Thursday briefing: How disease, famine, and gang warfare brought Haiti to its knees – The Guardian

In today’s newsletter: The island nation is without a functioning government in the biggest crisis in its history. How did Haiti get here?
Good morning. Earlier this week, the terms of Haiti’s last 10 remaining senators officially expired, leaving the country without a single elected government official.
Disastrous though that state of affairs is, in one sense it is nothing more than a symbol: since the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse in 2021, the Caribbean country has been in a state of electoral and constitutional turmoil. It now faces a set of intersecting catastrophes that are arguably unmatched by any in its history: famine, cholera, devastating gang violence, fuel shortages, and economic collapse. And there appears to be no end in sight.
Today’s newsletter, with historian Professor Matthew Smith, will help you understand how Haiti got here, the depths of the crises engulfing the country, and what might happen next. Here are the headlines.
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The departure of Haiti’s last 10 senators could hardly be a clearer sign of the lack of political order in Port-au-Prince. But from the national assembly to the supreme court, the apparatus of democracy had already broken down. In the place of a functioning state has come something close to anarchy.
“The situation is unprecedented in Haiti’s history,” said Prof Matthew Smith, a historian of Haiti who joined UCL in London as director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery after many years at the University of West Indies. “You could see the country’s history as a series of crises with brief periods of hope and peace – but there hasn’t been anything like this.”
He said that the situation brought to mind a 19th-century Haitian saying: “Constitutions are made of paper. Bayonets are made of steel.”
How did Haiti get here?
The immediate crisis can be traced back to before the assassination of Jovenel Moïse at the hands of Colombian mercenaries with unknown paymasters: Haiti has not held functional elections since 2019, and the country has been in a fragile state since the 2010 earthquake that killed up to 300,000 people. But Moïse’s death in July 2021 – and a new earthquake the following month – sent the situation spiralling out of control.
Moïse was replaced by acting president Ariel Henry, who is unelected, and widely viewed as illegitimate. In September, the G9 gang coalition, led by former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, blockaded the country’s main port and fuel terminal after Henry caused fuel prices to double when he announced a cut to fuel subsidies – a development that brought the crisis to new heights. Haiti is now experiencing its worst-ever famine, with 4.7 million people facing acute hunger.
At the same time, Smith noted, it is impossible to understand the current situation without acknowledging the dark history of international interventions, including US occupation from 1915-1934, that have blighted Haiti. “Those interventions have shaped Haiti,” Smith said. “There’s a chain-link connection.”
Long before the litany of recent disasters, he said, “the Duvalier dictatorship [the rule of father and son Francois, or “Papa Doc”, and Jean-Claude, or “Baby Doc”, Duvalier from 1957-1986] destroyed the hopes of a functioning state that serves the nation. That was the product of the mixture of local clashes for power and a context crafted by foreign interventions, particularly the United States.”
There is an even deeper history. For generations after independence in 1804, Haiti was saddled with the impact of “reparations” to France – the country that enslaved its people – in some years spending 40% of government revenue on its resulting debts. That burden severely hampered economic growth and the development of robust public services.
What are the consequences of the power vacuum?
In the absence of a functioning state, it is the gangs that have filled the void. They are now arguably more powerful than government forces, with Port-au-Prince the centre of a horrific turf war that has seen prolific kidnappings, many civilian deaths, and gang rape of elderly people and children, a UN report says. “The presence of the gangs is the principle reason for the severity of the crisis,” Smith said.
Gangs have a longstanding role in Haitian political life, and have operated in tandem with political actors since the 1950s to intimidate rivals and deliver votes. Versions of those alliances are in some cases alleged to remain today, and there are suggestions of oligarchic figures with ties to the drugs trade pulling the strings – but “many of them are not affiliated to anybody,” Smith said.
“The international drug trade is a very important part of it, but that was only the beginning. Now gangs have secured their power locally, it is very hard to see that any more powerful actor can control them. The situation has dissolved into the incomprehensible.”
What impact are the gangs having?
There are almost 100 gangs in Port-au-Prince, many of them in loose alliances at war with rival groups. Gangs control major roads and draw income from customs, water and electricity distribution, and even bus services. Membership has become so desirable for some young men in the city that some gangs now have waiting lists for new recruits (PDF).
The country’s army – disbanded in 1995 after years of military interference in politics – has been reestablished but stands at just 500 soldiers, while police also appear impotent.
The ongoing violence has forced the closure of hospitals and has been blamed in part for the re-emergence of cholera, as well as fuel shortages that only worsen the crisis. Last month, the UN’s humanitarian chief Ulrika Richardson said that an estimated 155,000 people have fled their homes – almost one in six of the city’s population.
Is there a way out of the crisis?
Arguably the two most important steps for the restoration of order in Haiti are ending the gangs’ power, and holding meaningful new elections. For now, both seem a distant prospect.
One suggestion is the deployment of international forces in Haiti, an idea that has Henry’s support. Joe Biden and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau discussed the prospect of a Canadian-led force at a summit on Tuesday, with the US reluctant to send troops itself.
There is some support for such an idea: “I think most Haitian people would tell you they need intervention,” Pierre Espérance, the executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, told the New York Times in November. “They are tired with the government, they are tired with the police, they are tired with the gangs, and they cannot move around the country.”
But critics say that such a step could simply escalate the violence. Trudeau appeared cautious about the proposal on Tuesday, although Canada did send armoured vehicles for the police to use.
Smith admits that he is deeply torn about the arrival of foreign troops. “For it to work meaningfully, it would have to be working with a very limited, clear definition of security, or it becomes occupation,” he said. “[They] would need to work with civil society groups on the ground before any force arrived.”
Meanwhile, as long as Henry’s power remains unchecked, opposition leaders appear uninterested in agreeing a timetable for new elections. With an intransigent leader and foreign intervention such a vexed question, it is hard to see Haiti beginning to emerge from crisis any time soon. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Smith. “It’s really difficult to see a way out right now – that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, but it is hard to see.”
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A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad
Two paintings in the oldest hospital in Britain are set to be restored as part of a project to conserve and refresh art collections and historic buildings. The paintings by William Hogarth adorn a grand staircase in St Bartholomew’s hospital in London, and depict two biblical stories: The Pool of Bethesda (pictured above) and the Good Samaritan. The National Lottery Heritage fund have granted £4.9m because specialist cleaning and conservation are required to fix structural issues to the works, which date from the 1730s.
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