Even before UN peacekeeping forces wound up their 15-year Haitian stabilization campaign in October 2019, it was clear that internal order wouldn’t hold. A few months earlier, the Core Group—an informal association of international diplomats concerned with Haitian affairs—had expressed grave concern over “the serious political, economic, social, and security issues affecting” the country amid challenges to the legitimacy of President Jovenel Moïse’s administration. A brewing constitutional crisis undermined the president’s goal of re-establishing the Haitian armed forces and ultimately precipitated his assassination in 2021. Unclear rules of succession led to political infighting and reduced state capacity, and criminal organizations exploited the opportunity. They now control about two-thirds of Port-au-Prince, the capital city.
The Covid pandemic and increases in international fuel prices throughout 2022 accelerated Haiti’s disintegration. Ariel Henry, the acting prime minister, cut fuel subsidies, which led to an explosion of anti-government protests. Food and potable water became scarce. Cholera returned. Meanwhile, the police forces underwent a desperate decline—down to around 9,000 from 16,000 in just two years, to secure a country of almost 12 million people.
In October 2022, Henry requested an international military intervention in Haiti to disrupt gang presence, thereby acknowledging the central government’s impotence. Instead of obliging, the UN Security Council rebuked Haiti’s “political class” for its inability to restore order in the country. For good measure, the United States and Canada sanctioned a number of Haitian elites for providing financial support to criminal organizations and other misdeeds. We should expect the list of sanctioned individuals to expand as anarchy envelops the country and it becomes near impossible for local industry to operate without coming to terms with the increasingly powerful crime rackets.
The West’s response reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the country’s underlying problem. Haiti lacks a genuine ruling class—an intergenerational network capable of establishing and administering political authority. Its “political class” comprises a dwindling pool of individuals with government credentials but little actual power. The tiny minority of economic elites are the remnants and shadows of what constituted Haiti’s ruling class prior to the 1915 US invasion. The ensuing military occupation dislodged the country’s elite, and it neither recovered its original place nor was it ever replaced. That marginalization of Haiti’s ruling class set the trajectory for the next century of social and political dynamics in the country, manifesting in one violent catastrophe after another and culminating in the current situation.
Absent a proper ruling class to establish a locus of legitimate authority, and to staff and support government institutions, Haiti can’t constitute itself as a stable, democratic political entity. The country’s economic elites, despite any criminal associations they may have, represent the only native network of individuals capable of governing the country. A sound policy would encourage them to become more directly involved in governance, rather than attempt to marginalize them.
The territory we now know as Haiti is the vestige of a long-since-failed political enterprise to unite all of Hispaniola under one republic. Emboldened by their victory over slavery and French rule, the leaders of the Haitian Revolution contrived from the very outset to make themselves masters of the entire island. President Jean-Pierre Boyer realized this vision in 1822, 18 years after independence, upon annexing Santo Domingo, today’s Dominican Republic, quashing the former Spanish colony’s aspiration to join Simon Bolivar’s Gran Colombia. The move entailed an intentional strategic trade-off: Devoting the limited forces and matériel to conquest left the Haitians more vulnerable to external threats. Following the plan laid out by his predecessor and founder of the republic, Alexandre Pétion, Boyer offered restitution to France—often mischaracterized as merely a payment for recognizing Haitian independence—to serve that end.
Though the terms proved onerous, Boyer gambled that Greater Haiti, unencumbered by prior trade restrictions and internal conflict, could restore agricultural production to colonial-era levels and thus service the resulting debt. Through the remainder of his tenure, however, the plantation economy in the west of the island devolved into subsistence farming, the Dominicans in the east grew increasingly discontented with Haitian rule, and Boyer’s intensifying authoritarianism undermined his legitimacy.
Determined to save the republic, Gen. Charles Rivière-Hérard overthrew Boyer in 1843 and, as the new president, promulgated a liberal constitution to allay popular grievances. From Port-au-Prince, Rivière-Hérard declared it “une révolution morale et pacifique,” but promptly marched eastward to make war on the Dominicans when they commenced their own rebellion. His absence from the capital allowed his enemies to conspire against him. Soon he was forced to quit the island. Haiti never recovered any semblance of the glory or potential it held before that departure.
Contenders for power loosely arrayed themselves in factions along ethnic lines—mulâtre versus noir—and mobilized peasant militias to skirmish over what remained. Internal politics over the ensuing decades unravelled in a tragicomedy of buffoonery and slaughter, with near-constant rebellions, intrigues, and embarrassing attempts to reconquer Santo Domingo. Power alternated between factions according to which one succeeded in rallying the most bayonets, rather than the most ballots, to its cause. Leaders touted high ideals of liberal constitutionalism or militaristic nationalism, styled themselves as noblemen, and invoked the fading glory of the original revolution. Yet each administration gorged at the public trough to support its network of supporters and pay off the peasant militias that served the highest bidder. Successive administrations butchered political enemies and their families by the hundreds and drove many more hundreds to seek refuge in Jamaica and St. Thomas. Longing for home and for vengeance, those exiled concocted further conspiracies and revolutions.
Decades of this fiscal mismanagement and civil strife caused native industry to flounder, infrastructure to deteriorate, and the few state institutions such as schools and the military to atrophy. After visiting Haiti in 1880 and 1881, Martiniquan journalist Victor Cochinat lamented “admirals without ships, generals without soldiers, superior councils of public education without high schools, art schools without artists to teach.” Haiti, he remarked, projected a “phantasmagoria of civilization” that close inspection revealed to be “a joke … like a frog wanting to be as big as an ox”—a Potemkin country.
As Haiti cannibalized itself, what remained of the predominantly mulâtre ruling class managed to retain its power and privileges, educating its children privately or in France and coming to form the only learned class. However, these families became increasingly dependent on graft. With little industry left to tax, the finances of the country grew unsustainable. Frequent revolutions had driven away Haitian industrialists, making the remaining elite dependent on the treasury. That dependence catalyzed the violent competition for political office.
Yet around the turn of the 20th century, Haiti became host to a growing community of merchant émigrés from Europe and the Middle East. Even the most ardent noir nationalists grudgingly accepted that such immigration was necessary to prop up local industry and facilitate trade. German immigrants proved particularly adept, circumventing Haitian legal prohibitions against foreign ownership of land by intermarrying with the local elites. By 1915, the Germano-Haitian community, which numbered slightly above 200, controlled about 80 percent of commercial enterprises. As the United States was drawn into World War I, the prominence of Germano-Haitians aroused suspicion in Washington. American policymakers came to understand that Haiti’s vulnerability to European influence stemmed from its chronic political turmoil and economic mismanagement. The US government thus began devising an invasion of Haiti to disrupt German influence in the country, help Haitians build a sustainable democratic regime, and stabilize Haitian finances.
Before long, events in Port-au-Prince provided adequate justification for the Americans to intervene. In an eerie parallel to current events in Haiti, gangs of peasant militias had grown to control swathes of territory by 1915, and political infighting culminated in a presidential assassination. After a brief reign, President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam had 167 imprisoned political enemies summarily executed and then sought refuge under the skirt of the French diplomatic mission. Relatives of Sam’s victims dragged him from the embassy, beat him senseless, and cast him over the fence to a frenzied mob, which then hacked him to death. Like some grotesque pastiche of a Roman triumph, the killers then fêted Sam into the underworld by parading his severed head around the Champ de Mars. The US government seized on the spectacle and subsequent chaos to launch an invasion spearheaded by the Marine Corps.
The Marines seized control of Port-au-Prince virtually unopposed. Before long, however, a ham-fisted pursuit of the intervention’s strategic goals put US officials at odds with the local elite. During the first few weeks, American officials convened a National Assembly and charged it with overseeing the selection of a new executive. When the assembly appeared to prefer long-time presidential aspirant Rosalvo Bobo, whom US officials considered erratic, his candidacy was vetoed in favor of Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, whom Washington deemed a more reliable ally. Bobo, unwilling to simply watch his ambitions wither, raised a peasant militia and triggered an insurgency. The Marines defeated it within months, but a rift had formed between US officials and local elites.
In the summer of 1917, after the Haitian legislature refused to approve constitutional changes pushed by Washington, occupation officials encouraged Dartiguenave to dissolve the Haitian National Assembly, eroding any remaining sense of political control among the Haitian elites. US officials also grew contemptuous of the local grandees after discovering that more than 100 prominent families lived almost entirely off the public fisc. Rectifying the country’s finances meant cutting off those families, entrenching the rift. American forces also compelled Dartiguenave to declare war against Germany, intern Germano-Haitians, and seize their property. This disrupted economic activity on the island and further aggravated the locals.
Their penchant for graft was a real and abiding weakness of the Haitian elite, but by alienating its members, the American occupation undermined its strategic goal of fostering a sustainable internal order. Instrumental to that goal, for example, was the establishment of local security forces, to replace Haiti’s disbanded military. This plan came to fruition through the 1915 formation of the Gendarmerie D’Haiti, consisting of enlisted Haitians and led by an officer corps of US Marine commissioned and noncommissioned officers. Due largely to the occupation’s treatment of elite families, the Marines had trouble recruiting from the society’s educated upper echelons, as they would have preferred. Instead, the Marines made do with recruits from impoverished backgrounds, with poor health, little education, and no motivation beyond material gain. Predictably, giving authority to the hungriest and least educated led to rampant abuse of the public and widespread extortion.
Limited native cooperation also impeded efforts to revamp the country’s scant infrastructure, which would have been essential to economic development and to making Haiti’s interior governable. During the counterinsurgency against Bobo, the Marines learned that the lack of roads limited their ability to control the country. To address this problem, occupation officials reinstated the corvée system—conscripting citizens into public service in lieu of taxes or debt repayment. While the corvée did lead to the improvement of Haitian infrastructure and a centralization of political power, the program was deeply unpopular. It fueled a renewed, and altogether more formidable, insurgency.
Only in the 1920s, after overcoming the second insurgency, did the Americans grasp that success in Haiti required aligning local elites with the occupation’s agenda. In pursuit of reconciliation, US officials adopted reforms such as opening the Gendarmerie’s officer corps to the sons of the elite. They eventually changed the name of the force to the Garde d’Haiti to counteract the stigma attached to serving in a police force as opposed to an army. The Americans also established educational programs in agricultural science to revive local industry, offering stipends to students who enrolled. The children of the elite benefited disproportionately from this arrangement, as the prevalence of illiteracy outside their ranks disqualified others.
Yet these measures came too late. By the end of the 1920s, Haiti’s struggling economy began to feel the effects of the Great Depression. Educational stipends were cut, prompting student protests. Demonstrations and public riots became more frequent and were sometimes violently suppressed. Public opinion in the United States, weary of the long occupation, began to turn heavily in favor of withdrawing from Haiti completely. With no support for the occupation on either the Haitian or the American side, US forces began a gradual withdrawal; the last boat left in 1934.
The saga of the 1915-34 occupation illustrates that, while political infighting among Haiti’s elites culminated in national self-destruction prior to invasion, no nation-building effort could hope to succeed without their cooperation. Far more educated than the rest of the population, they represented the best hope for Haitian democracy, as the future leaders of any such democracy would hail from their ranks. Aligning the Haitian elites with the political, military, and economic goals of US strategy early on might have helped ensure continuity after the occupation’s withdrawal. To sustain a functioning republic, the security forces would have had to be staffed with well-educated Haitian officers. Improved economic performance would have demanded that locals be educated in agricultural science and other industries. However, the occupation began to implement these wise changes too late for them to have lasting effects.
Moreover, the destruction of the German community proved antithetical to Haiti’s economic development. This community represented the prospect of economic success without reliance on graft. By effectively dismantling the German community, along with their economic holdings, Washington thwarted a demographic development that could have improved the efficacy of the ruling class while enhancing the viability of the Haitian economy.
After 1934, Haiti’s elite never regained its political dominance, but neither was it replaced by a new ruling class. Instead, the political centralization achieved by the US occupation facilitated a new procession of aspiring tyrants, juntas, and suspect elections, culminating in the rise of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. In the compromised 1957 election, the arriviste Duvalier won out against Louis Déjoie. A wealthy mulâtre industrialist and the descendant of a former president, Déjoie epitomized what remained of the traditional ruling class. Despite its dwindling power, the remaining elite was viewed as a threat by Duvalier. For almost 30 years, the Duvalier dynasty weaponized racial resentment and a cult of personality and deployed its Tonton Macoute secret police to displace and cleanse the mainly mulâtre elite, all while brutalizing the general population in relentless campaigns of state terror that sent human capital and industry fleeing overseas. Instead of attempting to raise a new noir ruling class, as Papa Doc had promised, the Duvaliers grasped as much power—and public money—as they could. Papa Doc, and then his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, became the state.
When Baby Doc was compelled to leave office in 1986, he left in his wake the near-complete degradation of state capacity and civil society. Subsequent leaders could only aspire to the level of control the Duvaliers enjoyed. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide tried his best, under the façade of liberation theology, to replicate the populist strongman model of the Duvaliers, but he was thwarted twice, between 1991 and 2004, by Haiti’s security forces and a US-led intervention.
It was in those intervening years that international NGOs began migrating into Haiti en masse, spearheaded by the first UN mission in Haiti in 1994, to fill the vacuum of state services. Eventually, the number of NGOs in Haiti—around 10,000 registered by 2015— exceeded that of any other country per capita. Haiti became known as a “republic of NGOs.” These organizations provided an estimated 80 percent of social services in the country, and their largely foreign staff became known as the “NGO class.” In fact, this class served as a substitute ruling class. Haitian politicians, meanwhile, engaged in mere theater as they pretended to hold real authority over the country while remaining completely dependent on the NGOs to provide public services and to funnel international funds for basic government operations. Even the Haitian national police force was built up and trained by the UN missions, not under the auspices of the Haitian government. Unsurprisingly, then, the UN’s decision to wind down its presence in Haiti created a cascading effect, with reduced security prompting an exodus of the NGOs and a humanitarian crisis among the population, which had become dependent on NGO services.
Given the desperate state of Haiti, some form of international intervention is likely. But unless the intervening powers cultivate a native political faction with the wherewithal to assert control, Haiti as a political project is defunct. At this stage, we must dispense with concerns over Haitian sovereignty; there is no sovereignty where there is no network of power to wield it. The ongoing sporadic demonstrations in Haiti are reactions to stimuli, not expressions of national will or of a unified purpose, as these require conceptualization and direction by a ruling class.
We can also ignore the lamentations of present-day Pan-Africanists and their ilk. They will cling to the corpse of the Haitian Revolution and swear it has life yet. These anachronisms would be better served by consulting their intellectual progenitor, the pre-occupation Haitian statesman Anténor Firmin, who prophesied that if Haiti couldn’t reform itself, it would necessarily fall under the aegis of foreign power, as “no people can live indefinitely under tyranny, injustice, ignorance, and misery.” At the same time, it is necessary to dismiss outright, and with extreme prejudice, revisionists who blame Haiti’s indemnity to France for the country’s dejection. That position betrays an incomplete understanding of the relevant history and, therefore, of Haiti itself. Often, it merely serves as a preamble to moral preening about “righting historical wrongs” while current problems go unaddressed.
The UN Security Council is considering the deployment of an international rapid-action armed force to help the Haiti National Police take back control of sections of the capital—mainly ports and major thoroughfares. No decision has been reached yet, nor has any country committed to taking the lead. Nonetheless, such an intervention would prove insufficient to re-establish order. It doesn’t include a solution to state incapacity, nor does it aim to destroy armed gangs. Neither would the proposed sanctions on gang leaders and promises to supply equipment to the local security forces be sufficient. Gangs and armed mobs can operate in conditions of extreme poverty and will in any case find ways to subvert sanctions. And as long as the question of political legitimacy remains unresolved, the security forces will be unreliable regardless of their armaments.
But there is no appetite for a more substantial intervention. The governments of the United States and Canada have explicitly stated they are unwilling to carry out unilateral interventions or lead a coalition. The White House seems especially concerned about not appearing to be undertaking yet another invasion of Haiti for fear of blowback from both the Haitian populace and the international community. Moreover, what then-Sen. Joe Biden said of US foreign policy toward Haiti in 1994 still holds true: If it “just quietly sunk into the Caribbean, or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interests.”
Rather than waiting for a third country to volunteer, North-American leaders should hold bilateral talks with the governments of the countries most threatened by Haiti’s disintegration—Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas—and nudge them to play a more active role in restoring order to Haiti. One challenge such talks would face is that all three of these countries have become accustomed to US hegemony and so are not disposed to resolving the crisis in their own neighborhood. Even the Dominican Republic—geographically the most likely state to be affected by Haiti’s disintegration, and whose government has been warning the international community of Haiti’s impending collapse since the last UN mission ended—remains focused on rapidly building up its border defenses. It’s a clear signal of the Dominicans’ intent to wall themselves off from the problem. The government of Jamaica, at least, has hosted peace talks between Haiti’s political factions this year and expressed willingness to take part in a coalitional intervention.
Any course of action decided upon by the relevant parties should include policies that encourage and aid a local faction with some modicum of credibility to establish control. The remaining economic elite in Haiti—the residents of the upscale gated communities of Pétionville, and other such locales—constitute the only native faction capable of that feat. They alone have the demonstrated industry and social capital, locally and internationally, to re-establish a ruling class. The local industrialists must fill the seats of the legislature and take the lead in rebuilding state bureaucracies. Their sons and daughters must staff the higher echelons of these bureaucracies and especially those of the security forces.
As they begin to retake sections of the country, necessarily with foreign support, their efforts to permanently restore public order and services can then receive support from international NGOs, whose vigilance would also serve as a check on government excess. Whatever else occurs, rebuilding efforts must heed Machiavelli’s exhortation to distrust the “banished,” such as the Haitian expats who have embedded themselves in the DC foreign-policy Blob and elsewhere. These people hold deep grudges and strong opinions, but they lack a direct stake in the country’s future.
Failing that, Haiti will either continue to deteriorate indefinitely, or one or more countries in the region will eventually feel compelled to extend their own sovereignty into Haitian territory. After all, as Lyonel Trouillot, the Haitian novelist, puts it, Haiti “isn’t a country … but an epic failure factory, an excuse for a place, a weed lot, an abyss for tightrope-walkers, blindman’s bluff for the sightless saddled with delusions of grandeur.”
The nascent Republic of Haiti—the republic of Pétion, of Boyer, of Rivière-Hérard—was a country, but it expired more than a century ago. Its most recent chance at life was snuffed out by the great power interests in the early 20th century. Haitians today are either fighting over the scraps of its remains, trying to insulate themselves from the chaos, or attempting to flee. Haiti’s only chance at resurrection lies in restoring the native elite to political rule.