On 7 July 2021 at 1 a.m. local time, a group of heavily armed gunmen made up of 28 foreign mercenaries, mostly from Columbia, stormed the residence of Haitian President, Juvenel Moïse located in the outskirts of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. By the time they were done, a hail of bullets had shattered the President’s left eye and mangled his torso. His wife, Martine who was there with him at the time, was also shot severally and left for dead. Interestingly, none of the president’s security guards was killed or injured in the attack and Mr. Moïse was said to have called several police officials for help to no avail.
At this time of writing this piece, several of the alleged attackers have been apprehended and investigation is ongoing, to unmask those that hired the assassins as well as their motives for wanting the President dead. What we do know is that the late President was compiling a list of those involved in Haiti’s illicit drug trade, with the intention of handing over the dossier to the American government. Topmost on that list were powerful politicians and wealthy business people, including the brother-in-law of a former president. Thus far, we have also learned that some of the captured hit men confessed that retrieving the list Mr. Moïse had been working on was a top priority.
Called the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, President Moïse’s murder shook a country already battling suffocating poverty and spiraling gang violence. A magnitude-7.2 earthquake that struck Haiti in August, further exacerbated the island nation’s woes and nearly 3,500 Haitians that gathered under a bridge at the Mexico-Texas border, hoping to be granted entry to the US were mass deported by American immigration service.
But the history of Haiti is far from poverty. It was once the wealthiest colony in the Americas. In fact, France, the nation’s former colonial masters at some point, nicknamed Haiti, the “Pearl of the Antilles” (La Perle des Antilles), both for its natural beauty, and the humongous wealth it generated for the French government as the world’s leading producer of sugar and coffee. What happened?
Christopher Columbus landed in Hispaniola, the island where Haiti is located on the 5th of December, 1492. Before then, the island was inhabited by the Taino indigenous people who originated from South America. Hispaniola was claimed by Spain but overtime, Spain ceded the western portion of the Island to France over competing claims. That part was named Saint-Domingue (later renamed Haiti). French colonists established very lucrative sugarcane plantations and brought in record number of slaves from sub-Saharan Africa for cheap labour which made the colony one of the richest in the world. Spain, however, retained ownership of the other part that is today known as the Dominican Republic.
Having daily been subjected to long hours of work in the most dehumanising conditions, most of the slaves lost their lives. In order to forestall labour shortage, the colonial authorities would bring in new batches of slaves from Africa every now and then. Finally, the slaves revolted and after a gruesome fight that lasted 12 long years, managed to defeat French troops at the Battle of Vertueres on 18 November 1803. Haiti gained her independence on 1 January 1804, and became the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States and the first nation ever to successfully gain independence through a slave revolt.
Upon getting independence, citizens of the black nation were ecstatic, looking forward to a new lease of life and improved economic condition for the freed slaves, not knowing that the fight was just getting started. The United States, her north American neighbour and the most powerful country in the world, along with other western nations refused to officially recognise Haitia as an independent country.
As though that was not bad enough, in July 1825, King Charles of France sent a fleet to reconquer Haiti and under pressure, the later signed a treaty to pay France 150 million francs in exchange for a formal recognition as an independent nation. This ostracism by the international community coupled with an unconscionable debt payment to France who should be paying reparation instead, made Haiti to face a great deal of political instability in the first century of independence.
As bad as those actions were, it’s the unending and over-bearing influence of the United States, however, that continues to pose the greatest threat to the progress of the island nation. In fact, the US would later use the excuse of the turmoil following the assassination of President Guillaume Sam in July of 1915 to invade the island which it occupied from 28 July 1915 till 1 August 1934. President Woodrow Wilson claimed the move was to maintain order and economic stability in the Caribbeans. The real reason, however, was that the US got concerned about an increasing European presence in Haiti, especially the Germans who were starting to wield influence in business and local politics. In pursuit of the Monroe doctrine, Washington decided to act.
It’s extremely hard to unravel the difficult relationship between Haiti and the United States. At Haiti’s independence, the US led by Southern politicians who were a powerful voting bloc in the American Congress, stood in the way of recognising the new republic, fearing the potential impact the slave rebellion could have in the slave states. Since then, American policy towards Haiti has largely been determined by the vagaries of who occupies the White House. For example, John Adams, a vocal opponent of slavery, fully supported the slave revolt and provided Haiti with both financial support and munition. This is in sharp contrast to the actions of Thomas Jefferson who himself was a slave holder.
When in 1991, rebel soldiers organised a coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest who was Haiti’s first democratically elected President, it was a Bill Clinton White House that brought him back to power using a threat of force. But in a second coup that toppled him and sent him to exile in Central African Republic in 2004, he accused the Bush administration of orchestrating the coup against him. In fact, Aristide was flown out of Haiti by U.S. military/security personnel whom he accused of kidnapping him.
Till today, the United States practically decides who becomes the President of Haiti. Most of the unrest in the country is fueled by the fact that corrupt leaders were imposed on the people. That said, American citizens and governments are by far the biggest source of aid to Haiti. According to the State Department, since the nation’s crisis, the US has sent at least $3.4 billion in assistance for disaster relief, reconstruction and development efforts.
The apparel sector constitutes at least 90% of Haiti’s total exports and the US has made sure that it continues to thrive. It was reported that in the aftermath of the horrible earthquake, the US allowed most Haitian textiles to get in duty-free. Many of garments sold by popular American brands like Gap, Walmart, JCPenney and others are being manufactured in Haiti. The US even built a power plant in the northern coast of the country to keep the clothing factories up and running despite the country’s energy crisis.
Following the assassination of President Moïse, Haiti now has Dr. Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon as the interim Prime Minister since 20 July 2021. Will the US allow Haiti to elect her president in a free and fair election and without undo interference this time? That’s the billion-dollar question for the Biden White House. But going by past experiences, the most powerful nation on earth even though lends Haiti helping hands every now and then, does not desire a neighbour who can stand on its feet. It prefers the one tied perpetually to her apron string.
•Dr. Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]