By Timothy Motte
Haiti is an island nation located in the Caribbean, sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Besides sharing a landmass, this country of Ten million inhabitants is also known as the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, with 60 percent of its population living on less than $2 a day.
A period of struggle
Haiti proclaimed its independence in 1804 following a revolt against the French colonists led by Toussaint L’Ouverture and his lieutenant Jean-Jaques Dessalines. And after a period of political turmoil, Francois Duvalier came to power. Nicknamed “Papa Doc,” he ruled the country with an iron fist from 1957 to 1971 and cracked down on Haiti’s educated middle class. His harsh rule caused doctors, lawyers, teachers, and intellectuals to flee the country, contributing to the current political gridlock the government suffers from today.
After years of coups, transitional governments, U.S. occupation, and a long fight for democracy, Jovenel Moise eventually became the current president of Haiti in 2017. Moise was the handpicked successor of previous President Michel Martelly, whose presidency was plagued with corruption scandals. A 50-year-old businessman, he pledged to change course and prove his integrity by showcasing his successes in the water, energy, and agricultural sectors. However, Moise has far from delivered on his promises.
In 2010, Haiti suffered a terrible and violent earthquake, with over one-third of the country being affected. Due to weak infrastructure, the death toll was in the hundreds of thousands. The earthquake and the international community’s slow response also led to mass instability across the country, resulting in food shortages, looting, and human trafficking. The suffering Haitian people went through in 2010 only stoked the existing store of resentment and anger among the populace, with people facing routine corruption, a lack of services, insecurity, and widespread poverty. However, one scandal, in particular, has pushed citizens over the edge—the PetroCaribe scandal.
PetroCaribe is an oil alliance between Venezuela and multiple Caribbean countries. Under the terms of the deal, signed by former president René Préval, Haiti would “buy oil from Venezuela, paying only 60 percent upfront with the remainder payable over twenty-five years at one percent interest.” The money the Haitian government received from this deal, by reselling subsidized oil to private companies, was supposed to be used to improve the country’s education, healthcare, and infrastructure, especially in light of the 2010 earthquake. Instead, hundreds of millions of dollars are still unaccounted for and are most likely in the pockets of corrupt officials. The president has also been caught up in this scandal, as two private firms, he owned before assuming the presidency were found to have profited from the deal.
The corruption led to deferred payments to Venezuela and created a financial emergency for the government. In 2018, they decided to ask for an International Monetary Fund bailout, which resulted in the ending of energy subsidies and the raising of fuel prices by 50 percent. In August 2019, gas suppliers ended deliveries due to unpaid bills, and since then, protests have erupted into violence.
A country comparison—Sudan
Even though Haiti calls itself a democracy, it is far from democratic, as governmental corruption has continued relatively unabated. The whole system has to go through a radical change, and once people begin to realize that, only then can the country start to embark on a successful democratic transition.
A country similar to Haiti is Sudan. After toppling long-time dictator Omar Al-Bashir, the country has finally been able to establish a functioning, transitional government. Also, similar to Sudan, Haiti needs first to establish a new, interim system of government rather than rushing forward with elections. In Sudan, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), an independent trade organization made up of doctors, lawyers, and intellectuals, has not only organized protests but has also helped the country’s current government. This is essential to creating necessary structural norms such as checks on a presidency, a representative legislature, a free press, an independent judiciary, and a central bank, along with a merit-based civil service system.
Having a sizeable and well-educated middle class can help the country to transition to stable civilian rule and provide a unifying apolitical group for people to rally around. For instance, in Sudan, having a politically unaffiliated middle-class combined with a strong sense of nationalism helped with a transitional government being successful.
However, unlike Sudan, Haiti has a relatively weak middle class. The Duvalier dictatorship forced many middle-class Haitians to flee the country to seek jobs either in North America or Europe. In recent years, the 2010 earthquake caused many of the remaining 15 percent of the population to leave as well. Now, many that are left are either homeless, unemployed, or utterly unprepared to fix Haiti’s government.
The Haitian people have been exploited, abused, and disrespected for decades, resulting in an unequal and stratified society. If meaningful, well-organized change is to happen, a functioning middle-class is a fundamental precursor for this to occur.
Timothy Motte is currently a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara studying global studies. Born in London, raised in Paris, and having moved to the United States, he is the founder of www.afterthoughtgroup.com, a student-based international affairs think-tank. Timothy is also a delegate at this year’s World Bank Youth Summit and an intern at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.