Beneath Haiti chaos, a deep need for trust

Joseph Odelyn/AP
The Creole expression “lari a blanch” – literally, “the street is white,” but figuratively, the street is empty – is how Haitians describe the sudden quiet after coups and violence. Indeed, the usually energized streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, were drained of activity yesterday following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Some children walked in front of the cathedral destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.

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A 5-year-old kidnapped and killed because her mother, a peanut vendor, couldn’t pay the ransom; a journalist and a human rights activist shot dead in their car; thousands of poor and working-class Haitians displaced because of gang warfare.

Escalating incidents of such unprecedented chaos in Haiti culminated this week in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, turning the spotlight on this Caribbean nation that – for all intents and purposes – had been switched off for more than a decade following the January 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Why We Wrote This

The assassination of Haiti’s president adds to a growing climate of fear among ordinary citizens and those who might lead them. Our former Haiti correspondent sees building civic and interpersonal trust as the only antidote to the fear-stoked chaos.

Why should we care? Because in this global environment, there is a ripple effect – the pandemic taught us that if nothing else.

The violence and repeated failure of civil society to gain a stable foothold in Haiti is a symptom of a lack of trust – trust across color and class lines, across international borders, and between weak, dysfunctional legislative, executive, and judicial institutions. Most of all, it is a lack of faith between individuals who take the grab-and-go mentality to the extreme. Haiti needs support from within and without to build a solid infrastructure, but more importantly, it needs the one-on-one trust that is the foundation of civil society.

The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse yesterday has turned the spotlight on this Caribbean nation that, for all intents and purposes, had been switched off for more than a decade. A massive earthquake tore through the eastern part of the country in January 2010, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and Haiti commanded headlines around the world – but then the world moved on.

Unless you’re a Haitiphile, you probably missed the fleeting mentions of damage or turmoil when hurricanes and waves of violence washed over the nation in the years that followed.

I heard about the Moïse assassination on my local NPR station on an early morning jog in my Miami neighborhood. Details were still sketchy, but I already knew that my old neighborhood in Port-au-Prince would be as quiet as the street I was running on.

Why We Wrote This

The assassination of Haiti’s president adds to a growing climate of fear among ordinary citizens and those who might lead them. Our former Haiti correspondent sees building civic and interpersonal trust as the only antidote to the fear-stoked chaos.

I’d lived through enough assassinations, coups, coup attempts, and gang violence during my decades of reporting and living in Haiti to know that the intense bustle that usually gives so much color to daily life there would be drained. The Creole expression Haitians use is “lari a blanch” – literally, “the street is white,” but figuratively, the street is empty. There would be no street merchants hawking their wares, no vendors selling spoonfuls of soup, no brightly painted “taptap” jitneys full of humanity blocking intersections.

Haiti’s reputation as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is often mentioned in some report about a coup d’état, political instability, or gang violence. It’s easy to give a historical rundown of the countless presidents, dictators, and interim governments that have ruled Haiti since a slave revolt freed it from France – and Napoleon, no less – two centuries ago. But it’s far more difficult to understand why the country has been unable to find stable footing since.

Scott Applewhite/AP/File
During the Haitian presidential campaign in 1990, public support for parish priest-turned-candidate Jean-Bertrand Aristide was massive and swept him into office as the first democratically elected leader of the Caribbean nation. He was the target of several assassination attempts even before his candidacy and while he was in office.

Everyone at the table

Even when Haiti erupted in massive celebration over the landslide 1990 victory of parish priest-turned-politician Jean-Bertrand Aristide as the nation’s first democratically elected president, the hope of his slogan “bo tab la” – “everyone at the table” – could mean little when no one at the table trusted each other, or the failing institutions that they needed to govern. Mr. Aristide’s first hopeful tenure lasted only nine months until he was ousted; he was reelected in 2000, but a coup shortened that presidency also.   

According to some, President Moïse had outstayed his electoral term by almost a year, and street violence was increasing uncontrollably before his assassination. Unprecedented numbers of assassinations and kidnappings had become so routine they were barely acknowledged. Gang warfare in Port-au-Prince, the capital, has forced thousands of poor and working-class people from their neighborhoods, according to the United Nations. And a 5-year-old schoolgirl was kidnapped and killed in April when her mother, a peanut vendor, couldn’t pay the $4,000 ransom.

We all should care. In this global environment, there is a ripple effect – the pandemic taught us that if nothing else. But we also know that unless something touches us personally, it’s easier to ignore. The United States gets most directly involved in Haiti when Haiti becomes a domestic problem – we were never more engaged than when the cadavers of Haitian boat people who didn’t make it alive washed up on our southern beaches in the 1980s; or when they did land, alive, on our shores in record numbers in the 1990s.

The international community at large – specifically the U.N. and regional bodies such as the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) – has tried to provide assistance in various forms, offering troops or missions or much-needed resources. Some efforts were short term, others long lived, but they have provided, at best, temporary reprieve. Nothing has outlasted the dysfunction of the country itself.

Haiti’s situation is not unique in the world but perhaps unique in the Western Hemisphere. It’s isolated by geography and language and its own history of independence, for which it paid France an enormous restitution over a period of 100 years for the theft of slave owners’ property. There have been nearly two dozen governments since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 – one of which lasted for just three days.

The pattern of instability established itself as soon as the country declared independence in 1804, when the north split from the south. The reasons may be specific, but they also mirrored universal tropes: division of class and color, rural or urban development, land use, distribution of resources. Couple that with the grab-and-go mentality of the people in power – get it while you can, when you can – which has been the norm, rather than the exception, and you end up with what you see today.  

It would be easy to dismiss this recent assassination as just one more sign that Haiti is doomed to perpetual disaster and that it is the country’s disaster to fix. In some ways, I am guilty of that thinking. I married a Haitian, owned a home there, and partly raised two children there – I was invested in the place. And yet, like so many in the Haitian diaspora whose trust in their nation has worn thin with worry, I finally left with the last of my suitcases eight years ago. I said I was not coming back until Haiti got its act together. I behaved like a petulant child not willing to go home until her parents stopped fighting.

But the story is so much more complex. The fighting going on inside Haiti has unspooled under both democratically elected presidents and dictators – and the life-and-death consequences of that spur distrust in civic institutions and among people.

The fundamental building blocks for a functioning society – governance, health care, justice, education – these are more necessary than ever before. With the proper resources they can be built even if it means relying on not always reliable international aid. What is exponentially much more difficult, and has yet to be achieved, is figuring out how to build trust in this environment.

Without that, the next government will be a change in name only.

Kathie Klarreich covered Haiti for the Monitor and other news media from 1986 to 2013, and wrote the book “Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou, and Civil Strife in Haiti.” She lives in Miami where she founded Exchange for Change, a writing program for incarcerated writers.

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