Haiti’s political crisis exposes centuries of capitalist exploitation


Last week, the imperialist powers, represented by the so-called Core Group, gave its seal of approval for a transition of power from the acting president, Claude Joseph, to Prime Minister-designate Ariel Henry, a relatively unknown political figure in Haiti. In his recorded statement, Henry characterized the July 7 assassination of former president Jovenel Moïse as a coup d’état and pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Washington Post, who first broke the story of the political settlement, remarked that certain “civil society groups” have publicly criticized the Core Group’s endorsement of Henry because of his association with the corrupt and widely unpopular Moïse government. Haiti’s dormant Senate too rejected the backing of Henry largely since it was backing its own candidate, Joseph Lambert.

Haiti under the Moïse régime

In order to understand the political drama unfolding in Haiti, it is important to understand the nature of the Haitian ruling class, and its latest manifestation under its now deceased president. Known in Haiti as “the banana man,” Jovenel Moïse was a successful organic banana farmer before he turned to politics, and was himself the beneficiary of tax-free land and loans granted to his company, Agritrans SA, by his predecessor, President Michel Martelly.

Despite having no political experience, Moïse was chosen successor of Martelly, who stepped down in February 2016 amidst charges of election fraud, and was associated with the Tèt Kale Party, which is notorious for its deep-seated corruption. Moïse won office in 2017 after two rounds of voting; the first round results were annulled following massive protests that disputed the results of Moïse’s first round vote tally.

Moïse’s government had a reputation for corruption and cronyism, and he was under investigation for money laundering. In the summer of 2018, his government faced opposition from labor unions bolstered by a broad opposition movement rooted in Haiti’s working class, peasantry, and sections of Haiti’s middle classes that took to the streets in mass protests against a spike in fuel prices. Ever since, street protests plagued the Moïse regime, especially since he decided to suspend parliament and rule by decree over a year ago.

Haiti’s ruling class is a comprador bourgeoisie, a term which Leon Trotsky, writing on the Chinese revolution in the late 1920s, defined as “the economic and political agency of foreign capital.” In an interview with Left Voice from March 6, journalist Lautaro Rivara described the Haitian bourgeoisie as “completely tied to the interests of the United States … a fundamentally parasitic ruling class, which in general does not produce wealth of any kind, but reproduces itself as a class through the appropriation of surpluses from the country’s customs system.”

In a letter published in Haiti Liberté on Feb. 24 of this year, its authors use similar language. They describe the Haitian bourgeoisie as an “oligarchy, which wants at all costs to continue its process of accumulation and thus totally subjugate the urban and rural masses.” Moïse’s government has conformed to this mold exquisitely, and in fact, it characterizes the nature of the bourgeoisie in much of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where global capital has open access to national resources and markets and dictates terms of investment and trade to a compliant and avaricious ruling class.

In his interview with Left Voice, Rivara notes that given the strength and breadth of the opposition that Moïse’s government faced, it could only remain in power with the aid of the U.S., the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN), and on this point, the letter from Haiti Liberté reminds readers that Haiti’s National Police (PNH), which has carried out murderous repression against Haitian protesters, receives the bulk of its funding from the United States, Canada, and the European Union.

Under Moïse and prior bourgeois regimes stretching back for decades, the Haitian masses have suffered extreme deprivation under global capitalism. The most glaring statistic is the 60-70% of the population that lives in severe poverty ($2/day), begat by the ravages of free-trade agreements, tax-exempt enterprise zones, and financial and commercial deregulation imposed by the U.S. and International Monetary Fund (IMF) stretching back to the 1980s. Add to this misery a slew of destructive tropical storms, especially in 2008 and 2016, a devastating earthquake in 2010, and the punishing effects of inflation for imported food and fuel, and the result is a population driven to despair. Understandably, they fought back.

French and U.S. imperialism loots Haiti’s wealth

Moïse’s assassination and the political crisis that has ensued is but the culmination of a process whose origins stretch back to the early 19th century, when Haiti carried out a successful revolution against French colonialism and established the first republic in the Caribbean led by former slaves. Since that triumphant moment in world history, Haiti’s once bright future has been subverted continuously over time by French and U.S. imperialism.

A particularly egregious example of French imperialism’s viciousness and insatiable greed came in 1825, when, in order to win recognition of its independence from France, Haiti agreed to pay reparations to its former colonial master to the tune of $22 billion in today’s dollars. Over the ensuing 120 years since, Haiti has sent 80% of its revenues in reparations to France. Although this is a morally repugnant example of Haiti’s treatment by imperialism, its structural integration into the fabric of global capitalism has proven to be the greatest obstacle to Haiti’s liberation, which only began in 1804.

When U.S. imperialism intervened in Haiti in 1915, it did so in order to preserve its “manifest destiny” over the Western Hemisphere and secure the island from German encroachment. U.S. occupation of the island lasted for the next 19 years until Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy led to a U.S. withdrawal. Although the U.S. military presence disappeared, U.S. finance capital remained securely in control of Haiti’s financial sector, when it seized control of Haiti’s finances until 1947.

The U.S. occupation was a particularly vicious one, where Marines imposed a brutal regime of repression, murdering at will any expression of Haitian protest, A particularly sanguinary episode of bloodletting came on Dec. 26, 1929 in Les Cayes, where Marines opened fire on 1500 protesters, killing or wounding 35 Haitians. Those that resisted the U.S. occupation, known as bandits or Cacos, were hunted down by Marines, who mutilated the bodies of those they killed in order to send a sign to would-be rebels. One example, recalled by Edwidge Danicat in his article for The New Yorker, tells of the U.S. assassination of Charlemagne Péralte, whose dead body was pinned to a door to rot in the tropical sun. In total, 15,000 Haitians were killed in the 19 years of U.S. occupation.

Not only did the United States take the opportunity presented to it by the occupation to seize Haiti’s financial reserves and transport them to U.S. banks but it also imposed a constitution on Haiti that gave foreigners the right to own land there, and even today Haiti’s laws make no distinction between the property rights of foreigners and those of domestic owners. Danicat aptly quotes General Smedley Butler, the architect of the occupation, who confessed that he acted as a “high class muscle man for Big Business,” who “helped make Haiti … a decent place for the National City Bank Boys.”

The PetroCaribe scandal

Much of the anger directed at the Moïse regime stemmed from his predecessors’ handling of the revenues derived from the PetroCaribe deal that Haiti signed with Venezuela in 2006. Before delving into the details of this arrangement, it is important to remember that in the 1980s, Haiti was compelled to accept commercial and trade liberalization of its economy, and in particular its agricultural sector, the consequence of which essentially eliminated trade barriers, i.e. customs fees, and consequently opened its markets to cheap food exports, shifting Haiti from being mostly self sufficient to relying primarily on imported food. The result is that 89 percent of its economy relies on imports, thus creating a trade deficit that makes the island nation much more reliant on foreign creditors, foreign aid, and remittances from expats.

When it was enacted, PetroCaribe was intended to use subsidized oil purchases from Venezuela to bolster Haiti’s revenues and allow the country to develop its infrastructure and social services for its people. Haiti would purchase oil from Venezuela at sub-market prices and would pay low interest rates, one to two percent, on the balance of what it did not pay upfront over a 17 to 20-year time frame. When international market prices were high, between 2011 and 2015, Haiti could sell excess oil for higher prices than it originally paid, but as with all nations dependent on resource exports, when the market crashed in 2015, the benefits those sales contributed to Haiti’s treasury largely evaporated. In 2016, when the Maduro regime in Venezuela experienced the start of a dire political crisis and the effects of U.S. sanctions, PetroCaribe dissolved, ending the eight-year agreement.

In a detailed report posted on the CIJN website in 2019 on the PetroCaribe scandal, investigative journalist Ingrid Arnesen argues that the deal was an enormous opportunity lost for Haiti to fill its government coffers, improve the value of its currency, the gourde, and develop its infrastructure. For a while, Haiti did improve its finances and the gourde was stronger against the dollar, but at the same time, the period over which the PetroCaribe oil shipments arrived, from 2008 through 2016, Haiti faced some of the most serious social and economic challenges in recent memory.

Just months after the first oil shipments arrived, Haiti was rocked by the global financial crisis and three consecutive hurricanes that battered the island that year, which destroyed US$798 million in crop values. Food and fuel prices spiked, and Haiti found itself buried in US$2 billion in debt. Although international creditors forgave $1 billion of that debt, in this context debt relief does not significantly mitigate Haiti’s dependence on the foreign imports of food and other goods, which invariably increase its trade deficit and gut its foreign currency reserves and value of the gourde. Furthermore, by 2015, oil prices crashed, exposing Haiti to the cruel vicissitudes of the global market, which erased the high prices it was enjoying through the sale of its excess oil, as the price for a barrel of oil free fell from US$100 to $40 overnight.

Between 2008 and 2010, Haiti did rely on PetroCaribe-derived revenues to shore up its accounts, but the devastating 2010 earthquake destroyed 60 percent of its infrastructure and inflicted damages of over US$1 billion. In the wake of the earthquake’s destruction, international creditors eliminated pre-quake debt, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez cancelled US$395 million of Haiti’s PetroCaribe debt. But the aid pledged by the U.S. and international institutions was highly conditional, and much of it never made it to the island. Haiti again used PetroCaribe revenue to start to rebuild its infrastructure, and as Arnesen reports, it spent lavishly on projects earmarked for infrastructure and power projects, which makes sense given the scale of destruction left by the earthquake.

Haitians’ indignance over the PetroCaribe funds that are unaccounted for is certainly justified. A whopping $1.7 trillion was earmarked for 420 projects, and a preliminary audit by Haiti’s Supreme Court concluded that there is evidence that the projects were not granted on a transparent bidding process, expenses went unreported, and Haiti’s government failed to provide adequate oversight of the management and allocation of the funds, including, as Arnesen describes, “dubious expenses for over-bloated administrative costs that included salaries for close friends, personal expenses and offices, 14th month yearly bonuses and petty cash.”

While Arnesen’s reporting is detailed and provides an evidence-based picture of how PetroCaribe funds were misused, her conclusion of this as a missed opportunity for Haiti is premised on the notion that Haiti’s government possesses the capacity to manage its funds efficiently and avoid corruption in the allocation of funds. Haiti’s ruling class has always looked after itself first and used its iron grip on the government to ensure that they live comfortably while the rest of the Haitian masses suffer extreme deprivation. For decades, before Haiti agreed to reduce tariffs and engage in “free trade,” Haiti’s bourgeoisie lived off the tariffs they collected on foreign imports. They are a parasitic social layer, living, as the comprador bourgeoisie always does, off the crumbs thrown to them by global capital.

Haiti’s masses need a revolutionary party

The day after Moïse was supposed to step down from office after his five-year term expired, Haiti Liberté reported that he gifted to his political cronies large tracts of land for their personal use and profit. The land grants, which comprised of 21,251 acres of fertile land in the Artibonite and Central Plateau departments, were distributed to friends, chief among them the Apaid family, who also received additional funds to the tune of US$230,637 to finance their operation to produce sweetener for Coca-Cola. If Haiti’s bourgeoisie can profit no longer from their bankrupt government, it will simply turn to looting the island’s natural wealth.

Although the political crisis has settled down, at least momentarily, Haiti’s economic challenges have intensified and there is no relief in sight. The PetroCaribe funds have largely vanished into the pockets of the grifters who run the country, and her debt has returned to 2008 levels. Haiti’s foreign debt has returned to US$2 billion, 85 percent of which is owed to Venezuela. In 2020, Haiti’s GDP contracted 3.8 percent from 2019 levels, according to the World Bank. Not surprisingly, in lieu of Venezuela’s cheap oil, Haiti now imports its oil from the U.S. at market prices, and as Ingrid Arnesen noted, deliveries are frequently withheld until payments are made. In order to generate the funds to make those payments, the government jacked up prices, which triggered protests in the streets.

The prospects for democratic elections, if they are ever held, to resolve the crisis are unlikely to give Haitians any substantive alternatives for political leadership. The coalitions of opposition parties to the ruling PHTK are all openly capitalist parties that pose no threat to the political status quo.

In Haiti, as with much of the developing world, a revolutionary party committed to international socialist revolution is vital for its toiling masses to escape their predicament. The mass protests are a first step, but as with mass protests elsewhere in the world—i.e. Colombia, Myanmar, Nigeria, and South Africa—the working class needs to form a party that is both anti-imperialist and committed to ridding the country of capitalism and moving resolutely toward the construction of socialism, a system fit for humanity and especially its most oppressed and exploited.

In the meantime, it is our duty in the United States and other imperialist powers to demand that neither our governments nor their favored auxiliaries like the United Nations or NATO make any attempt to intervene in Haiti, which can only make the situation worse.

Photo: Protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2019. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP)

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