etat followed by another auto-proclaimed transitional government. 

Only 11 Haitian presidents finished their terms since the country abolished slavery in 1804, per Traveling Haiti. Graphic by Leonardo March for The Haitian Times.

“They [the opposition] are talking about a two-year intervening period, then elections and a new constitution. I’m not sure that this is going to lead to anything fundamentally different,” said Robert Fatton, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia who has authored multiple books on Haiti.

Inexperienced leaders from Day 1

Haiti’s long list of unskilled heads of state begins with its first one, Dessalines. Although he was a skillful general, Dessalines was illiterate. After leading the revolution, Dessalines ordered several massacres of white French inhabitants, a move that scarred Haiti, experts said. 

“Many of the great chiefs of the Black army were struck with horror and disgust at this fiendish cruelty of their emperor,” Brown writes in “The Rising Son.”

Haiti was also isolated after becoming independent because world powerhouses like France and the U.S. didn’t want to associate with them. As a result, Haiti struggled financially. Dessalines overworked the newly freed people at the plantations to increase the country’s income, according to Colin McKey, a University of Oregon scholar.

After the murder of Dessalines, his successors were two military men who didn’t have much political experience either, Christophe and Pétion. 

Haiti stuck to this pattern throughout the 1800s. People were constantly overthrowing their head of state because he wasn’t meeting their needs, especially financially.

“They’ve been killing presidents since 1806,” said Moïse in July. “Today, I tell you people, you put me in power but I went through a lot because of that power you gave me. I can’t explain the tribulations I went through.” 

During the early 1900s, it became more of a custom to elect presidents who had political experience, but by then Haiti was in deep debt, Port-au-Prince was overpopulated, the unemployment rate stayed high and the country even harder to govern. 

Later in the 1990s, Haiti revived electing inexperienced presidents. Former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, entered office in 1991 and was overthrown seven months later. Aristide won the election in 2001 again and was overthrown once more three years into his term. Later in 2011, a pop singer, Michel Martelly, was elected as president.

Pop singer Michel Martelly won the 2011 presidential election. Photo by Georges H. Rouzier for The Haitian Times

The next elected president was a businessman, Moïse. It’s also becoming a custom for singers, without much political experience, to be in Parliament. One of Mass Konpa’s singers, Gracia Delva is a senator, so was Brother’s Posse’s lead singer Antonio “Don Kato” Cheramy. 

Money chasing stirs political crisis

The country’s economic problem has also played a key role in Haiti’s political crisis over the years, experts say. The country’s first few presidents mismanaged the country’s finances as mentioned. To make matters worse, in 1825, France demanded Haiti to pay them 150 million francs to compensate them for losing slaves after Haiti became independent. They also owed Germany and the U.S. 

Haiti finished paying what they owed France in 1947, a sum of $21 billion. The country was left economically broken — until today. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Given the minimal economic productivity in Haiti, politicians have an incentive to use their power and enrich themselves, experts said.

Fatton connected Haiti’s political issues to its economic system, where a very small, wealthy elite holds power. A separate but connected class of politicians manages the system, he said, which can lead to corruption.

“Politics becomes a business, you get into politics so that you can make money and that means there is corruption,” Fatton said.

“Once you’re in power, you certainly do not want to leave power because this is the means to not only enrich yourself, but also enrich your family, extended family, your region where you’re giving preferential treatment,” Fatton added.

President Moïse, Martelly, ex-President François Duvalier and other former presidents and government officials have been accused of embezzlement.

Filmmaker Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. holding a sign that reads “Where’s the PetroCaribe money?” PetroCaribe is a funding program from Venezuela in which at least $2 billion went missing between 2008 and 2016. Photo by Georges H. Rouzier for The Haitian Times

Government officials’ alleged embezzlement stirred several protests over the years and worsened Haiti’s political climate.

Of gangs and government 

Government officials are regularly accused of being affiliated with gangs or death squads. This became rampant under Duvalier, who won the 1957 elections largely because he intimidated residents, historian Elizabeth Abbott writes in “Haiti: A Shattered Nation.” 

But as with his predecessors, Duvalier couldn’t overcome Haiti’s challenges. So a year into his term, he faced a coup attempt. All the participants were murdered by Duvaliers’ death squad, which morphed into the Tonton Macoute force used to intimidate and murder Duvalier’s opponents for decades. His son and successor, Jean-Claude Duvalier, followed the same blueprint until their 29-year-reign ended — on February 7, 1986.

Gangs were also allegedly affiliated with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s regime. Those gangs were mainly located in Cité Soleil, Bel Air and other impoverished areas in Port-au-Prince. Bandits reportedly shot residents who took part in anti-Aristide protests, kidnapped residents and raped women. Some of the gang members were under 18.

Similarly with Moïse, the G9 Family and Allies gang is allegedly affiliated with the government. Some of the G9 members even marched in a pro-Moïse protest in January, residents said. They are accused of several massacres in anti-Moïse neighborhoods, including one in La Saline, Port-au-Prince, in which over 71 residents died in November 2018. 

Moïse has denied being linked with the G9 and their leader, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier.

“I was born in Trou-du-Nord. I’m from Port-de-Paix. Can a man as little as myself have big friends?” Moïse said in an interview in November, making light of the accusation.

Corrupt elections fan flames of political unrest

Duvalier also opened the door of a voting fraud crisis, according to historian Abbott. Many said he was elected only because the process was fraudulent. Such accusations of election fraud resumed in the first election, in 1987, to replace Baby Doc. Suspected and documented fraud resurfaced in the 2006, 2011, 2015 and 2016 elections.

“Usually the crises are very much related to elections,” Fatton said. “There’s a fight about the electoral council, then once that is settled there is a fight over the results of the first round.”

Haitians are often reluctant to vote out of fear of getting attacked by a political affiliated gang and because they think there will be another fraud, experts said. Because so many residents won’t vote, the country ends up with a leader most people don’t want. In the 2016 election, for example, Moïse won with the lowest amount of voters ever as only 21.6 percent of the eligible voters participated.

A bleak future?

As the elections draw near, Moïse and the opposition have intensified accusations thrown at each other on a daily basis: murder, attempted murder, embezzlement, kidnapping. 

For people and observers Politics in Haiti turned into an entangled affair that will take an awful long time to resolve, residents said. Some aspiring leaders have lost hope of entering any governmental office to try to change the country.

“We need a new generation of leaders,” said Peterson Cledanor, a law student at the University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. “But it’s so hard for young people to become leaders. To become a leader, you have to be corrupt.”

“The political instability in Haiti will take a long, long time to get fixed,” Cledanor added.

Email me at onz@haitiantimes.com
Onz Chery started his journalism career as a City College of New York student with The Campus. He later wrote for First Touch, local soccer leagues in New York and ESNY before joining The Haitian Times. Onz is also a Report for America corps member.