December 8, 2022
Never-Ending Tragedy: The Dangers of Foreign Intervention in Haiti
On 28th November, Bocchit Edmond, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, urged the international community to send a strike force to help overwhelmed police quell unruly gangs in Port-au-Prince. These demands came a month after embattled Prime Minister Ariel Henry begged foreign leaders to deploy a “specialized armed force, in sufficient quantity” to prevent gangs from seizing ports and airports, as noted in Foreign Policy. Though the Biden Administration appears hesitant to spearhead another potentially calamitous incursion into Haiti, the White House may outsource its military hardware to an international coalition instead. This represents an opportunity for the Global North to further impinge on Haitian sovereignty and impose its will on a collapsing state—to the great detriment of its citizens.
Foreign interventions have plagued Haiti since the mid-19th century. Virtually every world power indulged in coercive “gunboat diplomacy” to meddle in Haitian domestic affairs. Christopher Young amply demonstrates that France, Britain, the United States, Canada, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Norway sent warships to bully Port-au-Prince into submission on multiple occasions throughout the late 1800s. Washington, Paris, and especially Berlin could hardly conceal their disdain for an independent and black-majority nation.
In 1857, the United States illegally annexed Navassa Island—a territory claimed by Haitian constitutions. President James Buchanan dismissed these claims and handed the island over to an American phosphate company. Slave-like working conditions in phosphate mines pushed Black-American laborers to murder their overseers thirty years later. Navassa island became a wildlife preserve in 1999 and remains under US control today.
The “Bulldog” Affair of 1865 is another startling example of how imperial powers ignored international law when dealing with Haiti. A British warship, the HMS Bulldog, got involved in a Haitian civil war between pro and anti-government forces. The Bulldog sided with the government and shelled rebel fortifications along Cap Haïtien, which caused untold damage to civilian infrastructure and forced hundreds to flee the carnage. British authorities dispatched even more warships to subdue the rebellion after the Bulldog ran aground. This incident marked the first time a foreign power cooperated with Port-au-Prince to inflict violence on Haitians.
Less than a decade later, Berlin demanded reparations from Port-au-Prince for Britain’s destruction of German property and commercial enterprises during the naval bombardments. German marines commandeered two Haitian ships until Port-au-Prince paid an enormous indemnity. When they retrieved their stolen ships, Haitian sailors “found their cherished flag spread out on the bridge of each ship, smeared with shit. It was, remarked [Haitian statesman] Anténor Firmin, the republic’s first contact with the methods of German diplomacy”.
Crushing indemnities condemned Haiti to centuries of underdevelopment, chronic instability, and endemic poverty. To survive in a world filled with hostile slave-owning states, Port-au-Prince had no choice but to pay “reparations”, amounting to 20-30 billion dollars over 122 years to former slaveowners and their descendants, in exchange for diplomatic recognition from France. One generation after another watched helplessly as taxes multiplied and sky-rocketed while living standards plummeted. Journalist Dan Sperling says his Haitian father-in-law still remembers singing patriotic hymns in class as a child, urging young Haitians to help the government pay back the outrageous debt owed to France.
The US invasion of Haiti in 1915 added further insult to injury. Washington cited Germany’s growing economic influence in the Caribbean as justification for its brutal nineteen-year occupation. In reality, Wall Street bankers, particularly those in the bank that became Citigroup, were eager to steal Haiti’s wealth and convinced Congress and the US army to do the dirty work. The US had complete control of Haiti’s finances for three decades as Haitian farmers struggled to survive on “close to starvation level” diets, according to The New York Times.
Secretary of State Robert Lansing swore that America’s righteous mission in Haiti would bring modernity, civilization, railways, education, and healthcare to a nation riddled with “anarchy, savagery, and oppression”. Yet Washington’s main achievement was the revival of the corvée, a system of unfree labor rooted in medieval France. Marines press-ganged peasants to build roads and reside in internment camps for a salary of twenty cents a day, as noted by Leonard Dancheck. Insubordination was severely punished and anyone who refused to participate risked having their homes burnt to the ground. A marine hung a laborer named Estimon by the wrists, beat him to a pulp, and sent him back to work naked after a pay dispute. No wonder many Haitians fled to the mountains and joined the Cacos rebellion.
Historians such as Alan McPherson say Haitians never forgot the reign of terror American troops unleashed in response to the Cacos insurgency. Lieutenant Kelly, for example, allowed his underlings to imprison people for trivial or no reasons at all in the small town of Borgne. An American officer ordered US-trained constables in Saint Michel to amputate the wrists and legs of suspected insurgents before executing them by firing squad. In Saint-Marc, Captain Fitzgerald Brown allegedly whipped an elderly woman, hanged a teenager for robbery, and tortured an innocent man with hot irons. The mere mention of the name Freeman Lang, an infamous solider renowned for his tyrannical rule in Hinche, was enough to send “shudders up the spine of the townsfolk” for decades after the occupation ended. Collective reprisals also decimated Haitian livelihoods as US Marines or gendarmes marched into villages and slaughtered farm animals.
“Humanitarian” interventions in the early 21st century proved disastrous as well. Following a US-backed coup d’état which ousted populist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004, the United Nations deployed thousands of American, Canadian, French, Brazilian, and Chilean peacekeepers to restore order in the country. However, anthropologist Mark Schuller revealed that murders, rapes, kidnappings, and lootings spiraled out of control under the watch of UN peacekeepers. The number of violent deaths increased to around 8,000 over a year after the coup, while Doctors Without Borders treated approximately 2,500 people for gunshot wounds in sixteen months. Policemen estimated that criminal gangs kidnapped 600 people, five a day, between April and July 2005 alone.
Moreover, Haitians accused Canadian, Jordanian, and Brazilian troops, tasked with protecting Gérard Latortue’s post-coup regime, of rampant physical and sexual assault. Researchers also found, in a study published by the Lancet medical journal, that peacekeepers preferred to hunt down pro-Aristide supporters instead of disarming the various paramilitary groups responsible for the chaos engulfing Haiti at the time. In an interview for The Gazette, Haiti expert Athena Kolbe said that Canadian soldiers came barging into a random home “looking for (pro-Aristide) Lavalas chimeres, and threatened to kill the head of household, who was the father, if he didn’t name names of people in their neighbourhood… he refused to, because, as he told us, he didn’t know anyone.”
Brazilian peacekeepers acquired an unenviable reputation as well and committed heinous human rights violations in Port-au-Prince. Brazilian troops cut their teeth in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro where, according to Amnesty International, military police executed 5,000 people between 2005 and 2014. Moritz Schuberth says Brazilian security personnel, inspired by counterinsurgency tactics the French army perfected in colonial Algeria, brought their expertise to Haiti—with predictable results.
General Augusto Heleno led a raid on the slum of Cité Soleil to eliminate a warlord in July 2005. Reuters reported that dozens of women and children were killed in the crossfire. A documentary called It Stays With You delved deeper into this atrocity. Eyewitnesses saw UN helicopters hovering overhead, spraying bullets into the neighbourhood below. Survivors like Anol Pierre hid beneath their beds as the crackle of gunfire echoed for hours outside: “I remember a pregnant woman, with two kids, who died. Lots of families were victims.” Local NGOs say seventy people were killed, although the real death toll is likely to have been far higher. General Heleno never spent a day in court, while other former peacekeepers served in President Jair Bolsonaro’s cabinet.
Furthermore, scientific studies show that Nepalese peacekeepers were responsible for triggering a devastating cholera outbreak in 2010. Almost ten thousand people died and at least 820,000 (out of a population of eleven million) were infected. The BBC said Haiti hadn’t suffered a single cholera epidemic for a century until the arrival of UN peacekeepers. Worst of all, cholera has yet to be eliminated. A new outbreak began in September 2022 and is
rapidly spreading, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. The UN finally admitted in 2016 that leaky sewage pipes in a base caused the initial outbreak, but no compensation is forthcoming to the victims. This scandalous lack of accountability, combined with the countless sexual assault allegations levelled at Sri Lankan peacekeepers, irrevocably shattered the Haitian people’s faith in and respect for the UN.
The record above proves beyond doubt that militarized interventions, no matter how carefully cloaked with good intentions, are of no benefit to ordinary Haitians. On the contrary, a “boots on the ground” approach to peacekeeping will exacerbate gang warfare and inflict immeasurable harm in the long run. The Biden Administration should dismiss calls to sponsor an armed multinational coalition and heed the lessons of history. The very last thing Haiti needs is an influx of weaponry or armoured vehicles. What Haitians require above all else are medical supplies and well-paid jobs.
But more importantly, as sociologist Karine-Coen-Sanchez argued recently, the United States and Canada must stop backing corrupt and gang-affiliated political parties like the PHTK (Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale) and give Haitians a chance to elect their own mass movements without fear of external pressure, interference, or reprisals. Only then can the building blocks of a brighter future be laid.