Excerpted From: Irwin P. Stotzky, Haiti: Confronting an Immense Challenge, 55 University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 1 (Fall, 2023) (202 Footnotes) (Full Document)

IrwinPStotzky.jpegThe news from Haiti is bleak. This nation--which enjoys a rich and diverse culture, but also a long history of political turmoil, foreign intervention, and natural disasters--is currently simultaneously facing multiple crises that threaten its stability and development, including poverty, debt, political instability, gang violence, natural disasters, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. These crises raise the question of whether Haiti is a failed state and what factors have led to even asking this question. It also raises the question of what can be done to improve the lives of the Haitian people in their quest to move from an authoritarian political and social society to a democratic one.

Haiti's political situation has been unstable and volatile for decades, with frequent changes of government, coups, protests, and violence. The assassination of President Jovenel Moise on July 7, 2021, whose administration was itself corrupt, created a power vacuum that allowed gangs to seize control of the capital and block the country's main port and fuel terminal. The country has been without a functioning parliament since January 2020 and faces a constitutional crisis. The new government, led by Prime Minister Ariel Henry, which was formed on November 24, 2021, has little legitimacy among the Haitian people, and faces strong opposition from the vast majority of the Haitian people, rival factions, and other civil society groups, all of whom are demanding a transitional government and new elections.

The security situation is tense and unpredictable. Gang violence is one of the most pressing and pervasive problems, not only in urban areas like Port-au-Prince, but even in the rural areas. Criminal heavily armed groups have a strong hold on the economic and social lives of millions of Haitians, terrorizing local populations with abduction, murder, sexual and gender-based violence, extortion, and forced displacement. Gangs also compete for territorial control and resources, often clashing with each other and the police. The Haitian National Police (HNP) is overstretched, understaffed, lacks sufficient resources to do its job, and is often complicit in illegal gang activities. The United Nations and other international actors claim that they have tried to support the HNP with training, equipment, and reform suggestions, but the help is often not enough and often not enthusiastically accepted, given the harm these international sources have done to Haiti in the past.

Recently, however, civilians have resorted to self-defense measures, in a movement known as “bwa kale,” by taking up arms and attacking gang members. The movement started on April 24, 2023, when a crowd overpowered police, who had arrested fourteen presumed gang members, and used gasoline to burn the suspects alive. This movement has resulted in a sharp drop in kidnappings and killings attributed to gangs. But the outbreak of mob justice is troubling because it could easily be used to target people who have nothing to do with gangs or violence and could lead to an explosion of even worse violence if the gangs seek retribution. Such actions, of course, are incompatible with a democratic system of government. This movement underscores the chaos in a country where no president has been elected in two years and underpaid and outgunned police offices have fled in large numbers. It is a result of an acute power vacuum.

Poverty and hunger continue to haunt the nation. Indeed, Haiti remains the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean region and among the poorest nations in the world. According to the World Bank, about 60% of the population lives below the national poverty line of $2.41 per day, and 24% lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.23 per day. Poverty is even more severe in the rural areas than in the urban areas. Haiti also suffers from high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, exacerbated by natural disasters, climate change, political instability, and Covid-19. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), about 4.9 million people (42% of the population) are in need of urgent food assistance. Chronic malnutrition affects 22% of children under five years old. Moreover, even though the WFP and other humanitarian agencies have been providing some food aid and cash transfers to some vulnerable households, funding gaps and access constraints due to insecurity limit the effectiveness of those humanitarian efforts. Even if these agencies can provide some help, the efforts are simply insufficient to help most Haitians caught in the net of poverty.

Haiti is also highly exposed to natural hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, landslides, and droughts. These natural disasters have caused widespread damage and loss of life. For example, in 2010, a devastating earthquake killed over 350,000 people, displaced another two to three million people, and destroyed many of the important buildings in the country, such as the National Palace, particularly in Port-au-Prince. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew killed over 500 people and severally affected 2.1 million people. In 2021, Hurricane Grace killed sixteen people in Haiti and Mexico and severely affected over 800,000 people. The August 14, 2021 earthquake killed more than 2,200 people and displaced more than 650,000 others. On June 6, 2023, a magnitude 5.5 earthquake struck Haiti's southwest region destroying homes and creating panic in the country's Grand'Anse region. At least four people died and 32 were injured. This followed the previous weekend's torrential floods that turned the country's streets into raging brown rivers, killed at least 51 people, and injured at least 141 others. Haiti's vulnerability to natural disasters is compounded by environmental degradation, deforestation, undeveloped infrastructure, lack of disaster preparedness, and extremely limited institutional capacity.

The economic situation in Haiti is also a disaster. For example, in 2021, the World Bank estimated a projected contraction of 1.8%. The country suffers from low growth, high inflation, fiscal deficits, external imbalances, weak or even totally nonfunctioning governance, corruption, and environmental degradation. The World Bank, among other groups or experts, estimates that Haiti needs structural reforms to tackle its economic challenges and sustainably transform its economy.

Given all of these problems facing Haiti, when Haiti is mentioned in the news, either in articles or on broadcasts, it is not surprising to hear the nation described as follows: Violence, tragedy, hunger, underdevelopment, natural disasters (an Earthquake that killed almost 350,000 people), hurricanes, corruption, dictators and private security forces, countless coup d'états, no properly functioning legal or health systems, extreme poverty, starvation, assassination of the president, thousands of desperate people fleeing someplace awful in horribly overcrowded wooden sailboats trying to survive an 800 mile extraordinarily dangerous journey to get to someplace better, but often leading to drowned people washing up on the gleaming beaches of Florida, in short, a failed state! Haiti is indeed a mess. With all of its problems, how is it possible that Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, a nation which has an underground subway, health care coverage, public schools, filled up resorts, and impressive stretches of economic growth? How is it possible that so many Caribbean island nations and many Latin American nations have developed into modern nations with at least a fair amount of wealth and a decent life for its people?

What has caused these nearly intractable problems? The usual answers include corruption by the leaders, who have ransacked the nation for over two centuries, lucrative monopolies by the economic elite who pay few taxes and treat the vast poor majority with contempt, almost like slaves, and control every aspect of Haitian life. But what has been an open secret, well known to those who have an interest in Haiti, is that the causes of these maladies are intricately linked to a ransom forced on Haiti by international actors, particularly France. Later, the occupation of Haiti by the United States led to the takeover by Wall Street forces- particularly the National City Bank of New York-of the Haitian National Bank and the control of Haiti's foreign debt for over a decade. The first people in the modern world to free themselves from slavery and create their own nation, the first free Black republic in the world, after a bitter war of independence from France, were forced to pay reparations to the very nation they had defeated!

In May 2022, the New York Times published a series of articles describing the forced reparations and its effects on Haitian society, including an informed estimate of the cost in dollars needed to repay Haiti for the ransom. These articles were a catalyst for a conference held at the University of Miami on March 24, 2023, to analyze and discuss the French demand for reparations and the case for restitution. The articles became the basis for this symposium issue by the Inter-American Law Review.

In this article, I review the history of Haiti that led to the reparations and the harm they have caused to the development of Haiti into a well-functioning modern society. I also discuss the deep-seated issues that the Haitian people will have to confront and hopefully resolve in its movement from an authoritarian to a more democratic society, even if France pays the reparations and restitution it owes Haiti.

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While many of these problems and the legacy of history can only be overcome by the Haitian people, the international community's help is essential, because the actions of the international community-particularly the “Double Debt,” Wall Street's “activities,” and international military intervention-have been a major cause of Haiti's problems. But only the correct international incentives directed at the real problems will help the Haitian people create a viable sound democratic revolution. So far, of course, these incentives have not been properly employed.

The deepest roots of Haiti's problems lie not simply or most significantly in the country's politics or in its cultural history. Institutional reforms of the type championed by the international community, such as total privatization of formerly state owned industries or “judicial reform,” will simply not work until the more serious problems are confronted. While the moral turpitude of the elites is real, Haiti's political problems lie in the social and economic organization of the country. To put it another way, Haiti's crisis lies in social inequality and economic maldistribution. Unless and until these difficult issues are addressed, there is little hope for positive changes for the millions of Haitians trapped in despair and destitution. If they are addressed, however, it is likely that positive changes in the political sphere will follow. The only hope Haiti has for creating a more just society and a valid democracy, is the creation of a new socioeconomic arrangement, which will be difficult to initiate, and even harder to maintain. The absence of material deprivation is a prerequisite for the conditions necessary to create a viable, modern democratic society.

The only answer to Haiti's many problems is the requirement that the unwashed majority must play a strong role in deciding the fate of the country. Under the best of circumstances, Haiti cannot be changed structurally without some yielding of power by the economic elite and policies by the international community that will lead to that result. France paying Haiti the reparations and restitution it is certainly due and the United States also paying Haiti back the money that Wall Street financiers took by controlling Haiti's foreign debt and stealing its resources would be a good start!

Irwin P. Stotzky is a Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law.