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Haiti's long and complicated history with international intervention


Haiti is in crisis. Gangs have overtaken supply lines for food, water and fuel. The U.N. says 4.7 million people, nearly half the population, now face acute hunger. And the Haitian government is calling for international military help. But Haiti has a long and complicated history with international intervention, which stretches back to the country's founding in 1804. I talked with Robert Fatton about this. He's a Haitian American professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

ROBERT FATTON: It's very clear that the last intervention - that's the one in the '90s and the one at the beginning of the century - did not resolve the problems that Haiti is confronting and was confronting. The one in 1994 was actually welcomed by most Haitians because it was the restoration of President Aristide, who at that time was extremely popular. But afterwards, when the U.N. intervened to replace the American troops, that was a much more complicated affair. In the first instance, it had to deal with gangs at the time, and that minister (ph) intervene in the slums of Port-au-Prince. And that intervention was rather violent. But in the process, a lot of people who were not necessarily involved with the gangs suffered the consequences. But what really prompted even more recriminations was the cholera epidemic. Initially, the U.N. rejected the idea that it brought it to Haiti, and finally, it had to recognize that. And some 12,000 people have died as a result of that. There were commitments in terms of reparation, if you wish, to be given to Haiti, and those were never really materialized. And we have again now a surge in the cholera epidemic. So the results have been very meager.

MARTIN: What's the origin of the gangs in Haiti?

FATTON: The dominant person in the gangs is a fellow by the name of Cherizier, who's also known as Barbecue. And Barbecue used to be a member of the police, and he eventually created this gang. There's a federation of gangs. Now, there are private sectors who are also involved in the gangs because they want to make sure that they have access to gas and other gangs don't prevent them from getting the gas. There are also gangs that are supported by the political class. The problem is that the gangs now have become a power unto themselves. And as a result of that, the situation in Haiti is really a catastrophe situation.

MARTIN: Is this a fight for absolute power, or is it just a struggle to get resources?

FATTON: It's very much all of that. The tendency in Haiti is that politics is a zero-sum game. People who don't have access to wealth, it's like a business. You get elected, you want to stay in office and you want to accumulate illicit resources. The problem is precisely that, that the pie is very small, as it were, and people want a piece of it. So politics is a venue to get that piece. And it's the same thing for the gangs. The very presence of Cherizier, who's a former police officer, as the leader of the gang is a symptom of the real poor record of foreign intervention in Haiti.

MARTIN: I mean, today, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but it wasn't always thus. It was once one of the fastest growing economies in the Americas. It was a major Caribbean vacation destination. There used to be a Club Med resort there, which shocked me.

FATTON: Yes. Well, one should not either think that those were great days. There was some economic growth in the '40s and in the '50s. And then Duvalier came, and the economy collapsed. Now, Jean-Claude Duvalier came to power after the death of his father in 1971, and there was kind of a technocratic project. Haiti would become supposedly the Taiwan of the Caribbean. So there was some economic growth. The disparities were enormous, and there was still significant corruption. And one of the problems with the economy, at least this is the way I see it, is that the programs that were imposed by the World Bank and the IMF have not worked. They've created a very dependent economy.

MARTIN: Do you go back often?

FATTON: I haven't been back since 2019 because of COVID. Now, I must confess that I come from the Haitian elite. So the problems of the Haitian elites are very different from the problems of the vast majority of Haitians. You have a chasm in terms of living standards, in terms of economic viability, as it were. So we are talking about different worlds.

MARTIN: Yeah. It's hard to find the words to ask this question, but in light of everything that you've told us, how do you imagine a more stable Haiti? Do you imagine it?

FATTON: Well, I'm personally quite pessimistic. Maybe the fear of an utter catastrophe might prompt some sort of national compromise whereby the different political parties, civil society, can finally arrive at a Haitian solution to Haitian problems. So there is an element of hope. But if you look at the realities of the country, it's a very grim picture. The economy is falling apart. Inflation is at about 35%. The local currency has lost essentially its value. You have the insecurity. You have a government that is completely legitimate (ph) in the eyes of Haitians. There's been protest after protest in the streets of Gonaives and in the larger cities in Haiti. And yet the Ariel Henry government is still in power because it is receiving foreign support.

MARTIN: Robert Fatton is a Haitian American professor of politics at the University of Virginia. Thank you so much for talking with us.

FATTON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.