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Crisis in Haiti – Brian Ellsworth/CQ

Tires burn on a street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2022 amid shortages of food and fuel. Gang violence has increased after a crisis fueled by the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

(AFP/Getty Images/Richard Pierrin)
Tires burn on a street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2022 amid shortages of food and fuel. Gang violence has increased after a crisis fueled by the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. (AFP/Richard Pierrin)

By Brian Ellsworth

Haitian gangs have become so powerful in the past five years that they are disrupting basic activities and making elections impossible through constant turf wars and violence against innocent civilians. Their expansion has coincided with a constitutional crisis fueled by the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. That left the country to be governed by Prime Minister Ariel Henry rather than by an elected president as the constitution requires, leading to significant questioning of his legitimacy. In October, the United Nations backed an international support mission led by Kenyan police officers to confront the criminal groups, though critics decry the interference of foreign forces. The security crisis and growing poverty are driving more Haitians to emigrate, even as the United States and other countries in Latin America are already struggling with unprecedented levels of migration. Experts believe the situation will worsen without a resolution to the constitutional crisis as well as international support for Haitian-led solutions.

For years, Haitian Pastor Marcorel Zidor watched gangs in the Canaan area north of the capital of Port-au-Prince murder and kidnap citizens with complete impunity. Zidor, best known as Pastor Marco, gave a sermon in August in which he advocated violently confronting gangs. He then led a march of hundreds of people into an area controlled by a local gang. The gang responded with machine gun fire that killed seven people and wounded dozens of others. Human rights group Fondasyon Je Klere, which means Eyes Wide Open Foundation, slammed Pastor Marco for using the pulpit to promote violence. But in a subsequent radio interview, Pastor Marco said that despite the carnage, he would “do it again.” The incident follows the rise of a vigilante justice movement known as “Bwa Kale” that as of July has carried out 479 lynchings of suspected gang members, according to the United Nations (U.N.). Many Haitian citizens believe this is their only way to address the chronic violence.1

Photo of police search in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on November 10, 2022.Police search an area during an attack by armed gangs in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood in 2022. Members of the community frustrated by the rampant gang violence in 2023 began resorting to vigilante justice that has resulted in the lynching of nearly 500 suspected gang members. (AFP/Getty Images/Richard Pierrin)

Haitians are going to desperate extremes to confront gangs whose power is so vast and violence so brutal that the U.N. Security Council in October backed an intervention force to help bring stability. The U.N.-backed Multinational Security Support Mission (MSSM) will be led by Kenya, which has offered to deploy 1,000 police officers, with Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and The Bahamas also providing personnel. Supporters say it will help the government regain territory now controlled by gangs and slow the spiral of violence. Critics call it yet another intervention force for a country that has seen similar efforts in the past do more harm than good. Without measures to control gang power, experts fear the ongoing violence will worsen poverty and further fuel already rampant drug and weapons trafficking. That could lead to more migration to the United States at a time when U.S. borders are overwhelmed. The United States is the most common destination for Haitians leaving their homeland, but others include Brazil, Canada, Chile and the Dominican Republic.2(See Short Feature.)

The vertical bar graph shows the number of internally displaced persons in Haiti from 2022 to 2023.

Haiti’s gangs control an estimated 80 percent of Port-au-Prince and have grown so powerful that they routinely undermine basic governance and disrupt economic activity. Innocent civilians are increasingly being killed in violent turf wars while businesses are subject to constant extortion. In November, a gang surrounded a Port-a-Prince hospital after torching homes in the area, forcing the hospital to evacuate patients and staff — some of whom had to carry infants on oxygen in plastic containers. A U.N. panel of experts on Haiti said in a September report that gangs — an estimated 150-200 operate across the country — are getting stronger and better armed while amassing wealth that allows them to build luxury homes and swimming pools. Trafficking of weapons to Haiti, principally from the United States, “is soaring,” and the country remains a major smuggling route for Colombian cocaine and Jamaican cannabis headed toward the United States, according to the U.N.3

Gangs control roads leading in and out of Port-au-Prince, making it unsafe to travel by land between the capital and the rest of the country. The area that links Port-au-Prince to the southern peninsula is controlled by a patchwork of gangs including the G9 alliance. Other prominent gangs include the 5 Segonn, led by Izo 5 Segonn, who prides himself on being a rapper and having a recording studio he built for himself. The road north out of Port-au-Prince is controlled by the G-Pèp coalition, while land routes east toward the Dominican Republic are the territory of the Kraze Barye gang and the 400 Mawozo, which in 2021 kidnapped a group of American and Canadian missionaries and held them for two months.4

The vertical bar graph shows the number of homicides and kidnappings in Haiti from 2019 to 2023.

Kidnapping for ransom continues to be the gangs’ most lucrative activity. Abductions tripled in the first three months of 2023 compared to the prior quarter, according to Haitian human rights group Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights (CARDH). More than 1,860 killings, injuries and kidnappings were documented by the U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti, known by the French acronym BINUH, between April and June of 2023 — 14 percent more than the previous quarter.5

Security experts say Haitian gangs have their roots in the paramilitary secret police force known as Tonton Macoute, created by the late dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, to suppress dissent and murder adversaries. Haiti’s government disbanded the group in 1986 but its members were not disarmed and continued to operate as vigilantes for hire. Haitian President Jean-Betrand Aristide in 1995 disbanded the country’s army without retraining or reintegrating soldiers, some of whom went on to create armed groups that morphed into gangs. Aristide supporters outraged by his 2004 overthrow took up arms to demand his return, which further contributed to the proliferation of armed groups.6

Haitians have increasingly denounced links between the gangs and the country’s political and economic elite. Canada in 2022 sanctioned business leaders including Gilbert Bigio, chairman of industrial conglomerate GB Group, as well as food importer Reynold Deeb and insurance entrepreneur Sherif Abdallah, for alleged connections to gangs. The U.N. says politicians have financed gangs to suppress dissent and strengthen their support in specific neighborhoods, and business leaders have used gangs to intimidate residents. In 2018, former President Michel Martelly provided weapons and financing to gang leaders in exchange for their assistance in expanding his influence in neighborhoods and breaking up opposition protests, according to the U.N.7

Gang violence is fueling hunger. A total of 4.9 million Haitians — nearly half the population — do not have enough to eat, and 1.8 million are facing severe food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). The number of severely hungry people in Haiti has tripled since 2016, according to WFP. Insecurity has hampered Haiti’s agricultural sector, which has already suffered from natural disasters such as storms and devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2021.8

Haiti’s economy is expected to contract by 2.5 percent in the 2023 fiscal year after shrinking for four consecutive years. A World Bank survey in March showed that two-thirds of households reported a drop in income and 40 percent reported a decline in remittances from the previous month. “Past gains in poverty reduction have been undone,” the World Bank stated.9

Migration is soaring as more people attempt to escape the country. More than 160,000 Haitians arrived in the United States in the 2023 fiscal year compared with around 55,000 in 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Some continue to leave the country on rickety wooden vessels in efforts to reach U.S. shores, but many fly to Central America in hopes of entering the United States via the southern border. In response to growing political pressure over record illegal border crossings, the Biden administration in January announced a new program that allows up to 360,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans per year to live and work temporarily in the United States if they have U.S. sponsors and enter by air. The measure known as “humanitarian parole” also involved increasing the expulsions of immigrants who cross the border illegally. Before the humanitarian parole program was created, many migrants were able to seek asylum at the border and remain in the United States while judges reviewed their cases.10

The line graph shows the number of Haitians seeking asylum from 2018 to 2023.

The Haitian National Police (PNH) has seen its numbers dwindle as officers quit or leave the country due to frustration that gangs have better equipment and bigger guns. Nearly 3,000 officers left the force between 2021 and the start of 2023, and some 800 quit in the first six months of 2023. At any given time, there are only around 4,000 officers fully available to work, the U.N. estimates, noting that this is only a fraction of the 14,000 officers listed in official statistics.11

In October of 2022, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry made a broad plea to the international community to send a strike force with the mission of confronting gangs that created acute fuel shortages by blocking the entrance to the country’s main fuel terminal. The gangs abandoned that blockade within weeks, but Haitian politicians continued to ask for a foreign force — this time with a broader mission of helping to stabilize the country.12

The idea immediately drew skepticism in Haiti due to the experience of previous foreign interventions, particularly the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH, that lasted from 2004 to 2017. MINUSTAH was linked to a deadly cholera epidemic and sexual abuse of underaged girls and boys. But many Haitians nonetheless support foreign intervention due to the desperation of the situation. One poll released in February showed some 70 percent of Haitians supporting a foreign intervention, while another poll published in October showed the same percentage backing the Kenyan mission.13

Countries around the world were reluctant to participate out of concern that the operation would lead to civilian and personnel casualties. The United States never signaled a willingness to send personnel but mounted an intense lobbying campaign to convince other countries to do so. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the proposal lacked a clear plan. Brazil’s military, which played a key role in MINUSTAH, signaled it was not interested because its prior involvement in Haiti did not lead to lasting improvements.14

In July, the Kenyan government offered to send 1,000 police officers to train and support the Haitian national police and protect key infrastructure. Kenyan security forces have participated in U.N. peacekeeping missions in countries including Liberia and South Sudan. The government of Kenyan President William Ruto is pushing the plan ahead despite a court challenge, and the United States has committed to providing up to $200 million to support the effort.15

The debate over foreign intervention coincided with deep questioning of the legitimacy of Henry’s leadership. He became the de facto head of state after the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in his home by assailants including former Colombian military officers, a crime whose motive and intellectual authors have not been clearly identified. Haiti’s constitution requires that the head of state be an elected president, but most Haitians agree that elections cannot be held under the current security situation.16

In December 2022, Henry signed an agreement with business, religious and political sectors to work toward a political transition and in February created a group called the High Transition Council made up of representatives from those sectors. The council says it has struggled to make progress because the security situation continues to make elections impossible. In a stark reflection of the problem, the High Transition Council’s own secretary general Anthony Virginie Saint-Pierre was kidnapped in October and held in captivity for nearly two weeks.17

Some political leaders and civil society groups boycotted the arrangement, arguing Henry has effectively assumed the role of head of state and is trying to stay in power as long as possible. A poll in October showed 71 percent of the population believes that neither Henry nor Haitian politicians can solve the country’s security crisis.18

As unrest and escalating violence continue to destabilize Haiti, here are some of the questions being debated:

Can the U.N.-backed Kenyan police force help stabilize Haiti?

Maarten Boute, chairman of the Haiti division of Digicel, which runs Haiti’s largest mobile network, has been a vocal supporter of the Kenya support mission while also acknowledging its challenges. (See Pro/Con.)

“The status quo is not an option — every day it gets worse, every week it gets worse,” says Boute, noting the spiraling increase in kidnappings and killings and the steady expansion of gang territory. “They could decide today that they’re going to storm the airport and there’s nothing to stop them. That means the country shuts down.”

Boute is upfront about the challenges that the effort faces, most notably that making a significant dent in the problem of gang violence will require approximately 5,000 officers. But he adds that the only way to convince the international community to send a larger force is for an initial mission to see for itself the difficulty of the situation.

For Pierre Esperance, executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network, (RNDDH), a human rights organization, the Kenya support mission cannot be effective while the country lacks a fully functioning government and an elected head of state. Part of the strength of gangs comes from their ties to Haitian public officials and their links to the police, which cannot be addressed by the Kenyan support mission, he says.

“We need to fix the political stability, we need to fix the absence of rule of law and governance,” says Esperance. “If the Kenya mission comes — tomorrow, next week, in two weeks, in one month — without fixing the governance problem, it will not work. It will be a cosmetic solution.”

Photo of banner calling for peace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on September 12, 2023.A banner calls for peace in Port-au-Prince as a Kenyan-led international force prepares to support the understaffed Haitian police. Some 3,800 Haitian police have quit since 2021 out of frustration that the gangs have better equipment and bigger guns. (Getty Images/Giles Clarke)

The mission also faces a court challenge in Kenya. A tribunal has blocked the deployment of forces to Haiti after constitutional expert and former presidential candidate Ekuru Aukot filed a lawsuit in October arguing that the mission violates the Kenyan constitution because it was not approved by parliament and because Haiti never formally asked Kenya to send the force.19

Charlot Jacquelin is a young Haitian politician who leads the Heritage 1804 party, a small, recently formed party that invokes ideals of the Haitian revolution and independence. Jacquelin says the mission cannot be a long-term solution.

“The mission can help to alleviate the phenomenon of insecurity, since, obviously, the public forces are overwhelmed by the situation,” he says. “But we cannot indefinitely put the responsibility for stabilization on foreign missions (military or police). In the short term, the mission can help, but … it is up to Haiti to ensure its security.”

Jake Johnston, a Haiti expert who is a senior research associate with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says the vague nature of the plan puts it at risk of failing as previous international interventions did.

“We’ve seen what haphazard approaches by the international community in Haiti generally lead to, and it certainly hasn’t been anything good,” says Johnston. “It’s trying to treat the security situation in a vacuum, which is typical of the international community’s approach to any issue in Haiti.”

Should the international community continue to support Prime Minister Henry?

During the confusion that followed Moïse’s assassination, a dispute emerged over who should be the country’s provisional leader. The so-called “Core Group” — which includes representatives from countries such as the United States, Spain, France and Canada — called on Henry to form a government. The statement was widely shared on the social media platform Twitter, now called X, which led some skeptics to say Henry had been appointed by a tweet. Those skeptics say that Henry is only there due to international support, and the international community should withdraw its backing to usher in a transition government representative of Haitian society.20

André Michel, a lawyer and supporter of the prime minister, says Henry is making every effort to create a transition government and Henry’s political adversaries should work with him to ensure this can happen as quickly as possible.

“The international community must continue to support Haiti, and there is no way to support Haiti outside of supporting its government,” says Michel. “Ariel Henry has the sacrosanct mission of leading the interim process to pass power to elected officials chosen by the population. He must assume this responsibility until the end. Those who say (Henry) is clinging to power are (speaking) in bad faith.”

Monique Clesca is a journalist and member of a civil society group called the Montana Accord, named after a Port-au-Prince hotel where its leaders first met in 2021. The group includes includes civic leaders, former politicians, journalists, economists and entrepreneurs who support the creation of a common political platform. They believe Henry should be replaced by a provisional government that represents a cross-section of Haitian society.

Clesca describes Henry as an illegitimate leader who is in office only because of a decision by the international community. She says Henry’s lack of legitimacy has made it impossible for him to govern and has contributed to the security crisis.

Photo of prime minister Ariel Henry speaking at United Nations on September 22, 2023.Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 22. He has been pressing for an international strike force to confront the escalating gang violence throughout the country. (Getty Images/Spencer Platt)

“Why did they tweet that Ariel Henry should be prime minister?” she asks. “I do not know why they keep supporting him. Why are we still in the Ariel Henry era?”

Clesca agrees that elections are currently impossible. She says Henry has never negotiated the creation of a transition government in good faith.

“The international community should push for serious negotiations, to show that they mean it when they say they want a consensus,” says Clesca.

Jean-Junior Joseph, a spokesperson for the prime minister’s office, says the Montana Accord has no constitutional authority to replace the Henry government. He says the High Transition Council is representative of Haitian society and that any discussion about a transition must be based on efforts to seek future elections. A withdrawal of international support for Henry in the middle of the current crisis would be catastrophic for Haiti, he says.

“When there is a crisis, you cannot leave the country without a leader,” says Joseph. “This would be like leaving a plane without a pilot.” The diplomatic community must maintain support for Henry until elections can be held, he says. He dismisses accusations that Henry is seeking to stay in power forever, noting the safety concerns facing any prime minister, especially in the wake of the Moïse assassination.

Critics of the Montana Accord also note that the October poll showed 57 percent of Haitians believe it cannot solve the country’s political problems.21

Should the United States help more Haitians emigrate to the country?

Haiti’s security crisis combined with a steadily deteriorating economy has left many citizens feeling they cannot remain in their country. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force continue to intercept thousands of migrants each year who attempt to flee Haiti on wooden vessels that are dangerously overloaded with migrants and have no safety provisions in the event of a capsizing. The U.N. International Organization for Migration documented a record high 321 deaths in 2022 and disappearances of migrants in the Caribbean, 80 of whom were Haitian.22

But more frequently, Haitian migrants arrive at the U.S. border with Mexico after traveling through other countries. In September 2021, an estimated 15,000 Haitians gathered in improvised camps in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, along with a similar number of migrants from other countries. Images from the scene showed mounted U.S. Border Patrol officers using their horses and reins to block and move Haitian migrants. The situation prompted indignation about the treatment of migrants, and critics said the images were reminiscent of American slavery. Customs and Border Protection later concluded that agents engaged in “unnecessary use of force” but had not in fact whipped migrants with reins — an assertion disputed by immigration advocates. Some 2,000 Haitians were sent back to Haiti, while others were released into the United States — some of whom may have also been expelled.23

Photo of families crossing river in Darien Gap, Colombia, on October 18, 2021.Immigrant families, mostly from Haiti, make one of dozens of dangerous river crossings as they pass through Colombia with the hope of making it to the United States. The security crisis and growing poverty are driving many Haitians to emigrate, a situation experts expect to worsen. (Getty Images/John Moore)

Daniel Foote, former U.S. special envoy for Haiti, who resigned over the deportation of Haitians from Del Rio, believes the United States has a responsibility to help more Haitians emigrate.

“By continuing to back Henry, who has done nothing to mollify the situation, the United States is forcing people out of that country,” says Foote. “We are the root of the problems in Haiti, these people are desperate and they’re jumping off that island in the hope of getting anywhere they can to get into the United States.” Foote notes that sending migrants back to Haiti is inconsistent with the U.S. embassy’s own decision to pull the vast majority of its diplomats out of the country due to security conditions.

“If (U.S. diplomats) are evacuated from a country, we probably shouldn’t be deporting innocent civilians back there for migration violations,” he says. “So deporting them is about as inhumane as it gets.”

Andrew Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, says the situation in Haiti is indeed shocking but adds that resources are not available to take care of more immigrants. Though federal agencies are in charge of deciding which migrants are allowed to enter the country, the cost of providing shelter and social services for immigrants typically falls on state and local governments whose budgets are already stretched thin.

“The Biden administration only thinks about immigrants once they get here, but once they get here, they’re somebody else’s problem,” he says. “And that somebody else is those taxpayers who are going to have to pay higher state and local taxes and pay higher property taxes for schools, who are going to have to find the money to expand medical facilities in their areas.”

He also says that many of the migrants who arrived at the U.S. border during the Del Rio crisis did not come directly from Haiti but rather from other countries they had previously migrated to, such as Brazil and Chile. Helping more Haitians leave the country will also undermine Haiti in the long run by creating a drain on the country’s human resources, he added.

“When you rob Haiti of its human capital, you’re not going to make the lives of Haitians any better,” he says. “It does create a significant toll with respect to any process of development.”

David Bier, associate director of immigration studies at Cato Institute, says the Biden administration should favor more legal pathways for immigration. “I think they should be let in legally,” he says. “You don’t want people to be showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border unexpectedly; it’s much better logistically to have them come in directly from their home country.”

The Biden administration’s parole program has reduced the number of Haitian migrants arriving at the border by providing a legal pathway for some Haitians to come to the United States, Bier says. But he adds that there is a large backlog of applications that are not being processed because the cap is well below the total number of Haitians seeking entry. “It’s going to be five years on average before someone’s application is going to get processed,” he says. “That’s just too long when you’re facing a total breakdown of society that we’ve seen in Haiti.”24

Daniel Di Martino, an economist and a Manhattan Institute graduate fellow who studies immigration, says Haitians have the lowest secondary school graduation rates in the Americas according to data collected by U.N. children’s organization UNICEF and a literacy rate of 62 percent according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).25

Di Martino says immigrants who have not completed high school are on average a net burden to the taxpayer before retirement while those with a college degree generate more tax revenue than they consume. Therefore, he says, Haitian immigrants are not a group the United States should be prioritizing. “If you bring in people who don’t know how to read in their native language, many of them are going to be older, it’s going to be a huge cost to the United States,” he says. “I don’t think that’s the solution to what’s going on in Haiti. Nor would it be good for Americans.” Liberalizing immigration policies makes sense if it helps fill gaps in labor for areas such as construction, he says, which is different from accepting more refugees.


Colonization and Independence

Christopher Columbus established a Spanish settlement on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, along what is now the northern coast of Haiti. Within 25 years, most of the island’s native Taíno people died from enslavement, massacre or disease. Spain in 1697 ceded the western portion of Hispaniola to France, which created the colony of Saint-Domingue, home to a notoriously brutal slave economy.

The colony’s ruling elite brought an estimated 800,000 Africans to work on sugar, coffee and indigo plantations. The system of slavery was so violent that those forcibly transported from Africa survived only two to three years on average, while enslaved people born in Saint-Domingue had an average life span of 16 years. Enslaved Africans outnumbered whites by 10 to 1, but colonial authorities brutally suppressed rebellions.26

The French Revolution in the late 18th century created foundational principles of modern democracy, including the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, setting in motion a process that would lead to the end of slavery. But it was the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue who would force France to accept abolition. On August 14, 1791, a group of enslaved people led by a Vodou priest known as Dutty Boukman and a religious leader named Cécile Fatiman held a ceremony calling on enslaved people to avenge the injustices committed against them.27

Within days, massive fires had broken out on plantations across the colony, and white enslavers fled to the countryside. The event is considered the start of the Haitian Revolution, which is seen as one of history’s few successful rebellions by enslaved people. The uprising soon came under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, who was born into slavery in Saint-Domingue in 1743 but later gained his freedom. He was widely respected as an accomplished soldier and a military leader who advocated for France to emancipate enslaved peoples and helped lead French military campaigns against England and Spain. In 1801, he seized power and governed Saint-Domingue independently of French control.28

Illustration of General Toussaint Louverture, circa 1800.Haitian military commander General Toussaint Louverture led the successful Haitian Revolution in the late 18th century, a rebellion of enslaved peoples that brought about the creation of the Republic of Haiti (Getty Images/Bettmann/J. Linnell)

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 ordered Louverture captured and returned to France, where he died in prison. Having taken back control of the colony, France ordered that slavery be reinstated. But Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had been one of Louverture’s generals, led a revolt that routed Napoleon’s forces. He declared independence on Jan. 1, 1804, and named the new country “Ayiti,” the indigenous word for “land of the high mountains.” Dessalines declared himself governor general for life and later that year proclaimed himself emperor of Haiti.29

Following the revolution, Haiti’s mixed-race people consolidated power as an elite that governed from the cities while the country’s Black inhabitants lived in rural poverty cultivating small plots of land. The 19th century also brought mass deforestation due to the export of tropical hardwood and the burning of wood and charcoal for energy. Three-quarters of Haiti’s trees had disappeared by 1923, which would undermine agriculture for decades.30

France withdrew from Hispaniola following its humiliating defeat but refused to recognize Haiti as an independent nation until 1825. The United States only recognized Haiti in 1862, though it maintained trade ties for most of the 19th century. France maintained a decades-long embargo to pressure Haiti into paying restitution for the loss of land and enslaved people caused by the revolution. With its trade decimated by the embargo, Haiti agreed to pay France 112 million francs — the modern equivalent of $560 million — removing an estimated $21 billion from the country’s economy and hindering development for years. Haiti paid off the debt over the course of seven decades. The bank that most benefitted from the arrangement was France’s Crédit Industriel et Commercial, now known as CIC.31

Haiti also suffered chronic instability during most of the 19th century, with political leaders repeatedly overthrown or assassinated. Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, a military commander who became president after leading a revolt, was beaten to death in 1915 by a crowd of protestors who were angry over his decision to execute as many as 200 imprisoned political adversaries including a former president. The government of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ordered an occupation of the country in response. The U.S. Marines imposed martial law, outlawed dissent and banned Vodou, Haiti’s indigenous religion. They also took control of Haitian finances, including its treasury and tax collection, and created the Gendarmerie of Haiti, which would go on to become Haiti’s armed forces. The Marines would withdraw in 1934 after having firmly entrenched America’s control over the country’s politics and economy.32

In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to kill all Haitians living along the country’s northwestern border. The tragedy became known as the Parsley Massacre because Dominican soldiers decided which inhabitants to kill based on whether their pronunciation of “perejil,” the Spanish word for parsley, revealed a Haitian creole accent. The massacre created lasting mistrust between the two countries, which still maintain tense relations and have frequent bilateral disputes.33

In 1941, Haitian President Elie Lescot led an anti-Vodou campaign in conjunction with the Catholic Church meant to eradicate the religion by destroying shrines and objects associated with the faith. The campaign failed to eliminate Vodou and instead created a backlash that contributed to the rise of François Duvalier on a nationalistic and pro-Vodou platform.34

Papa Doc and Baby Doc Dictatorships

The 1957 election of Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” ushered in decades of brutal dictatorship that left an indelible mark on Haitian history. Born in 1907 in Port-au-Prince, Duvalier from an early age opposed the U.S. occupation of Haiti. He attended medical school in 1934, becoming the head of Haiti’s national health service in 1946 and minister of public health and labor in 1949 under President Dumarsais Estimé. Duvalier in those years forged a Black nationalist political ideology that celebrated Vodou as a foundational element of Haitian heritage and argued that the Black middle class should confront the mixed-race elite. While in government, he built a strong network among Vodou leaders and became known as an advocate for the religion. Duvalier went into hiding after a 1950 coup overthrew Estimé but returned to politics in 1956 and in 1957 was elected president.35

Once in power, Duvalier presented himself both as a head of state and a spiritual father of the nation. Following a failed 1958 military coup, Duvalier created the Tonton Macoute paramilitary group that carried out assassinations and forced disappearances to quell dissent. The Tonton Macoute dressed in denim uniforms resembling a Vodou patron saint, and the group’s ranks included some influential Vodou leaders. In 1961, Duvalier added his name to the ballot of that year’s parliamentary election, with no candidate running against him, and later announced he had been reelected. In 1964, he declared himself president for life. Washington policymakers were alarmed at both the brutality of his government and rampant corruption in his use of foreign aid and loans, but ignored the abuses because his government was perceived as helping stave off communism in the Western Hemisphere.36

When Duvalier died of heart disease and diabetes in 1971, his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier inherited the title of president for life to become the nation’s leader at the age of 19. The younger Duvalier continued his father’s brutal repression while maintaining a famously lavish lifestyle that included a $3 million wedding in 1980. Transparency International in 2004 estimated he embezzled as much as $800 million while in office. Popular protests broke out against him in 1985, and in 1986 he fled for exile in France — paving the way for a transition government.37

Aristide and “The Avalanche”

Duvalier was succeeded by a string of provisional and short-lasting presidents until the 1990 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest who vowed to address the country’s extreme poverty. He promised to openly confront business elites, give greater space and respect for the Vodou religion and investigate human rights violations. He was elected with 67.5 percent of the vote but within less than a year was overthrown in a military coup led by General Raoul Cédras, who had received training in the United States. U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1994 mobilized U.S. troops as part of Operation Uphold Democracy that led Cédras to resign, allowing Aristide to return to power. Aristide was succeeded by René Préval, an agronomist elected in 1996.38

Photo of Jean-Bertrand Aristide speaking in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on November 27, 2000.Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president of Haiti in 1990, vowing to address poverty and investigate human rights abuses. He was overthrown in a military coup but returned to power in 1994 with help from the U.S. military. (Getty Images/Robert Nickelsberg)

Aristide was again elected president in 2000 after running on an anti-poverty platform of the political party Fanmi Lavalas, which roughly translates to “Avalanche Family.” The vote was boycotted by the main opposition parties on the grounds that the elections council had not addressed irregularities in parliamentary elections held in May and July of that year. The Organization of American States (OAS) said in a report that the elections council in those parliamentary votes favored Fanmi Lavalas over opposition parties Organization of People in Struggle and Dialogue Space.39

When Aristide faced protests over corruption, allies of Fanmi Lavalas began publicly threatening opposition leaders. Opposition activists said they were being harassed and attacked by pro-Aristide gangs known as “chimeres” or “ghosts,” which they said were coordinated by Fanmi Lavalas. That fueled criticism that Aristide was using political violence to crush dissent and intimidate adversaries. Fanmi Lavalas leaders also threatened journalists over their coverage of politics, and reporters were in some cases targeted at protests.40

Photo of aid worker helping girl in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 13, 2010.A French aid worker helps a girl at a makeshift field hospital in Port-au-Prince after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010 leveled much of the city and killed more than 200,000 people, triggering a massive international relief effort. (Getty Images/Joe Raedle)

In 2004, gangs joined forces with former soldiers of the disbanded army as part of a self-described anti-Aristide rebellion in Haiti’s northern region. The group advanced toward the capital and overthrew Aristide, who left Haiti on a U.S. flight to the Central African Republic. Aristide later said he had been kidnapped, which the United States denied. The coup led to the 2004 creation of the U.N. MINUSTAH stabilization force, which would remain in Haiti until 2017. The 13-year mission was unable to slow the rise of gangs and caused significant collateral damage by triggering an outbreak of cholera due to poor sanitation practices at a facility housing Nepali peacekeeping forces. Troops from Uruguay, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were accused of sexually assaulting minors. Troops fathered and abandoned dozens of children who were given the moniker “MINUSTAH babies.”41

In 2006, Préval was again elected president and began building diplomatic alliances with leftist governments in the region. He won support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who provided Haiti with discounted fuel and aid funding through the PetroCaribe initiative that would later end up at the center of a major corruption scandal.42

Haiti was struck with a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that killed more than 200,000 people, leveled large parts of Port-au-Prince and created a humanitarian crisis. The event triggered a massive international effort that provided short-term emergency relief. But over the longer term, most aid funds went to U.S. contractors rather than to Haitian organizations.43

Martelly and Moïse

The country’s emergence from the earthquake’s devastation coincided with the political rise of Michel Martelly, a pop singer known for Haitian konpa music who went by the stage name Sweet Micky. Riding on his popularity as an entertainer, he campaigned by staging concerts that also functioned as political rallies. Martelly promised to promote private enterprise and foreign investment as a path toward economic stability for Haiti, helping him win the firm backing of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During the first-round presidential election in 2010, initial results showed Martelly coming in third, which would have left him out of the run-off. But after intense protests by Martelly supporters, international observers backed by the United States concluded he had come in second behind former first lady Mirlande Manigat. Martelly defeated Manigat in a runoff vote to win the presidency the following year. Soon after taking office, he faced accusations of corruption over alleged bribery and misuse of earthquake relief funds and by 2014 faced street protests that would continue until he left office.44

Martelly endorsed, as his preferred successor, former agricultural entrepreneur Jovenel Moïse, who went on to win a plurality in the elections of November 2015. But that vote was so plagued by irregularities that the elections council ordered it repeated. When Martelly left office in 2016 at the end of his term, Haiti’s senate elected Senate President Jocelerme Privert to lead the country while authorities organized a repeat of the election. Moïse in November 2016 won the presidency on the pro-business platform of the Tèt Kale or “Bald Head” party with more than 55 percent of the vote. Soon after taking office in 2017, he also faced street protests, first over fuel price hikes and later over corruption in the use of funds from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program. By 2020, he was ruling by decree because the country had not held elections that were due the prior year, and therefore parliament was not functioning.45

Photo of former first lady and president Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 11, 2017.Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, right, was assassinated in July 2021 in a plot involving Colombian mercenaries and Haitian Americans. His wife, Martine, left, was wounded. The assassination of Moïse led to a constitutional crisis and escalating gang violence. (Getty Images/NurPhoto/Contributor)

Before dawn on July 7, 2021, Moïse was murdered in a plot in which Colombian mercenaries and Haitian Americans posing as U.S. anti-narcotics agents assaulted his home. Gunmen fired on Moïse and his wife Martine, wounding her and killing him. The Haitian National Police would go on to arrest more than 40 people, including 18 Colombians who later said they had been recruited to provide security and were unaware they had been pulled into an assassination plot.

In October, Haitian authorities jailed Joseph Félix Badio, a top suspect in Moïse’s murder who had been on the run for two years. U.S. federal prosecutors in Miami have indicted 11 people in the murder plot since January 2022, including Haitian Americans James Solages and Christian Sanon who are accused of seeking regime change in Haiti and contracting former Colombian soldiers to help. The conspirators originally planned to kidnap Moïse and take him out of the country, but the conspiracy turned into an assassination plot when they were unable to find a way to transport him out of Haiti.46

Gang violence expanded in the wake of the assassination as criminal groups took advantage of the power vacuum. The G9 gang coalition led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier in 2022 launched a blockade of the country’s principal fuel terminal, causing gasoline and diesel shortages that destabilized the economy and left millions of people unable to obtain food, drinking water or basic health care. The six-week crisis coincided with a surprise outbreak of cholera more than three years after Haiti’s last cholera case had been reported. One group of Haitian and U.S. doctors said that the strain found in 2022 was similar to that of the 2010 outbreak linked to MINUSTAH, and that it may have persisted in “sub clinical infections” even though the disease had been declared eradicated.47


  • 1492–1700 Spain and France occupy the island now known as Hispaniola.
    • 1492 Taíno peoples, divided into five separate kingdoms, inhabit the island now known as Hispaniola; Christopher Columbus arrives to the island in 1492 and creates a Spanish settlement called La Navidad.
    • 1500s Most Taínos die within 25 years of Spanish arrival due to disease, massacre or enslavement.
    • 1680 Colonial elites begin bringing Africans over and enslaving them to work in a brutal plantation economy; by 1776, some 800,000 had been enslaved.
    • 1697 Spain cedes the western half of Hispaniola to France, which creates the colony of Saint-Domingue.

  • 1790–1825 Haiti declares independence from France.
    • 1791 Enslaved people launch a revolt, torching plantations and killing enslavers.}
    • 1794 The French National Convention abolishes slavery in all its colonies.
    • 1801Revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture seizes power and issues a constitution that names him governor-general for life.
    • 1802 French leader Napoleon Bonaparte sends in 40,000 troops to reinstate slavery; rebels repel the French, but Louverture is captured by a French general and dies in prison in France a year later.
    • 1803 Rebel forces defeat Napoleon, paving the way for the creation of the Western Hemisphere’s first Black-led nation.
    • 1804 Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines declares independence and changes the country’s name from Saint-Domingue to Ayiti, an indigenous word for “land of the high mountains.”
    • 1822 Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer leads an invasion of the eastern half of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, and maintains an occupation until 1844.
    • 1825 France recognizes Haiti’s independence in return for the modern-day equivalent of some $560 million in compensation for land and enslaved people lost in the revolution; this removed an estimated $21 billion from the country’s economy, crippling Haiti’s development.
    • 1862 The United States recognizes Haiti following the secession of slave-holding Southern states, which had lobbied against diplomatic recognition.

  • 1915–1986 U.S. occupation stirs mistrust of foreign intervention; nation undergoes series of dictatorships.
    • 1915 U.S. Marines occupy Haiti in response to unrest triggered by the assassination of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam by protesters angry at the execution of political prisoners; the United States occupies Haiti for 19 years, brutally suppressing rebellions and creating mistrust for foreign intervention forces.
    • 1937 Soldiers from neighboring Dominican Republic, under the orders of dictator Rafael Trujillo, kill thousands of Haitians along the border in a tragedy known as the Parsley Massacre.
    • 1957 François “Papa Doc” Duvalier is elected president and ushers in unparalleled political violence and repression, backed by the brutal paramilitary group known as Tonton Macoute.
    • 1964 Duvalier declares himself “President for Life.”
    • 1971 Duvalier dies shortly after appointing his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier as his successor.
    • 1981 Bodies of 33 Haitians wash ashore in South Florida, the first of a wave of Haitians fleeing poverty and repression.
    • 1986Protests force Duvalier into exile in France after the United States refuses to back him.

  • 1990s–2000s Haiti elects Aristide and faces political unrest.
    • 1990 Former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide wins Haiti’s presidency in a landslide. He promises sweeping reforms to address poverty and openly confronts business elites but is overthrown by a military coup after just seven months in office.
    • 1994 Aristide returns to power following a U.S. military intervention and disbands the army a year later; he is succeeded in 1996 by agronomist René Préval, a former prime minister.
    • 2000 Aristide is re-elected in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition; his second term is marked by accusations that allies of his Fanmi Lavalas party were threatening opposition leaders.
    • 2004 Aristide is again overthrown in a coup and leaves the country for exile in South Africa; the U.N. forms a peacekeeping force known as MINUSTAH, an acronym for the French name of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, that remains in the country for 13 years.
    • 2006 René Préval is elected again; MINUSTAH grows to 9,000 troops.

  • 2010–2019 Natural disasters and political corruption debilitate the country.
    • 2010 A 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastates Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 and sparking one of the largest international relief efforts in history; 10 months later, the country suffers a brutal cholera outbreak linked to poor sanitation by MINUSTAH troops that kills an estimated 10,000 people.
    • 2011 Pop singer Michel Martelly, whose stage name is Sweet Micky, is elected president; “Baby Doc” Duvalier returns to Haiti from exile and is later charged with corruption and embezzlement.
    • 2016 Haiti is struck by Hurricane Matthew, the strongest storm to reach Haiti in over 50 years; Martelly ally Jovenel Moïse is elected president.
    • 2017 U.N. MINUSTAH mission ends after 13 years; the mission was linked to several calamities, including a deadly cholera epidemic and sexual abuse of children.
    • 2018 Protests break out over fuel price hikes and demonstrators demand that Moïse resign.

  • 2020–Present Democracy deteriorates; President Moïse is assassinated.
    • 2020 Moïse begins ruling by decree as legislators’ terms expire but election delays prevent lawmakers from winning new terms; COVID arrives in Haiti but causes surprisingly few deaths.
    • 2021 Moïse is assassinated, plunging the country into political uncertainty; Prime Minister Ariel Henry becomes the country’s provisional leader.
    • 2022 Gangs block the country’s main fuel terminal, creating fuel shortages that debilitate the economy; Henry asks the international community to send a strike force to confront the gangs.
    • 2023 Kenya offers to send 1,000 police officers to Haiti to help Haitian police control gangs (July)…. The Dominican Republic closes its border with Haiti to protest construction of a canal on the Massacre River near the border; Haiti retaliates by closing the border from its side (September)…. The U.N. Security Council authorizes the Multinational Security Support Mission for Haiti led by Kenya; a Kenyan court blocks the mission pending a legal challenge by an opposition politician (October).


Brian Ellsworth, Freelance writer. Ex Reuters correspondent. Lived in Venezuela for 18 years and it still feels like home. Now back in my native DC. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally on the CQ in the December 8, 2023, print edition as ‘Trump vs. Biden: The Nightmare Can Only Get Worse’. All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld.

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