Could Haiti prevent a repetition of history as violent protests clash with competing ruling classes?

Could Haiti prevent a repetition of history as violent protests clash with competing ruling classes?

The recent turmoil in Haiti, with Prime Minister Ariel Henry stepping down in response to a violent uprising by gangs, has been reminiscent of past events.

On Wednesday, it seemed like the suggestion for a transitional council to govern the nation was falling apart. However, the people competing for power are well-known individuals linked to political groups, alliances, and the small, wealthy oligarchs who have played a crucial role in the ongoing political legitimacy crisis in the country.

Haiti has experienced similar situations, multiple times, in the troubled years following the 1986 collapse of the François Duvalier regime. There have been overthrows, interim administrations (occasionally led by the military), ineffective rulers, and politicians who have manipulatively utilized criminal organizations to gain control.

The former parish priest and advocate against poverty, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who held left-wing ideologies, utilized gangs known as “chimères” – also known as “ghosts” – and created a pattern for political aggression during times of conflict.

Henry’s predecessor, Jovenel Moïse, who was assassinated by Colombian mercenaries in 2021, reportedly was allied with the G9 gang alliance, which in turn played a key role in Henry’s removal. Figures seen as potentially influential in the country’s next chapter are said to have their own gang links.

Ariel Henry in Nairobi, Kenya, on 1 March

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It is probable that there will continue to be a risk of violence in Haiti, even if the gangs that forced out Henry are not granted a seat at the table, as they have requested. This can only be resolved if there is a drastic reassessment of political responsibility in the country.

One of the groups competing for power is the Party of the Little Desalin Platform, headed by ex-senator and presidential nominee Moïse Jean-Charles. Jean-Charles is an associate of Guy Philippe, a former police officer and leader of a coup who has connections to politicians and wealthy businessmen. Philippe played a critical role in the 2004 uprising against Aristide and was recently released from a US jail after confessing to money laundering.

Philippe has publicly refused to support a suggested interim council, as seen in a video shared on social media. The plan for the council had received support from both the Caribbean regional bloc and the US.

“The decision of Caricom is not our decision,” he said. “Haitians will decide who will govern Haiti.”

The underlying cause of recurring governance problems is a pressing concern: the reality that the United States has been instrumental in choosing or supporting Haiti’s leaders since the arrival of American troops in 1915 for a 19-year occupation. These leaders have primarily come from a small, established elite group.

Among those who have criticised the latest negotiations for a transitional council has been Jake Johnston, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. In a blogpost this week, he wrote: “Though negotiations have been taking place for the better part of a week, none of the participants or discussions has been made public, leaving the vast majority of Haitians in the dark.”

Johnston stated that the involvement of domestic and international aid in Henry’s support accelerated the current dire situation. Rather than allowing a process led by the Haitian people to proceed, these foreign powers have chosen a stability agreement that may ultimately cement an unmanageable status quo, especially in the immediate future.

The international community and Washington have heavily invested in a plan for Kenya to lead a force to bring stability to Haiti. However, this plan has been delayed since the resignation of Henry. Despite this, Kenyan President William Ruto stated on Wednesday that Kenya is still dedicated to the mission. Past interventions have faced challenges, such as a 2004-2017 UN mission that faced allegations of sexual misconduct and a cholera outbreak that caused numerous deaths due to contaminated sewage from a UN camp.

According to Dr. Christopher Sabatini, a Chatham House thinktank senior associate specializing in Latin America, history is repeating itself. He believes that the “usual suspects” are coming into play, and in times of crisis, the old guard of the elite takes over the void.

Sabatini is sceptical too of the “diplomatic laziness” that in Haiti has tended to gravitate towards familiar political faces from a discredited political system – and the international community’s insistence that elections would magically produce a solution to Haiti’s chronic lack of political representation and accountability.

The negotiations in Jamaica that resulted in Henry stepping down were primarily focused on putting an end to the ongoing gang violence. However, he warned that rushing elections could give the gangs more power.

Sabatini stated that the current rush to create a plan for the president’s departure and hold elections runs the risk of allowing gangs to gain power. He described Jimmy Chérizier, the leader of the G9 Family and Allies gang and the supposed mastermind behind the ongoing turmoil, as a successful “political entrepreneur” in a country where there are no effective methods for generating real political change or reform.

In large part, that is intimately bound up with the long-term failure of Haitian state institutions, and with the international donor community that has long bypassed them. With so many services provided either by NGOs or by the private sector, ordinary and impoverished Haitians have long been excluded as stakeholders in their own political system – a vacuum into which the gangs have interposed themselves.

During a surprise press conference on Monday, Chérizier emphasized that he considered himself a crucial figure and stated, “It is up to the Haitian people to decide who will lead them.”