- Interview by
- Arvind Dilawar
In the days following the recent assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, the country’s acting prime minister asked for military support from both the United States and the United Nations. While the requests were couched in terms of protecting Haiti’s infrastructure in the lead-up to new elections, critics warn that the vast majority of Haitians would oppose foreign military intervention — especially by the United States. Fears abound that any intervention would first and foremost target the growing, openly revolutionary movement in Haiti’s shanty towns.
Haitian history is riddled with foreign interventions that have kept the country mired in poverty and authoritarianism. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Haitians liberated themselves from France, ending both colonialism and slavery in Haiti. While the Haitian Revolution remains the only successful revolution led by enslaved people in world history, Haitians paid dearly for challenging the status quo.
France threatened to invade until 1825, when Haiti agreed to pay the equivalent of $21 billion in indemnity, which included the “cost” of enslaved people freed during the revolution. Fearing the spread of similar uprisings to its own shores, the United States also refused to recognize the Haitian state until the US Civil War.
In 1915, Haiti was forced into the ranks of the United States’ “neo-colonies” when it was invaded to open the door to US capital. The US occupation of Haiti lasted for two decades, leaving in its wake corruption and autocracy. US troops returned to Haiti en masse in 1994, when they supported the restoration of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been ousted by a US-backed coup three years prior. In 2004, US forces arrived again to depose Aristide, who was once more ousted in a coup.
Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar spoke with Kim Ives, the English language editor of Haiti Liberté, about Haitians’ fears of foreign military intervention, the devastating history that informs those fears, and the tendency of US intervention to upend, rather than secure, the lives of ordinary Haitians. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Following the assassination of Moïse, you predicted that the ruling class in Haiti might request US military intervention. How has that played out?
The prediction very rapidly came true when the prime minister issued a request, not just to the US, but to the UN for foreign military intervention.
The US is playing hard to get, saying they’re reluctant. I think a lot of that is due to optics. We know that the Biden people are more concerned about optics than the Trump people, and they don’t want to look like they’re jumping out of Afghanistan and right into Haiti. So they may be waiting for a suitable interval of time to have it happen.
Or perhaps they thought that the grisly execution of Moïse by machine gun would be enough to shock the conscience, not just of Haitians, but of the Caribbean region and Latin America — which clearly are not going to be happy with a US intervention, but, if sufficiently traumatized by an event, they could maybe be sold. That seems not to have worked.
Historically speaking, this is practically inevitable. As far as we can see, US imperialism has only one tool in its toolbox, a hammer, and everything looks like a nail to it. This means that it only knows how to resolve political problems in its neo-colonies through foreign military intervention.
Is there a particular instance of foreign intervention in Haiti that you think would be most analogous to what we might see today?
The first US occupation in 1915 was justified by the tearing of Haitian president Vilbrun Guillaume Sam limb from limb, who had taken refuge in the French embassy. The grisly image of a president being dismembered by a mob was what they used in the press to convince the American public that the United States was justified in intervening in Haiti and carrying out the process of “restoring order.”
There was also the case, in 1994, of the machine-gunning of Father Jean-Marie Vincent, a liberation theologian priest, who was opening the gate of his Port-au-Prince home at night when a death squad came and killed him. This grisly murder shocked people to such an extent that it allowed President Bill Clinton to justify sending twenty thousand US troops to bring Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to Haiti.
There had been a huge controversy in the movement around Aristide about whether to ask for US troops to restore him. Most of the movement was anti-imperialist and said this was inadmissible. But this murder of Vincent shocked and horrified people enough that they were able to sell it. Plus the fact that it was not to overthrow a president, but to restore one — and to restore one who was nominally anti-imperialist. Through all of that they managed to get the second US intervention in Haiti sold to the Haitian population and to the world.
The big difference today is that there is a unanimous chorus in Haitian society, and I think even the world, saying no to US intervention in Haiti. It hasn’t worked in any of the three previous interventions. On the contrary, it has debilitated the state.
How did previous US interventions in Haiti play out?
The first time, it was simply a part of the US acquiring neo-colonies to put under its flag in the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and the Philippines were also victims of US interventions at that time. Largely, this was due to the inter-imperialist scramble for neo-colonies. The French and Germans were also sniffing around Haiti then, and the US basically planted its flag on the island. They proceeded to change the constitution so US corporations and individuals could own land in Haiti, and to reestablish slavery in the form of the corvée system, a forced work system, where they would put Haitian peasants to work building roads and so forth.
Fast forward to 1994. Again, this was to really repress and co-opt Aristide’s Lavalas movement, which was essentially an anti-imperialist movement. Aristide declared his inauguration on February 7, 1991 to be Haiti’s second independence, and the US wanted to make sure that was not going to happen. So it brought Aristide back, but as a prisoner in a cage and proceeded to give him a script to follow.
When he didn’t follow the script, they made sure that he was kicked out in 1996 and unable to recuperate the three years he had spent in exile, as he and the people were asking for. So once again, the US, through the Clinton version of soft power with a hard edge in the form of an occupation, managed to repress another effort by Haiti to establish its sovereignty.
Finally, in the last US intervention in 2004, it was once again to crush Aristide as he attempted a comeback. They did it that time with the full quiver of imperialist tactics, including contra forces operating out of the Dominican Republic, a diplomatic attack, economic sanctions, and diplomatic sanctions. It ended with a US SEAL team coming in and kidnapping Aristide from his home — on the excuse of saving him from the very hooligans that they were paying for and working with — and flying him into exile, where he stayed for seven years.
So all three previous military interventions have been nothing more than the trampling and poleaxing of Haitian sovereignty.
What do you think US intervention today would look like?
I think it would look like something very similar to what we saw in 2004. The troops would come in and they would, above all, attack and try to suppress the uprising in the shanty towns of Haiti. This is where the biggest challenge to US hegemony and capitalism in Haiti is coming from.
The Haitian people in those shanty towns are saying they’ve had enough of the misery and squalor that they’ve been living in and are demanding food, services, and the ability to live. To do that, they are saying that they are going to take those things from the grocery stores, from the car dealerships, and from the banks that the bourgeoisie own. These shanty towns are seen as an existential threat to the bourgeoisie of Haiti and, by extension, to US interests in Haiti.
So I think the principal mission of a foreign intervention in the beginning will be a very severe and very muscular assault on the shanty towns of Haiti — much as happened in the 2004 coup, although it took a year to do and it happened under the UN administration of the occupation.
Do you think the intervention would be UN led or nominally under the Organization of American States (OAS)?
The UN is going to be hard, because I don’t know if China will allow it to get through the Security Council.
As for the OAS, that would be ideal for the US, but there may not be enough votes to invoke the Inter-American Charter, which requires two-thirds of the OAS’s thirty-five countries. I don’t know if they can find twenty-three countries.
So they may end up having to do it a bit like they did in Grenada in 1983: organize a coalition of the willing with whatever compliant countries they can enlist, such as Colombia, probably Brazil, maybe Ecuador.
What are the fears of the Haitian people regarding intervention?
In Haiti, there has been an effort over the past few days to organize a sort of civil society government, where civil society groups — which often means bourgeois and petit bourgeois groups — are sitting with the political parties and trying to craft a council that will have the respectability and credibility to name a new government, etc.
This happened in 1990, after the fall of dictator Prosper Avril. They came together, formed what was called the Council of State, and appointed a provisional president named Ertha Pascal-Trouillot. That government organized the 1990 elections, which resulted in the election of Aristide — and this is one of the reasons the US is probably a little wary, if not to say scared, of this type of solution. Furthermore, I don’t think that representatives of the organizations from the shanty towns — the groups that they call “gangs” — have a seat at their table, and therefore I don’t think it’s going to solve any of the problems.
The vast majority of poor people living in Haiti’s shanty towns are sick and tired of the half-baked solutions that the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie of Haiti have cooked up over the past three or four decades. They want really fundamental, deep-going change. That’s the situation in Haiti, and I think that it’s going to be very hard for the US to cut through that and not face some serious pushback from the Haitian people.
It should also be said that, in the first military occupation a century ago, it was the peasantry that fought the US Marines — not the civil society and political class in the cities, which more or less became accessories, if not outright collaborators, with the US occupation.