Port-au-Prince, 2007: I didn’t expect permanent class warfare to sound like this. A hip-swinging beat thumped out of the bar through the French doors to my right. The percussive slapping of the azure pool behind me was almost drowned out by the hum of hotel patrons. Crickets buzzed their reassuring maraca sounds among the lantana and bougainvillea. And below, unseen and unheard, was a seething ocean of sweating humanity.
Topography and history seem to have conspired to keep the majority of this city’s population nestled in the bottom of its bayside basin. Here and there, slums creep up the hillsides that surround the city, but they never seem to make it over the high walls and into the compounds of the “rich 200” families, many descended from the mulattos who took over the plantations after the French were kicked out two centuries ago. This is the backbone of the ruling class that owns Haiti. The “rich 200” own its land, its business, its economy and, even more importantly, its airwaves, its press and its discourse – what it means to actively participate in Haitian public space. It is a space that has been the scene of almost constant violence since Columbus landed, leaving Spanish settlers who exploited its natural resources and enslaved its native people. The ensuing 500 years brought conquest, slavery, coups d’état, military occupation, state terrorism, paramilitarism and predatory gangs, as well as vicious natural disasters that have invariably affected the poor far more than the wealthy. Haiti has become accustomed to viewing the pursuit of power – and even survival itself – through the barrel of a gun. When I was there, researching the United Nations’ work in the country, everyone said it was in a period of relative calm. But, they warned, “C’est un calme apparent.”
Amid the smiles, sounds and vivid colours, the person I remember best from that trip was Wilson Louis, the then-28-year-old, democratically elected mayor of Port-au-Prince’s most impoverished slum, Cité Soleil. When he took up his position, he was in charge of attempting to bring basic services – running water, sanitation, reliable electricity, access to medical facilities, perhaps even the internet – to somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 people, for the first time. He reeled off the priorities: jobs, housing, water, electricity, health; “tout est une priorité.” He spoke to my group of researcher-tourists, and to the throngs of people milling around his door, with the confidence of a teacher and an evangelist, both of which he had been before his current role. Cité Soleil is the giant bidonville – literally, “tin-can town” – wedged between Haiti’s national airport and Port-au-Prince Bay. No one knows how many people live there because for most of the last 20 years, it has been a no-go zone for outsiders, including representatives of the state. The police have been mostly absent, and when they have appeared, they have engaged in the kind of murderous coercion long employed by Haitian rulers. Order here has been provided by predatory gangs of teenagers and early-twentysomethings who terrorise their neighbourhoods with protection rackets.
The gangs reached the height of their power five years ago. They have auctioned off political unrest, under the guise of gang-regulated order, to the highest bidders from Haiti’s political and business classes. This provides cover for illicit activities such as drug trafficking and the looting of state assets, and allows the wealthy to vie for power through the brute force of the street rather than at the ballot box. But when the gangs’ petty extortion grew into full-blown terrorism – beheading their victims in mimicry of the Iraqi insurgents they had seen on television, kidnapping local schoolchildren and killing some of them despite the payment of the ransom – Haiti’s fractured classes found a temporary solidarity in their shared disgust. When it became clear that the gangs threatened the state’s control of the national arterial road, the state, too, conceded that it was time to act.
Haiti’s army couldn’t be drafted in to help, though – it had been disbanded in 1995. The country’s fledgling police force had gone through a series of forced reincarnations in the 1990s and 2000s after international pressure, but it was widely considered as prone to gangsterism, corruption and petty mercenarism as the army it had replaced. So the state turned to the UN peacekeeping force that had been resident since 2004, the Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti (MINUSTAH). In the following months, MINUSTAH’s Brazilian-led commandos and infantry swept through the slums, rounding up gang leaders – most of them 25 or younger and clad in rickety sunglasses, torn shorts and flip-flops – and unflinchingly killing a few in the process. Hoodlums and teenagers the gang members may have been, but they were equipped with assault weapons, many of which had come into the country as payment for the transshipment of up to 15 per cent of the United States’ annual cocaine consumption.
Looking out the window of Mayor Louis’ office on the day I visited, it was clear that the MINUSTAH peacekeepers had prevailed. They stood guard on the Cité’s main street, machine guns pointed to the ground; a white armoured personnel carrier was parked close behind them. In the bare cinderblock room next door, one of two assistant mayors sat in a white plastic chair. At the back of the room, a couple of young men, one carrying an AK-47, stacked sacks emblazoned with the logo of an American Christian aid organisation. The rest of the room was filled with three concentric rings of plastic chairs, each holding a little old lady awaiting a handout of food and a few Haitian gourdes. The musty odour of the women blended with rancid sweat, the sewage stench of the open drain outside and the acrid smoke of something cooking on charcoal. Louis greeted the room and the women broke into applause, great smiles splitting their faces. Some had white teeth that beamed through; others had none. Many had on their best hats, it seemed, for the occasion.
Every day, the assistant mayor went through the same routine, conducting an informal triage of the most destitute cases at his door. I asked where he got the money for the meagre handouts – local taxation? No, he said, that would only lead to corruption. All taxes were paid at the local tax office but sent directly to the state. The mayor’s office got a small subsidy back, which covered their payroll and allowed a little extra for discretionary humanitarian assistance. But now, the mayor said, the future of service provision had to be the state. The small mayoral handouts were not enough: the state had to use tax revenues to provide the basic services Cité Soleil still lacked.
The state in Haiti, though, is a source of revenue for kleptocratic cliques as much as a provider of services to the masses. The international community’s strategy for governance is to reproduce the liberal, top-down model of Western states, as it has done in Afghanistan, Congo, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and more. It is an approach that requires the insertion of an expensive, cumbersome foreign presence, often into the still-smouldering ashes of conflict, with uncertain results.
A few months into the peacekeepers’ reclamation of Cité Soleil, the civil servants in MINUSTAH’s headquarters in the hills above Port-au-Prince were still holding co-ordination meetings to figure out how to deliver Quick Impact Projects, which aim to provide rapid humanitarian and development benefits. They were aware of – and frustrated by – their own slow reaction times, but trapped between a desire to jump in and assist, and a need to avoid the corruption and arbitrariness of past Haitian rule. The Brazilian soldiers who made up the majority of the peacekeeping forces swapped their guns for brushes and painted just about everything in sight cobalt blue, AstroTurf green or lipstick red, then pondered whether and how to oversee more substantial neighbourhood reconstruction projects like garbage collection and house repair.
Four years and one catastrophic earthquake later, MINUSTAH is still trying to provide aid and housing for those living in the refugee camps hastily assembled for Haiti’s displaced. Wilson Louis is still mayor of Cité Soleil, and his people are still waiting for help from the state. Thousands now live in shanty towns that sprung up almost overnight on the fairways of the Pétionville golf course, not far from MINUSTAH’s headquarters. Those headquarters were flattened in the earthquake; 102 UN staff were killed.
The earthquake also tore down prison walls, setting free many of the gang leaders that MINUSTAH had worked so hard to arrest. The gangs are returning to Haiti, competing for control of its displaced masses, and behind them, old figures are circling: both former, twice-ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and deposed former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier have returned to the country. If the election of a new president, Michel Martelly, heralds the arrival of a new political force in Haiti, it is one whose authority seems disturbingly thin. Martelly was previously known for his antics as a singer with the stage name of “Sweet Micky”, appearing in drag or in a giant diaper. Whether he can deliver on Mayor Louis’s social contract, taxes for services, remains to be seen. Perhaps the international community, shocked into increasing its efforts by the earthquake, will help him to succeed. But that would require us to examine our own role in Haiti’s woes.
Haiti’s geographical vulnerability is twofold. It is prone to acts of God – earthquakes, floods and hurricanes – but also to manmade plagues, sitting as it does between the world’s major sources of cocaine, in South America, and its major consumer markets, in the US and Europe. The fragility of its infrastructure makes it a drug traffickers’ dream, both as a supply route and a source of labour. With what remained of its already shaky licit economy shattered by the earthquake, many young Haitians have no options for employment outside of the illicit sphere. Thanks in part to drug profits, Haiti is bristling with guns, most of them fateful bequests of the Cold War. But most are not in the hands of the masses: they are behind the city’s high walls, in the hands of private citizens, private security companies and the ruling classes.
Violence was an essential factor in the production of Haiti’s original white-powder export – sugar. It is what made the slave economy so profitable and European gateaux so sweet. It remains essential today, in the system that underpins the movement of the other white powder through the country. It is criminal and political violence, manipulated by its own elites, that keeps Haiti weak enough to be a highly profitable transit route for drug traffickers.
Post-earthquake, the stakes are higher, both for Haiti’s elites and the international community. As MINUSTAH has noted, there is a danger that traffickers will draw upon the endless supply of disenchanted, underskilled young men to develop foot-soldier armies, organised like Central American paramilitaries, or even answering to them, as the gangs of Guatemala, Bolivia and Miami answer to overlords in Mexico. Such a dramatic surge in gang activity would almost certainly destroy even the most determined efforts, on the part of both the international community and locals like Louis, to bring genuine improvement to Haiti.
Haiti is not alone. As the World Bank’s most recent World Development Report makes clear, developing countries around the world – particularly those transitioning from violent revolution and civil war – are confronting similar challenges. In many of them, the fastest route to wealth and power comes from producing and selling to developed countries the illegal goods and services some of us crave. Violent entrepreneurs use the covers of war and revolution in the world’s poorest pockets to produce and distribute the illicit goods and services consumed in the world’s richest, while political and military leaders are complicit in – and profit from – these activities.
Countries like Haiti are bearing the consequences of the developed world’s willingness to tolerate violence as a factor in the way it does business. This violence may be far from the minds of consumers at the happy endings of globalised supply chains, but it is painfully ubiquitous in the developing world, where elites barricade themselves behind high walls and battalions of private security guards, protecting themselves from the poverty – and potential revolution – on their doorstep.
When the poor and disenfranchised revolt, their efforts can be easily turned into a cover for criminal activity, until it is difficult to tell when grievance stops and greed takes over, as has been discussed by economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler. Revolutions can be criminalised, and the result is rarely pretty for the people in whose name they are fought. In the Americas, Burma and Afghanistan, the production and distribution of cocaine, heroin and cannabis supports rebel armies in their fight against the state, at the expense of the political and social stability desired by the civilian population they purportedly represent.
There are more gruesome examples. The Kosovo Liberation Army, which was formed in reaction to perceived ethnic cleansing by the Yugoslavian government, was later accused of kidnapping civilians and selling their organs for illicit transplants. In Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front forced civilians to extract diamonds under slave-like conditions to fund their “struggle”, and committed horrendous atrocities along the way. These countries’ primary competitive advantage in the international economy appears to be the production of goods and services we have criminalised at home, even as we continue, clandestinely, to purchase them. Haiti’s future, like the future of many such fragile states, rests as much in the hands of Western consumers as it does in the hands of local mayors like Louis. It is not just a rickety tax system and earthquakes that have kept basis services from Cité Soleil. §