The headlines on Haiti are once again sensational. Haiti is “on the brink,” “burning,” facing “barbarism” and so on. To be clear, Haiti is facing another trough in the decades long up and down struggle for democracy and accountability. The contours of the latest manifestation of tensions run along the same lines as they have over the past three years – anger at a government largely seen as illegitimate, anger at the spiraling economic crisis made worse by COVID, anger at the ongoing violence of gangs, which operate largely with impunity and in some cases in a coordinated fashion with the National Police. Murders that are widely believed to be politically motivated are on the rise, such as the shooting of the head of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association, Monferrier Dorval, in front of his house, hours after criticizing the government’s drive for constitutional reform. People are nervous and angry, and in parts of the country, increasingly desperate. When they protest now, however, they face lethal force from the police, or a potential backlash from armed groups.
As always beneath the headlines and media framing, there is the other Haiti. Where there is not so much chaos, but rather the predictable exercise of privilege and power in a setting where resources are increasingly scarce. There are the people who take advantage, protected in doing so by the violence of the state, which ultimately seeks to contain the poor, not serve them. On the other side there is the grassroot organization of those seeking to build a different kind of society. Students, peasant associations, women’s groups, labor unions, what remains of the grassroots church movement and so on. What so often happens in these times, is that their voices are drowned out amidst the cries for “stability,” “order” and (at the moment), “elections.”
In this update we touch on the recent currency confusion, the call for elections and current political violence, and celebrate the creation of (if not the need for) the Observatory for Crimes Against Humanity. I am reminded in writing this update of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who writes, capitalism “requires all kinds of scheming, including hard work by elites and their compradors in the overlapping and interlocking space-economies of the planet’s surface. They build and dismantle and reconfigure states, moving capacity into and out of the public realm. And they think very hard about money on the move.” Behind the turmoil in Haiti (and elsewhere) there is always the elite thinking about money on the move. Always.
Exchange rate debacle
At the beginning of October the Haitian Gourde experienced a rapid revaluation, strengthening against the dollar nearly twofold in the space of a day. On September 30, the Haitian Gourde was trading at 104.96 to the dollar, the next day 67.30. It has since stabilized at around 62 Gourde to the dollar, though whether it stays there is anyone’s guess. After three years of steady devaluation – and much criticism leveled at the government for the declining purchasing power that represented – some strengthening of the Gourde was potentially a good thing. However, the rapid change created turmoil, and made clear just how dependent Haiti is on the dollar. Suddenly the value of remittances tanked in Gourde, international non-governmental organizations working in Haiti saw the value of their budgets shrink – which meant possible cuts in pay for people working in Haiti and/or fewer local purchases. Export companies (which have made a killing exploiting Haitian workers because of the steady devaluation of the currency over the last three years) were suddenly saying they could not work under these conditions – which meant layoffs for Haitians, of course, not the company managers.
At the same time, people in Haiti can – potentially – buy more with their Gourde than before the change. This is, of course, a good thing provided local prices actually adjust, which they seem to be doing. Long-term, there is another looming downside however: If imports are cheaper, especially in the agricultural sector, the possibility for further undercutting of local production increases. If you are keeping tabs here, the result of all of this means Haiti will see a further decline in its trade balance (imports increasing more than exports) which is never good for a country in need of dollars to repay debts to international creditors. This just makes the point that there are pros and cons to both “weak” and “strong” currency valuations – and what ultimately matters is stability and predictability. If the Gourde settles in at the current rate, people will adjust. As no one believes this is an actual market valuation, however, the chances for future instability looms large. Indeed, given Haiti’s negative trade balance the reality is that the Gourde was probably overvalued at 105. The government’s intervention to strengthen the Gourde is thus likely best read as a short-term political stunt that may well backfire before elections some time next year, but will almost certainly have consequences for after.
President Moise has been ruling by decree since January of 2020. At that point, the terms of most of Haiti’s parliamentarians expired. As there was no prior agreement on an election law, election timetable, or members of the Provisional Electoral Council to oversee the process, Haiti’s parliament stopped functioning for lack of membership. Moise did appoint a Prime Minister, and thus, there is a head of government overseeing administrative functions. But there are only 11 elected officials in Haiti at the moment, and no legislature.
So, naturally, elections are a priority, right? Not necessarily. The problem is that the underlying divisions in society that were then manifested in the stalemate over legislative elections remain. Indeed, if anything, they have hardened amidst the violence that is surging in the country right now. It is hard to hold elections when opposition candidate’s offices are firebombed, and demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise, are met by armed gangs or armed police, or both. The government that is overseeing the process is the very same government that people have been mobilizing periodically for three years now to get rid of. Moise has no popular mandate – has never had one. So, for him to unilaterally oversee an election and concurrent constitutional reform is not acceptable to opposition leaders. And yet, in the absence of elections, there is no one with an official position to act as a countervailing force to Moise and the PHTK. It is the chicken-rock/ egg-hard place that would be funny except that people caught in the middle are being assassinated.
Now the Trump administration has decided to lean in – after mostly ignoring Haiti, with official prognostications at least, for three and half years. When the United States mobilizes to “help” a county hold elections it is rarely an ingredient for a democratic outcome. Indeed, the Obama administration’s “assistance” in 2011 and again in 2016/17 is how Haiti got stuck with its current president. The Trump (Haiti is a “shit-hole” country) administration is not likely to do much better. Indeed, every indication is that Trump’s team wants elections simply to confirm the continued rule of the PHTK and bring stability back to the regime of pillage the U.S. has come to expect as its right in Haiti. And so, Moise appointed a Provisional Electoral Council absent traditional civil society representation and with no voices from opposition leadership. Moise claims he will move forward with elections (though the timing is still to clear – note an earlier version of this article said elections were scheduled for February but nothing is set yet) over the demands of opposition and civil society for a seat at the table. And Trump’s folks have simply said to the people of Haiti, support the election “or else.”
Even if Trump should lose in two weeks, Biden, who wouldn’t take office until late January anyway, seems to be offering little that is different. His position is simply to work with the international community (not Haitians) to ensure elections happen ASAP. So, with U.S. patronage firmly in hand, Moise will likely just press on. Barring a miracle of compromise and consensus building, Haiti seems destined for another election with minimal official participation but, it is feared, much violence as those cut out of the process attempt to make their voices heard through what means they can find.
An observatory for human rights
Against this backdrop, the launching of the Observatory for Crimes Against Humanity, announced last week, is crucially important. There has been an explosion of violence in Haiti including political assassinations and attacks on communities that, much evidence suggests, involve the coordinated actions of armed criminal gangs and the police. Pierre Esperance, from National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, speaks of at least 9 massacres in recent years, the worst being in La Saline in November of 2018 which left at least 72 people dead, committed by forces allied with the government. The Haiti Action Committee’s recent Counter Punch article lifts up the assassination of student leader Gregory Saint-Hilaire, killed by security forces on October 2 while on campus. They also talk about the toll that the G-9 gang alliance is having on Port-au-Prince neighborhoods. The G-9 alliance is run by a former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier. The alliance was promoted by government officials, who have refused to distance themselves even after gang members have burned out entire neighborhoods.
With the U.S. and the Organization of American States pressing for February elections, and international human rights organizations apparently too busy elsewhere to speak out on the spiraling violence in Haiti, local human rights groups in Haiti have launched a new platform to monitor political violence and keep record of violations. The founders of the Observatory for Crimes Against Humanity in Haiti are the Bureau of International Lawyers (BAI), the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH), figures such as the former Minister of Justice, Mr. Camille Leblanc, career journalist Hérold Jean-François, Me Sonel Jean-François, Me Sonet Saint-Louis, among others. From the founding document:
The observatory is therefore made up of several organizations and firms specializing in the defense of human rights and other organizations of civil society, intellectuals and public figures attached to democratic values, with a view to collecting information and the production of analysis on causes of massive human rights violations, particularly cases of crimes against humanity committed in Haiti, while focusing fundamentally on the advisability of pursuing legal proceedings [at the] national and international level against those responsible for such abuses who will be supported by advocacy activities.
There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. As a result here is some hope that by putting a spotlight on the violations taking place, coupled with the prospect that if not now, some time in the future, there will be prosecutions, this will discourage attacks. Of course, such efforts must be magnified, and pressure put everywhere possible to stop the violence.