After 18 months of on-off protests against president Jovenal Moise, tens of thousands of Haitians have stepped up the movement calling on him to step down, with weekly protests, barricades and clashes with government forces that have left dozens killed and wounded hundreds more.
The immediate spark for the protests was a corruption scandal embroiling the president and his supporters who are accused of looting billions of dollars from the Petrocaribe development fund, made up income from sales of subsidised Venezuelan oil.
But more widely, Haitians are angry that Jovenal, a plantation-owner from the north who made much of his pseudo-populist ‘banana-man’ moniker, has instead presided over cuts to fuel subsidies, double-digit inflation, and shortages of essential goods.
In short, instead of taking on the power of Haiti’s semi-criminal oligopoly, he has maintained the neoliberal policies mandated by the IMF and World Bank, which forces Haiti’s farmers and slum-dwellers to service the country’s debts while its wealthy elite enrich themselves.
Jovenal is no stranger to protest and controversy. His election in 2015 was delayed for several years by allegations of ballot-rigging, and a multi-million dollar loan his firm received from the government of his ally, disgraced former president Michel Martelly.
He was finally elected in a re-run with a turnout of just 20 per cent, in a country where hundreds of thousands are effectively disenfranchised because they live in the tent cities erected after the natural disasters that plague the country, or because of a lack of infrastructure in rural areas.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. More than 20 percent of its national budget comes from Aid donations. 50 percent of national income comes from remittances by the waves of refugees who constitute some of the poorest and brutally exploited workers in the Americas. Despite the shock of the 2010 earthquake which killed 300,000 people, ten thousand people still live in tent cities, with millions more in death-trap shanty towns like Cite Soleil that are little better.
In a region generally witnessing economic and social improvements, the country tops the lists for child mortality, illiteracy and, of course, unemployment – 70 per cent of the population lack regular work. Thanks to repeated US-led coups and sanctions since the 1980s, GDP collapsed by a staggering 40 percent between 1981 and 2012.
And yet Haiti is not a poor country. The fertile Antibonite valley could produce enough rice to feed the entire population. International conglomerates extract its gold and minerals. But it is this wealth – and the Haitian people’s persistent attempts to throw off the exploitation of colonial and imperial powers – that lies at the root of the country’s political and economy dysfunction today.
One of the largest demonstrations in weeks in front of the United Nations HQ, calling on the ‘international community’ to abandon Jovenal. And why not? For 100 years, every ruler of Haiti, with the exception of the populist firebrand Jean-Bertrand Aristide (who has the distinction of having been overthrown twice – by George Bush Sr and George Bush Jr), has been the pensioner of either US or French imperialism.
For now, Jovenal retains the backing of his US and UN sponsors. Meanwhile the protests remain subject to the appeals of the opposition leaders principally, though not entirely, made up of different factions of the Haitian oligarchs, who are the principal obstacle to the establishment of democracy in the country.
From protest to power
As shortages of food, water, and basic necessities grow, with 2 million children locked out of school by shutdowns, if the protests are to go beyond ushering in another cycle of the oligarchic merrygo-round, Haitian workers and farmers need to start asserting control over the economy themselves.
The warehouses maintained by the government and NGOs should be placed under democratic control and their contents redistributed. The seizure of material necessities and their distribution should be defended from the government’s police and the oligarchs’ gangs by popular neighbourhood militias. The profits from the free trade factories that send 80 percent of Haitian exports as cheap clothing to the US should be expropriated.
Only when the masses of Haiti take power into their own hands, and exercise it through their own direct democracy – through workers’ and peasants’ councils – will they be able to finally settle accounts with imperialist oppression and their own exploiters.
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