Haiti's Continued Struggle for Human Rights

Haiti is in the news again. Haiti, the first nation in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery, usually appears in the news when it fits into Western media depictions of Black violence, incompetence, instability, and pathology. Over the past several months, the island nation of over 11 million has been gripped by social unrest.

In the Haitian cities of Gonaïves, Gros-Morne, Port-au-Prince, Port Salut, Jacmel, and Les Cayes, protesters have taken to the streets to express anger over government corruption and intensifying poverty. The ongoing demonstrations are attempting to dislodge President Jovenel Moïse from power. While some news reports frame the current unrest through an anti-Black lens, the sustained resistance in the country should remind us of a longer human rights struggle that began with the Haitian Revolution. When we investigate Haiti’s past critically, we can see the roots of the current crisis and understand how the present is structured.

We can trace the current anti-Moïse outrage in the streets of Haiti to the circumstances surrounding his ascent to the Haitian presidency. Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly — the former president of Haiti who was elected under dubious circumstances and backed by the Obama administration — endorsed Moïse, a produce exporter who ran on a platform of addressing corruption, climate change, and modernizing and reviving Haitian agriculture as the candidate of PHTK, the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale or Bald Headed Party. Charges of corruption were levied against Moïse, who won the 2015 election with 32.8 percent of the vote. Fellow presidential candidates Jude Célestin, who received 19 percent and came in second, and Maryse Narcisse, who received 9 percent of the vote and came in fourth place, denounced the election results. The Haiti Democracy Project observed that enormous fraud was likely at play because of the large gap between the first and second place candidates. President Moïse has since governed Haiti through a significant economic downturn, exacerbated by stagnant inflation.

Protests also continue due to the embezzlement of $2 billion in Venezuelan oil loans during the Martelly administration, known as PetroCaribe. PetroCaribe is a long-standing agreement (2005) that provides Venezuelan oil on preferential terms to underdeveloped Caribbean nations; the oil is subsidized and the debt stretched over a 25-year period with a 1 percent interest rate. Countries can use these savings to finance internal developments such as infrastructural improvements. According to a Miami Herald report, an investigation found that charges should have been filed “against two former prime ministers, several ex-ministers, and the owners of private firms on grounds they misappropriated and embezzled money that left post-quake Haiti with unfinished government buildings, poorly constructed housing and overpriced public works contracts.”

To make matters worse for the Haitian people, in summer 2018 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called on the Haitian government to increase government revenue and improve services to provide a boost to the Haitian economy. So on July 6, 2018, the Haitian government announced that gasoline prices would almost immediately increase by 38 percent, diesel prices by 47 percent, and kerosene prices by 51 percent. Hours later, unrest following the announcement led to four deaths and a suspension of the increases. Not long after, Haitians protested through social media using the hashtags #KotKobPetroCaribeA and #PetroCaribeChallenge, mobilizing support and outrage over how the PetroCaribe loan could have been used to address infrastructural challenges throughout the country.

Haiti’s current intensification of poverty, suffering, and societal instability exacerbates the normalized structural violence Haitians have experienced following the US-backed removal of liberation theologist priest and former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide 15 years ago. As protests and resistance to Moïse — who is closely aligned with American interests — continue, Haitian citizens stand on long lines to buy water and food.

Today, Haitians are suffering from physical, structural, and symbolic violence that violate their human rights. Haitians experience physical violence in the form of attacks from the state while protesting the United Nations occupying force that re-introduced cholera to Haiti, sickening close to a million Haitians and killing nearly 10,000. Haitians are subjected to symbolic violence from how the country is negatively portrayed in the press on a consistent basis. Haitians also suffer from structural violence due to poverty, governmental corruption, and external forces (such as the IMF) that create austerity conditions. All of these egregious forms of violence coalesce to create a potent form of anti-Black violence which violates the basic human rights of Haitians. This theme of anti-Black violence began with their ancestors, who struggled to end the normative violence associated with plantation enslavement.

The African ancestors of Haitians revolted against the normative degradation and disposability of Black life in the plantation colony of Saint-Domingue through the Haitian Revolution, an epic 12-year struggle that saw enslaved Africans defeat local whites, the forces of the French Crown, a Spanish and a British invasion, and a massive expeditionary force sent by Napoleon Bonaparte. The revolution demonstrated that Black people are human beings with the right to live dignified lives. Although special privileges remained for soldiers and the political elite, Haiti was the first nation in human history to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens. The fundamental concept of common humanity also ran deeply through the early Haitian constitutions.

Yet this important aspect of the Haitian revolution has been silenced in Western history and media, and resonates with the current situation of people currently protesting in Haiti. A life of dignity after the Haitian Revolution meant freedom for Black people to learn, the freedom to work for one’s self, being safe from sexual assault, the freedom to reunite with family members, as well as the freedom of not being beaten as part of agricultural labor. The descendants of the Haitian Revolution, at home and abroad, are still engaged in this struggle.

What would a life of dignity look like for Haitians in 2019? It would include gainful employment, earning a living wage for their work, access to enough food to eat every day, being educated in Haitian Creole (the mother tongue of Haiti), preventing exposure to cholera, and having the perpetrators who spread cholera in Haiti in the first place (MINUSTAH forces), brought to justice. It would mean not having to migrate from Haiti to other countries where Haitians are treated in a disrespectful and disposable manner, where some die and many suffer. It would mean having the current occupation of Haiti end, foreign entities like the United States removed from Haitian affairs, and a Haitian government that strives to protect and care for its populace.

The protests and unrest will most likely continue because the majority of Haitians do not live lives of dignity, and the Haitian people are tired of the constant exploitation that prevents them from leading a life of human dignity.

About the Author

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. is the associate professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies and Africana Studies program vice chair at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of My Soul is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas (2015), which was a finalist for the 2015 Haitian Studies Association Book Prize in the Social Sciences.