How US “Foreign Aid” Has Helped Destabilize Haiti

Jake Johnston

A surge of gang violence in Haiti has now led to the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Through its heavy-handed use of foreign aid to intervene in Haitian politics, the US government bears significant responsibility for Haiti’s ongoing instability.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry attends a ceremony in honor of late Haitian president Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 20, 2021.(Valerie Baeriswyl / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Cal Turner
Sara Van Horn

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti meant a devastating loss of life, shelter, and livelihood. More than two hundred thousand people in the country died, 1.5 million became homeless, and upward of $7 billion worth of damage was incurred across the affected area. The massive scale of the earthquake’s destruction was met by an influx of foreign aid. In the United States, fundraising for the crisis reached unprecedented proportions, with some sources estimating that nearly half of all US families donated to the relief efforts.

Much of this money, however, did not go to feeding, sheltering, and supporting the financial recovery of Haitians. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, distributed 130 tons of genetically modified seeds — donated by chemical giant Monsanto — in a costly relief program aimed at rural farmers. Haitian farmers, however, didn’t need foreign seeds: they needed money. And for a fraction of the cost of the USAID program, foreign donors could have purchased all necessary food aid from local rice producers, jumpstarting the rural economy.

In his new book, Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti, Jake Johnston offers a century-long history of aid in Haiti. He shows that the Haitian earthquake, far from a singular disaster, was an inflection point in the history of a country whose experience of occupation and foreign interference has often been cloaked in the guise of aid. Arguing forcefully against the US-style intervention that has prioritized “stability” measures, he makes the case that Haiti needs self-determination to thrive.

In the wake of a surge of gang violence in Haiti earlier this month — leading to the just-announced resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry — Cal Turner and Sara Van Horn spoke with Johnston for Jacobin about the origins of the current crisis, the fine line between aid and occupation, and the present and future prospects for autonomy for the Haitian state.

Sara Van Horn

Can you talk about US interventions in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti?

Jake Johnston

The initial response from the United States and across the world was heavily militarized. The priority was neutralizing potential national security threats: the waves of migrants leaving Haiti and trying to enter the United States, and the fifty thousand endangered US citizens living in Haiti.

The primary concerns were limiting that migration and evacuating American citizens, which required pushing as many military assets as possible into the region. There were big carriers and boats off the shores of Haiti and thousands of troops coming in.

But most of them never actually set foot in Haiti: they stayed offshore, which was as much about stopping people from leaving Haiti as it was about providing anything for the people that were still there. Low-flying planes would broadcast in Creole: “If you’re thinking about leaving the country, don’t do it. We’re going to send you right back.” That’s where US resources were going.

Despite the US’s militarized approach, what happened after the earthquake was not an outbreak of violence; it was Haitians coming together to help themselves. The first responders were not foreigners. The first responders were Haitians helping their neighbors and their communities — bringing food from rural communities into Port-au-Prince, for example. Foreign interventions can often disrupt those local mutual aid formations.

Cal Turner

In the book, you talk about how vulnerability to natural disasters and outcomes of disaster response are heavily determined by politics and history. Could you talk about aid for natural disasters more generally? How does it work, and where does it fall short?

Jake Johnston

There are many ways that foreign assistance can enter a country. There is official bilateral assistance: the type of money that comes from donor governments through agencies like USAID. There is also a broader humanitarian space driven by private donations. Finally, there is a mechanism of aid through big development banks, like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Aid after the earthquake largely bypassed the Haitian government and local institutions and went to foreign NGOs — many of whom did not have a prior presence in the country — and US development companies. When we think about humanitarian assistance, we often think about NGOs, but the reality is that bilateral aid is dominated by for-profit companies. It’s been outsourced over the last few decades, and the functions of USAID are now managed and run by private contractors that operate for profit. These were the biggest players that received US government funding after the earthquake.

Getting money into local hands is not just effective in terms of responding to the needs on the ground — because the people on the ground know what they need — but it also stimulates the local economy. If you bypass and undermine local organizations, that’s going to have long-term impacts.

The reality was that international aid had already had a huge impact on Haiti in prior decades. At the time of the earthquake, up to 80 percent of public services in Haiti were in private hands: NGOs, development banks, private companies, religious groups, and so on. The outsourcing of the state had already happened by 2010.

Sara Van Horn

What was prioritized in terms of aid after the earthquake, and why?

Jake Johnston

The priority overall was stability: stability over democracy, stability over development. That decision was rooted in a belief that stability can lead to those things.

But we have to take a step back and ask: Stability for whom? It wasn’t for the Haitian people. It was for certain political and economic actors.

This manifested in a few different ways. The Caracol Industrial Park was the flagship reconstruction project right after the earthquake. Luring a large foreign textile company into Haiti became a priority for the US and others in the international community.

But where did the Caracol Industrial Park end up being built? In the north of the country, far from the actual area impacted by the earthquake. This project wasn’t a direct delivery of aid to people affected by the earthquake.

This development impacted other aid projects down the line. For example, there was a large US-sponsored housing program in Haiti after the earthquake, initially designed to build homes for people displaced by the earthquake in and around Port-au-Prince. But the only houses that were actually constructed were for housing workers at the new industrial park in the north of the country.

This was a political priority for the United States, which contrasted with the needs of people on the ground in Port-au-Prince who couldn’t get a roof over their heads. More than a million people had been displaced, and houses were being built hours away in the north.

Cal Turner

Could you give a basic overview of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Haitian history in relation to US intervention?

Jake Johnston

The US occupied Haiti for nineteen years starting in 1915. It drastically reshaped Haitian society, consolidating power in the capital and creating the military, which rose to power post-occupation.

In the late 1950s, there was a quasi election — certainly not free and fair or involving widespread participation — of François Duvalier, which ushered in a three-decade-long dictatorship that the US supported for many years. One important factor was Haiti’s proximity to Cuba. Duvalier was a staunch anti-communist, so the US backed a dictatorship in Haiti as a counterweight to Fidel Castro in Cuba.

In 1986, the fall of Duvalier ushered in a period of military governments and aborted electoral processes that culminated in the 1990 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a liberation theologian, who came to office in a total upset of expectations. He lasted nine months in office before he was overthrown in a military coup.

The US imposed an embargo on the military junta that came to power, but some members of that government were on the CIA payroll, and in the aftermath of the coup, death squads formed to terrorize the population — some of the leaders of which also had relations with the CIA. Regardless of official policy, there existed all these other mechanisms and tools with which the US interfered with the government of Haiti.

The [Bill] Clinton administration sent troops to Haiti to restore the ousted Aristide to power in 1994, and they were welcomed by the Haitian people. It looked like this might create a new path forward.

But this is where other economic interventions also came into play because the return of Aristide came with conditions. Those conditions were the adoption of neoliberal economic policies, which had extremely damaging implications for the Haitian state and people.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, many of the US officials who had worked to overthrow Aristide during his father’s administration came back to power and returned to the same playbook. The United States blocked loans from multilateral development banks like the Inter-American Development Bank and reduced their own aid outlays to Haiti.

That culminated in the February 2004 overthrow of Aristide, where he was put onto a US plane and flown into exile. He was kept in exile in South Africa through the pressure of the US government and didn’t return to Haiti until 2011 — the [Barack] Obama administration tried to pressure the South African government to not let him return to Haiti but ultimately was unsuccessful.

We give aid to governments we like, we take aid away from governments we don’t like: in this way, we destabilize the political environment, hurt some governments, help other governments; build some up, tear others down. This is how the US uses the tools of soft power to intervene politically.

Sara Van Horn

Could you talk about how aid has been used to support US military objectives? And where does immigration fit in?

Jake Johnston

The great irony is that our policies seem on the one hand to be very motivated by trying to prevent migration, and yet it is our policies that are also overwhelmingly responsible for creating migration. The two periods of greatest international investment in Haiti, the 1980s and directly following the 2010 earthquake, were also the two periods of highest migration out of Haiti. You have to ask: Are our policies to prevent migration a total failure, or is preventing migration not really the US’s motivation?

In Haiti, there’s this belief that the US just wants to stop all migration from the country. But I think that misses the mark in one major way, which is that the survival of the aid state, a hollowed-out state protecting certain interests, depends on migration.

Haiti is even more reliant on remittances than foreign aid. Without the valve of allowing people to leave Haiti, there’s no way the current state stands. The state cannot provide for the people that are there now, and that’s with tens to hundreds of thousands of people trying to leave or leaving every year.

The reality of what would happen if that valve was shut off is also not in the US interest. The US interest is in preventing the domestic blowback from a big wave of migration, not migration itself.

Cal Turner

In Aid State, you write about the importance for US officials of keeping Haiti out of the news. Why?

Jake Johnston

There are times when US officials very much do want Haiti in the news for various purposes. After the earthquake, we saw a high-profile aid effort from the United States. Former president Bill Clinton was the United Nations special envoy, and Hillary Clinton was very personally involved in the relief efforts.

As it became clear that those efforts weren’t going so well, they became a political liability back home. We often see foreign policy decisions being made for domestic political reasons. The real concern for US officials is, “How does this affect our political future back home?” not, “How does this impact the people on the ground in Haiti?”

There is a historical legacy here too. All of this is happening in the historical context of Haiti, which saw the first and only successful slave revolt, which created a constitution that abolished slavery in 1804 and was not recognized by world governments for decades — in the case of the United States, not for more than sixty years. We can see current events as a continuation of a long-standing policy of not giving Haiti its due representation in the world arena.

Sara Van Horn

How did the Haitian Revolution help lay the groundwork for the current aid state in Haiti?

Jake Johnston

One long-standing cost of the revolution is the ransom that France demanded and that the Haitian government agreed to pay in 1825. This debt financially weakened the country for well over a century. Obviously, that debt has a lot to do with what we see in Haiti today: the underdevelopment, the weakness of the state.

There’s also another way that it’s directly related. When the Haitian government agreed to pay this indemnity to France in 1825, they needed revenue to do so. This pushed Haiti’s leaders to reinstate the exploitative plantation economy model in a post-revolution Haiti, a dynamic that has characterized the relationship between the Haitian people and the Haitian state ever since.

The Haitian state is not actually representative of or accountable to the people but extracts from its own population and feeds the rest of the world. What I’ve termed the “aid state” is shaped by contemporary developments, but it is really rooted in the same dynamic that we’ve seen for over two hundred years, where the state is simply not responsive to the Haitian people.

Cal Turner

How did the post-2010-earthquake period shape Haiti’s current political climate?

Jake Johnston

We have to start with the 2010 electoral process. There were still a million people displaced from the earthquake. It was quite clear from the beginning that this was going to be a mess: people were nowhere near their voting centers, and nobody knew whether they were going to be able to vote if their ID cards had been lost. But the United States and other donors had a lot of money riding on this — $10 billion pledged to the relief and reconstruction effort — and wanted a new government to work with in Haiti.

That vote was, predictably, a mess: something like 20 percent of the vote was never even counted, the participation rate was around 20 percent, and it was extraordinarily close. To clarify the situation, the Haitian government invited the Organization of American States [OAS], a regional body based in Washington but composed of all the regional governments, into the country to analyze the vote.

Without doing any statistical analysis, projection of the missing votes, or a full recount of the votes that had been counted, the OAS recommended changing the official results of the election, removing [incumbent president] René Garcia Préval’s chosen successor out of the race, and placing a political outsider, the popular musician Michel Martelly, into the runoff election. The US threatened to withhold post-earthquake aid if the Haitian government didn’t accept these recommendations. Ultimately, the Haitian government acquiesced and changed the results of that election, ushering Martelly into the presidency, where he remained for the next five years.

Today Haiti is in a position where there’s extreme insecurity and political instability in the country. To figure out where this came from, we have to look back to 2010 and that electoral process, to the individuals we as outside actors helped put into office to run that post-earthquake state and be in charge of those billions of dollars.

Sara Van Horn

Could you talk about the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse? How is it linked to the conditions you describe in the book?

Jake Johnston

Large sectors in Haiti, legal experts, and human rights groups argued that Moïse’s mandate came to an end in 2021. This question of whether or not the president of Haiti’s mandate ended or not is obviously for Haitians to determine. But in the first weeks of Joe Biden’s administration, a US State Department spokesman said at a press briefing that the US believed that Moïse’s term ends in 2022, not 2021.

This was the US interpreting the Haitian constitution — and it’s not just about that statement, but what that statement would indicate to players in Haiti. Moïse could refuse to negotiate with people in Haiti, because international support is so deterministic in Haiti, or at least perceived as such, so that when you have it, you’re empowered to go ahead on your own and not build the coalitions that are necessary for real governance.

Six months later, he was assassinated in his home. I think the decision of the US to provide unconditional support for Moïse certainly contributed to the conditions surrounding the president when he was killed.

It’s been two and a half years since that assassination, and we’re seeing the same thing take place again. Ariel Henry was named prime minister by Moïse right before his assassination. About two weeks after the assassination, the international community urged Henry to form a government. Lo and behold, within a few days he was prime minister, and he has been prime minister ever since.

But there are no elected officials in the country, no institutions, to hold him accountable. If we actually want to support a Haitian-led solution, we’ve got to stop telling Haitians what an appropriate solution is.

Cal Turner

Do you see these dynamics reflected in the current political crisis in Haiti?

Jake Johnston

The multifaceted crisis on display in Haiti is directly related to these dynamics. At the heart of this is a broken social contract, a state that is unrepresentative of and unaccountable to the Haitian people. For decades, foreign intervention has helped to prop up an inherently unsustainable status quo. Now, the aid state is collapsing — which was, of course, inevitable.

In recent decades, Haiti’s political class has become more responsive to foreign powers than to the Haitian people, but legitimacy imposed externally will never last. We can see this quite clearly with the de facto prime minister Ariel Henry, who owed his authority to foreign powers. By propping up this government, the US and others have pushed Haiti into uncharted territory, with disastrous consequences for the population and made any resolution that much more difficult to achieve.

At the same time, I don’t think we should see the collapse of the aid state as inherently a problem. Haiti has an opportunity to build something new, to build a state in line with the ideals that animated the founding of the world’s first black republic. In many ways, the fight today is between putting the train back on the tracks, so to speak, and building something new. And, sadly, those who have benefitted from the status quo are going to violently fight to protect their power.