Haiti on the Precipice

Richard Perrin/AFP/Getty Images

Police officers on patrol, Port-au-Prince, April 25, 2023

On Thursday Ariel Henry formally resigned as prime minister of Haiti. Few were grateful for his service. Over thirty-two months, the longest premiership since 1987, Henry presided over a country where life grew steadily worse. For the past five years armed groups had terrorized the capital, Port-au-Prince; in January they intensified their assault. On February 29 they united forces and launched a full-scale uprising: they engineered two prison breaks and freed some 4,700 prisoners, engaged in firefights with the outgunned national police, shut down the airport, torched commissariats, and attacked banks and private homes. 

When the uprising began Henry was away in Nairobi finalizing the terms of a foreign intervention, blessed by the United Nations and brokered by the United States. Kenya was to lead a “Multinational Security Support Mission,” which would deploy a thousand police officers, a woefully inadequate number, to quell the violence in Haiti. On March 5, when the prime minister tried to return to Port-au-Prince, armed groups did not allow him to land at the airport. Authorities in the Dominican Republic blocked him from using theirs. Finally he alighted in Puerto Rico. 

A week later Henry announced he would resign. By then tens of thousands more people had fled the capital, taking enormous risk: gangs control most major travel routes. Western embassies have since airlifted personnel out of the country. The millions who cannot leave are in almost continuous lockdown; half the population faces hunger and 1.6 million are in danger of famine, according to aid groups. There is a high threat of waterborne diseases like cholera, which killed thousands of Haitians in its first recorded outbreak in 2010. At least half of the health centers in Port-au-Prince are impaired or shuttered. 

As of now the Kenyan mission is on hold. Haiti’s outgoing government took more than a month to establish the nine-member presidential transition council, which was installed only on Wednesday. Meanwhile armed groups have made inroads in one of the last peaceful metropolitan zones, Pétionville. Gunfire is frequent, smoke pervasive. “Dead bodies are everywhere,” a friend, among the last who remains in Port-au-Prince, wrote to me last month.

The chaos and violence in Haiti have not emerged in a vacuum; they result from years of political interference from abroad and democratic decay at home. A striking example of this pattern occurred in 2010, when the “Core Group”—a coterie of diplomats, mostly from the Global North, that has dominated Haitian politics for the past two decades—meddled in presidential elections and handed power to the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK), further undermining a democratic process that many Haitians viewed with suspicion. In office, the PHTK leaders indulged in rampant corruption, violently suppressed opponents, and empowered the gangs that have today brought the country to a precipice. 


Foreign powers—especially the US—have interfered in Haiti’s democratic affairs since before the country was a democracy. In 1991 the CIA, still pursuing cold war objectives, supported a coup against Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a socialist and liberation theologian who had won 67 percent of the vote. Three years later President Bill Clinton restored Aristide to power on the condition that he pass neoliberal reforms, which gutted the public sector and reduced agricultural tariffs, wiping out the rural economy. 

In 2000 Aristide won a second term following earlier legislative elections the Organization of American States (OAS) alleged were fraudulent. In response the US embargoed aid to the Haitian government, fracturing his support. He resigned in February 2004 amid anti-government demonstrations, growing gang violence, and increasing pressure from the US and France. The next month he was flown on an American plane to the Central African Republic—and into exile. Aristide insisted he was kidnapped; James B. Foley, then the US ambassador, maintained his departure was voluntary. 

Soon afterward the UN authorized the deployment of an eight-thousand-member stabilization force, MINUSTAH (originally led by Brazil, though financed largely by American contributions), and supported the creation of the Core Group, to be chaired by the Special Representative of the Secretary General and comprising representatives of the OAS, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), financial institutions, and other outside stakeholders. The language around the Core Group was vague: it was supposed to “enhance the effectiveness of the international community’s response in Haiti.” No Haitians were involved. 

Working with the Core Group, a two-year transitional government, led by interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, unjustly imprisoned several higher-ups in Aristide’s government. MINUSTAH provided cover—both tactical and ideological—to the police force as it routed out armed groups in poor neighborhoods. A Lancet study estimated that some eight thousand people were murdered and 35,000 raped under the interim government’s watch.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

Activists and victims of cholera protesting in front of a Minustah base, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2017

The election of René Préval in 2006 marked a shift toward stability. Préval had served a presidential term and was associated with Aristide’s political movement. But he treaded carefully, as if to avoid perturbing the US and other international powers. During his tenure many political prisoners were released; kidnappings fell; the homicide rate was low. When I moved to Port-au-Prince in the summer of 2007, the capital felt safe and calm, the mood relatively optimistic. There was even talk of winding down MINUSTAH, whose troops logged so much beach time that they were known as “turistas.” Former president Clinton took a keen interest in Haiti’s development during this period, making frequent trips to tour health centers, mango processing plants, and factories. In 2009, not long after Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, Bill was appointed the UN’s special envoy to the country. 


This respite ended on January 12, 2010, when a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. It leveled much of the capital and killed tens of thousands of people. (Casualty estimates range from 70,000 to 316,000. Since civil registries were incomplete, the real figure may never be known.) More than a million people were turned out of their homes. They lived in tents and under tarps in public plazas, on soccer pitches and a nine-hole golf course, and in the barren lands near Titanyen, where many of the disaster’s victims were interred. In part due to the Clintons’ involvement, reconstruction became a global cause célèbre.

The second catastrophe of 2010 began in October, when the country suffered its first recorded outbreak of cholera, which soon killed perhaps 30,000 people. The bacteria was brought to Haiti by MINUSTAH, which failed to screen soldiers from Nepal—a cholera-endemic country—and stationed them at a base from which sewage flowed directly into a tributary of a major river. Years of investigation and advocacy by journalists, forensic epidemiologists, and social movements finally brought the UN’s role in the epidemic to light. To this day it has failed to make adequate reparation or reforms.

Most Americans know about the earthquake; almost half of US households were moved to donate to relief efforts. Some have heard about the cholera outbreak and even have a sense of its origins. But few are aware of the third catastrophe that struck Haiti in 2010. This was the presidential election of November 28, which representatives of Core Group countries manipulated in a protracted, clumsy, and obvious manner. The winner was Michel Martelly, an aging singer with no political experience. The losers were anyone who cared about Haitian democracy. These elections sent a clear message to Haitians: their leaders serve at the pleasure of foreign-aid donors, not of their constituents.


According to the Haitian constitution, presidential elections were due in November 2010, but there were good reasons to postpone them. The earthquake had killed crucial government officials and demolished much of the electoral apparatus, including files, registries, and the office of the electoral council, whose members thereafter operated out of a former Gold’s Gym. It wasn’t clear where the capital’s 1.3 million displaced people would cast their ballots. Hundreds of thousands of registered voters did not have the requisite identity card; only one machine at the Office of National Identification (ONI) churned out the documents for those who needed them. 

Nor were the candidates particularly inspiring. Each made the obvious promises about housing, schools, and jobs. Jude Célestin, who had led a state infrastructure company, was Préval’s chosen successor. Mirlande Manigat, a law professor and briefly first lady, had the most bona fides. Martelly was a playboy and performer. To the extent that he represented any ideology, he was assumed a reactionary for his hatred of Aristide and his desire to resurrect the army that the former president had disbanded. 

The ONI was close to my apartment. Each morning I drove past hundreds of people waiting in line outside; one day I stopped to chat. Few of them were keen to exercise their franchise. Rather, they needed ID cards to collect remittances at money-transfer agencies or to apply for work programs that paid about $5 a day for rubble removal. One of the eighteen presidential candidates, a perennial also-ran, told me frankly, “The elections are not for Haitians. They’re for the International.” Indeed, foreign donors covered most if not all the cost of the $18 million electoral process. 

In late summer I came across a peaceful demonstration on the Champs de Mars downtown. Participants chanted, in Kreyòl: We’re not voting while living under tents! On reflex the sentiment seemed odd to me, an American whose vote helped elect President Barack Obama, who in turn got a health care plan passed. Wasn’t the idea to vote for someone who would secure your health care, bring you out of tents? But in Haiti, I would come to see, the “International” was assumed to be in charge, no matter how much lip service was paid to the notion of Haitian leadership. The protest implied that elections were another form of lip service.


Three months before the vote I went to see Edmond Mulet, the head of the UN mission in Haiti, who advocated for timely elections. I was reporting on Haitian politics and wanted to understand his theory of change. Mulet told me about the need to build democratic traditions through repetition, “step by step, building block by building block.” “You will not have a democratic system in a country like Haiti by magic,” he said. “You have to have a succession of elections in order to confirm, to strengthen, to consolidate that democratic process.” This would only happen over time. “It is through elections,” he argued, “that you can really accede to power” and learn “the respect of the constitution, the respect of the concept of law.” 

Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images)

Michel Martelly performing the groundbreaking of an industrial park, with Bill Clinton attending, Cap-Haitian, Haiti, 2011

The irony of Mulet’s words was brought home to me on election day, as I drove from one polling center to the next, interviewing would-be voters who could not find their names on the rolls even as they found those of people who had perished in the earthquake. Many of the displaced lived too far from their voting centers to cast a ballot there. In his invaluable new book, Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism and the Battle to Control Haiti, Jake Johnston writes that of the five thousand eligible voters at the government’s main resettlement camp, Corail, only thirty-nine appeared on rolls.1 As frustrations mounted, Manigat, Martelly, and ten other candidates held a press conference in Port-au-Prince charging that the election had been rigged in Célestin’s favor. That afternoon protests erupted in the capital and elsewhere, cutting voting hours short. In the end only 22 percent of eligible voters had their ballots counted.

On December 7, when results were announced, Manigat and Célestin came in first and second. Martelly missed the runoff by less than a percentage point. These were clearly not the results the Core Group wanted. Almost immediately the US embassy cast doubt on the outcome, citing not low turnout or mass disenfranchisement but an unrepresentative exit poll conducted in Port-au-Prince. The OAS were roped in to evaluate the results. Six of the seven members of its election mission were from the US, Canada, or France, Johnston notes, which “sent a clear message about who was in control.” Relying on just eight percent of the tally sheets, the electoral mission recommended that Martelly, not Célestin, be in the runoff. Johnston and a team of researchers ran their own analysis of tally sheets from more than 11,000 polling stations, finding there was no basis for this judgement. 

In Johnston’s account, Mulet emerges as a meddler and a bully: he reportedly tried to fly Préval out of the country on election day and dictate results to the electoral council while it was still counting votes. Préval’s proposal to redo the election was flatly rejected. And yet American leaders intensified pressure; UN Ambassador Susan Rice conditioned aid for relief and reconstruction on the election results. “Sustained support from the international community, including the United States, will require a credible process that represents the will of the Haitian people,” she warned during a UN Security Council debate. 

On January 30 Secretary of State Clinton flew to Haiti, met with the three leading candidates, and went on the radio to declare, as Johnston paraphrases, that “the US fully supported the OAS report and its recommendations…but this was a Haitian matter for Haitians to decide.” Later that night, she dined with Préval and his prime minister. The official announcement came soon afterward: the electoral council agreed with the OAS. Martelly would replace Célestin in the second round. 

Why did the Core Group sour on Préval and his candidate? The reasons are murky. By the fall of 2010 rebuilding efforts in Haiti had not produced much visible success and people were dying in the streets from cholera. American reporters were taking foreign-aid efforts to task. Around this time Martelly styled himself as a pro-business, forward-looking candidate, eager to work with the Core Group as well as foreign investors associated with Bill Clinton’s philanthropic entities, such as the Clinton Global Initiative. Préval was not strident about his nationalism or leftism, but he had never been compliant. Judging it to be in the national interest, he strengthened ties with Venezuela and Cuba, much to the disapproval of the US and its oil companies. Nor did he fawn over investors. Johnston convincingly suggests that at some point Préval became more useful as a scapegoat than a partner. 


President Martelly was inaugurated on May 14, 2011. Over the next five years he consolidated power in his party, the PHTK, and ruled by decree. A 2023 UN investigation alleged that he created and helped arm a gang; he also presided over the misappropriation of hundreds of millions of funds from the PetroCaribe aid program, through which the Venezuelan government sold crude oil at concessionary rates. In 2016 his handpicked successor, Jovenel Moïse, who Johnston reveals had already profited handsomely from aid money, won elections in which 18 percent of voters participated. In office, he relied on violence to beat down an anticorruption movement, detaining dissidents and using gangs to repress protest. 

Armed non-state actors have been an on-and-off feature of Haiti’s political landscape at least since 1959, when President François Duvalier formed a militia called the Tontons Macoutes. But the groups that emerged during Moïse’s term were of another order. A 2021 report by Harvard Law School’s international human rights clinic and the Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes contre ‘l’humanité examined three gang massacres between 2018 and 2020, in which at least 240 civilians were killed. The Moïse administration characterized these attacks as spillover from gang infighting, but the report makes clear that the groups were supported by senior government officials, who provided weapons, vehicles, and even personnel.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Jimmy Cherizier patrolling the streets with G-9 federation gang members, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 22, 2024

All three massacres, the report notes, involved Jimmy Chérizier, alias Barbecue, a former policeman who somewhere along the way turned against the government. Since then he has become one of the most outspoken leaders among Haiti’s roughly two hundred gangs. Today he demands a part in the country’s political transition as a revolutionary fighting for the poor, even as his organization, G9, besieges the capital and murders its residents.

Moïse’s other crucial support was the international community, especially the US. Haiti did not have as much to offer its neighbor to the north as it had during a nineteen-year Marine occupation a century before, when the constitution was rewritten to permit foreign ownership of Haitian land, allowing American corporations to set up sugar, pineapple, and coffee plantations. But Moïse was a regional ally, promised short-term stability, and accepted Haitian deportees. That was not nothing. In 2018 President Donald Trump included Haiti on his list of “shithole countries.” A year later, after Moïse broke with longstanding national precedent and voted to eject Venezuela from the OAS, Trump held his nose and invited him over to Mar-a-Lago to discuss regional investments and funding. 

The Biden administration has hardly been more scrupulous. In 2021, when the length of Moïse’s mandate was in contention, President Biden backed his bid for an extra year in power, over the objections of scholars and most of Haitian civil society. Only after stalling for months did the US come out against Moïse’s efforts to pass, without due process, a constitutional referendum that would have concentrated more power in the executive.

For all his success abroad, Moïse failed to build a constituency at home. In July 2021 he was assassinated by Colombian mercenaries acting on unknown orders. By then he had delayed elections so long that there was no feasible line of succession; he had tapped Henry as premier but never formally installed him. The Core Group issued a statement “strongly encouraging” Henry to form a government. In the process it effectively quashed alternatives, including one put forth by a formidable opposition group, the Montana Accord, which demanded the creation of a transitional consensus body. 

Thereafter the Core Group backed Henry as he dragged his heels on holding elections, refused to negotiate with qualified political entities, ignored the protests of Haitians who pled before Congress, and allowed gangs to accelerate their takeover of the capital. It backed him as he turned into a laughingstock in the eyes of the Haitian people. “Ariel passed over and wrecked my country,” begins a popular, deceptively upbeat song that likens Henry to a hurricane. “There’s no house for me to stay in, no water to drink, no food to eat, no tree to give me shade, and yes the sun is hot!” 

Comparing Henry to a natural disaster probably invests him with too much power. But the analogy reflects a deeper truth: successive undemocratic regimes, propped up by foreign powers, have wrought incalculable destruction on Haiti. All ordinary people have been able to do is wait for the storm to pass, then survey the damage. 

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified which election the OAS alleged to have been fraudulent.

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