A prominent physician and close friend of mine once tried to import Beck’s, the German beer, into Haiti. He failed miserably.
Another wanted to bring low-cost batteries made in China to Haiti for sale. He was never able to get the batteries shipment out of Customs, let alone to sell a single one.
And another man invested his life savings into a boutique resort hotel. It was set ablaze.
I could go on and on, but this column is roughly 900 words long and I have other points I’d like to make. In each anecdote, the failure was not self-inflicted or lack of due diligence or competence on the entrepreneur’s part.
Nope. Each one failed because the system in Haiti is set up that way. You cannot win.
Every commodity is dominated by one family that holds on to it with an iron grip, as if their lives depend on it — because they are. If you have the skills, money or connections to do business the proper way in Haiti, these families will use whatever means necessary, even murder, to protect their turf.
In many ways, this resistance is what underpins Haiti’s descent into economic, social and security chaos. A group of less than 1% of Haiti’s population controls the entire country, including the government apparatus. They bribe government officials, tax collectors and electrical meter readers. As we saw in July 2021, they will not hesitate to assassinate a sitting president if he threatens their monopoly or demands that they pay their fair share of taxes.
So as the international community ponders what to do with Haiti, a so-called democratic country that has not one elected person in office, whatever is decided will be the third military invasion or mission in Haiti since 1994.
Rage against the oligarchs
The oligarchy is at the center of this latest disastrous chapter in Haiti’s stormy history. Sadly, that’s always been the case.
You see, the oligarchy has a nice and tidy scheme going on. Here’s how it works, feeding the the chaotic cycle Haiti can’t exit:
- Drain all the country’s resources, render it unlivable and calmly wait for the foreign calvary that inevitably comes to the rescue.
- With their monopolies on warehouses, food imports and materials that the foreigners need to function anyway, any invasion comes a deluge of cash. They benefit because they own warehouses, private ports and properties that soldiers and the horde of aid workers that follow need to function.
- Oligarchs’ bank accounts are replenished.
- After a period of relative calm, rinse and repeat.
This class, despite what we might think, are not rich because of their business acumen. Rather, they drive their enterprises to bankruptcy. They don’t apply marketing or other business tools that you use to manage and grow a business. They acquire money through illicit means, such as drug trafficking and weapons smuggling, and by brute force. See our Haiti gang crisis for more about this.
Robert Malval, a former Prime Minister under Jean Bertrand Aristide, described them to me years ago during an interview this way:
“They’re all in debt. They inherited their houses from their family. But everything else is leveraged. Their car, their expenses, everything. That’s why they finance coups.”
It is a clever way to recoup their money, albeit it being an unsustainable strategy.
Bring on the tactics for a new world order
The international community, mainly the United States and Canada has sanctioned some of these oligarchs and their political counterparts. That has them more shook than a palm tree in a Category 5 hurricane.
This tactic is new, and they’re not used to the script being flipped on them. But the pressure must continue and even escalate. The oligarchs have signed documents pledging to embrace and foster competition and become more humane. But their Manichean world view does not allow them to see nuances and honestly, I don’t believe they will honor any of their commitments. It’s not part of their DNA. People like them simply don’t give up power and embrace diversity, equity and inclusion.
We’ve seen it in the U.S. after the George Floyd recording unleashed a racial reckoning in America and across parts of the world. After making promises, almost three years later, we’re back to the status quo.
Ayisyen, pran konsyans non
Getting Haiti right is not only the responsibility of the international community. Haitians in Haiti have to come to the realization that the place is dysfunctional, and they need help. I’m astounded that almost two years after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the political class remains at an impasse and are unable to come to an agreement.
After the political and civil society groups cobble together some sort of an accord, the first order of business is to grow the pie because in that scenario, a large chunk of the population wins. Not the existing system.
Economic investment should include everyone. Small business owners, local and international entrepreneurs should receive contracts, along with the oligarchs. They are too powerful to cast aside. And besides, it’s not good governance to exclude anyone, even the oppressors.
Meanwhile, Haitian officials need to apply the law without fear and prejudice.
I and many other Haiti watchers consistently use the word ‘chaos’ to describe the deeply troubled country, but on paper Haiti’s laws and constitution are solid documents that can guide the country to stability and economic development. The problem is that no one follows these laws, rendering them worthless and conveniently applicable only to target political enemies or business competitors.
To be clear, the path forward remains fragile and changing centuries old mores and practices cannot be dismantled in a generation. I thought that when we embarked upon that democratic experiment in 1986, Haiti would have been further along. Unfortunately, it put the gear in reverse, then accelerated fast.
Still, I remain forever optimistic that we can shift into drive and move forward with this current opportunity. I’m reminded of a quote from the English poet John Dryden:
I am sore, wounded but not slain
I will lay me down and bleed awhile.
And then rise up to fight again.