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To rebuild, Haiti needs a break from neocolonialism

An expert explains why Haiti’s political and earthquake crises are intertwined.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours housing in Caracol, Haiti, in 2012. The US, Canada, and France, Jean Eddy Saint Paul argues, need a drastic change in their foreign policy toward Haiti.
Larry Downing/AFP via Getty Images

Over the weekend, Haiti was hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake on the western part of the island.

Thus far, nearly 2,000 people have been reported dead and nearly 7,000 injured, and about 1.2 million people have been impacted, according to UNICEF. The homes of up to 1.5 million residents have been damaged, per the New York Times. And to make matters worse, Tropical Storm Grace made landfall on the island Monday, bringing flooding and mudslides and further limiting access to food, shelter, and water for those in need.

The earthquake and storm are expected to be particularly devastating given the political instability Haiti is experiencing. Harley Etienne, who studies urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan and researched land tenure policies in post-earthquake Haiti, says while the early figures are not as bad as the 2010 earthquake — when well over 100,000 people died, and aid agencies both were plagued by dysfunction and contributed to a large-scale cholera outbreak — the political situation in Haiti is far worse today than it was 11 years ago.

Residents search through the rubble of a collapsed hotel in Les Cayes, Haiti, on August 16, 2021.
Jonathan Alpeyrie/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated less than two months ago, creating a power vacuum in which Haiti has a prime minister but no functioning legislature or head of state. A constitutional referendum to choose a new leader has been postponed to November.

In Etienne’s study of post-2010 Haiti, he found that successful rebuilding requires a strong rule of law. Without it, there is nothing to hold both Haitian officials and nongovernmental organizations accountable in providing temporary housing, managing land disputes, and revitalizing building codes to ensure future safety.

Given current political instability, respect for the rule of law really does not exist at the moment, according to Etienne, and that invites foreign actors — not all of whom are necessarily acting in the best interest of the Haitian people.

I spoke with Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the founding director of the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute, about this theory.

Saint Paul — who was born in Haiti and lived there for 32 years (including in Torbeck, which was damaged by the earthquake, until he was 12) — said he believes that rebuilding Haiti will require reasserting political sovereignty, no small task for a country reconstructing its government along with its buildings and still affected by the legacy of colonialism.

Our conversation — which explored how neocolonialism affects Haiti’s political institutions, what the role of the international community is in the rebuilding of Haiti, and why Haiti is unfairly mischaracterized — is below, edited for length and clarity.

Gabby Birenbaum

What are you hearing from people on the ground right now regarding access to relief?

Jean Eddy Saint Paul

Just today, I was in communication with someone who is a CEO of a hospital there. Some of those hospitals, they are damaged, they received a lot of damage. Fortunately, the hospital of my friend, it is [undamaged]. This hospital is among the few providing health care to people in Haiti. Those people, they are in need of everything. Some are injured. They have lost their home. They don’t have a floor where to stay. For instance, there are more than 100 people who are sheltered in the hospital of my friend.

They don’t have shelter. They don’t have food. This is the situation.

Gabby Birenbaum

How does the political instability in Haiti affect its ability to respond to crises like this earthquake?

Jean Eddy Saint Paul

It affects a lot because politics shapes everything. And when you say political instability, yes, of course, there is the political instability in Haiti. But also, we should ask why. What are the causes? The political instability is not something that just came from the sky. That political instability has some deep roots — some causes that are internal and other causes that are external.

In Haiti, you have a disconnection between the intellectual elites and the masses of the Haitian population. Because those elites, they use their knowledge not for the progress of Haiti. The general tendency has been, historically, those elites, people with knowledge that should be leaders to guide the Haitian population, they have established a pact just to have some position of power in order to maintain their privilege. You don’t see, historically, elites fighting for the improvement of the lives of the general population.

Political elites, they don’t see politics as a means to serve the general population. They see politics as a means to have wealth and privilege for themselves and for their families and for their tribe.

You have those religious elites, who have a lack of spirituality. It’s a Christianity that is totally deprived of charity. They don’t use, for instance, the Bible, the word of God, in order to make a difference in the lives of the oppressed.

And then you have those economic elites. In Haiti, we don’t have a national bourgeoisie. In Haiti, we have a class that calls themselves the private sector of business. The economic class, they see Haiti as a place of economic transaction. They don’t have any kind of self-identity to the [nation] of Haiti.

So when you put together all those internal factors, you see that Haiti has internal factors that we need to change.

Gabby Birenbaum

How has the recent earthquake affected Haiti’s political situation and the ability of Prime Minister Ariel Henry to be effective?

Jean Eddy Saint Paul

The prime minister has a lack of legitimacy in Haiti. Ariel Henry was, in a certain way, just the decision of the international alliance, who decided, “Oh, this guy now should be the guy to handle the situation.” [Most Western nations backed Henry over his rival, former interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph.] Ariel is not the result of a legitimate consensus of the Haitian population.

I don’t think Ariel has the capacity and the credibility to deal with the situation, because he came into power in a context after the assassination of the president, in a context in which most of the institutions are not working. The government doesn’t have a strong capacity.

Most of the members of Ariel’s government came from the regime of Jovenel Moïse. And we are dealing with the same corrupted politicians. I won’t be surprised if many of them will see that tragedy as an opportunity to make money.

Gabby Birenbaum

And how do history and colonialism fit into the puzzle of instability?

Jean Eddy Saint Paul

Those are very important, because Haiti was the first country to liberate itself against slavery — the first successful anti-slavery revolution in the world. Since the Haitian Revolution, the masters of the capital system, they never accepted the fact that Haiti showed the way for the progress of the Global South because the Haitian Revolution was beyond class, gender, and race.

But because capital cannot survive without slavery, without white supremacy, the international community has also managed to put their feet on the neck of people since the very inception of Haiti. Here’s some quick data: In 1825, France caused the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs, which now, in the common currency, is more than $21 billion, just to recognize Haitian independence. This is stupidity, because Haitian people fought for their independence.

The Global North, they [hated] Haiti automatically. The US didn’t recognize Haitian independence until 1861. Also, the US intervened in Haiti for 19 years. Woodrow Wilson sent the US military in Haiti, to occupy Haiti for 19 years. They [ignored] the Haitian Constitution. They took the national funds of Haiti, the money of Haiti, and it was transferred to the National City Bank. They used this money of Haiti to [bankroll] Wall Street.

When we are talking about political instability, in so many ways, we have to go to the root causes. Now, that political instability can explain why, in Haiti, the political institutions are so fragile. Because there has been a process of [exploitation] of the political institutions. The [institution] is very, very weak. The Haitian government has to wait for the assistance of the international community. But it’s also because the international community has been constantly and negatively involved in Haitian politics.

The government we had in Haiti was never the will of the Haitian people. There have been governments imposed by the US Department of State. For instance, in 2010, Hillary Clinton was the US secretary of state. She went into Haiti and intervened in the election, and picked the candidate that was convenient for the US. We have to understand that the international community has always worked to [undermine] Haitian institutions.

When you have an election, [foreign powers] are picking people that are convenient for their interests but are not good for the interests of the Haitians. Of course it will give you what we are seeing now: very weak institutions that cannot respond to the needs of the Haitian population.

Gabby Birenbaum

What can be done, in the short term, to strengthen Haiti’s political institutions and the recovery effort?

Jean Eddy Saint Paul

The international community, and more specifically the US and Canada and France, should have a drastic change in their foreign policy toward Haiti. For instance, in the short term, we should have a kind of investigation to know why the Clinton Foundation, from 2010 to 2015, managed [nearly] $14 billion to rebuild Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, to come back better. [While nearly $14 billion in aid was promised to Haiti, the Clinton Foundation, which had many active projects in Haiti at the time, raised only $30 million of that.] Why were the Clintons [not] able to really help Haiti? Where’s the $14 billion collected on behalf of the Haitian people? This is something that we should have an international investigation.

[While the Clinton Foundation didn’t oversee the Haiti aid effort, former President Bill Clinton did sit on the UN’s Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, and as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was in charge of over $4 billion for Haiti managed by USAID. Both efforts included little input from the Haitian government and people, and are widely regarded as failures.]

Secondly, the international aid that they are sending to Haiti should go to the local organizations and not to international NGOs. When there is some kind of earthquake in Haiti, many international NGOs, they put Haiti under the umbrella of charity. They took the money. Ninety percent of the money went back to the US, to those national NGOs. [Between January 2010 and June 2012, about 10 percent of the overall money raised for Haiti went to the Haitian government or Haitian organizations. The remaining 90 percent went to non-Haitian NGOs.] We shouldn’t give any money on behalf of the Haitian community to NGOs, for instance, that stole the money they collected in 2010.

Many international nations have some important interests in Haiti. They don’t want to give Haitian people the chance to figure out their own solutions. The Biden administration, for instance, should understand that Haiti is a sovereign country — the first Black empire. They should stop the anti-Blackness foreign policy against Haitian people. Those things should be very helpful in order to give Haitian people a chance.

Gabby Birenbaum

And what about in the long term? How can Haiti set up a political system that ensures a longer-term stability?

Jean Eddy Saint Paul

When you say political system, that political system that we have now, in 2021, wasn’t put in place in 2021. According to my explanation, it’s because of a long, long, long process. So in order to have a certain type of political system, [we have to] create a new one.

We will need, first, a new kind of education. There is a new generation of Haitian people that we should educate differently. There is an ongoing neocolonial education. We should abandon that perspective. We should now have economic elites, political elites, religious elites, intellectual elites that love Haiti and that should use their knowledge in order to make a difference in the life of others.

International leaders can help in the short term, for instance, by changing the kind of narrative they have on Haiti. The mainstream narrative has been that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is not really the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is a country that has big problems, but Haiti is not a poor country. According to my explanation, all these external factors have helped to [create] poverty in Haiti.

Haiti is not poor. Haiti is a very wealthy country. But Haitian people never had a chance to have decent politicians to lead the country, to manage the resources of Haiti, and to use the resources of Haiti to develop the country.

Long before the earthquake, Haiti was a country in which we have a lot of petroleum. We have wood. We have natural gas. We have a lot of natural resources — if the international community gives Haitians the opportunity, when we have elections, to not go and meddle in the Haitian elections. Give the opportunity to the Haitian electorate to pick!

We need a kind of new nation — a Haitian with a sense of patriotism, a Haitian with a sense of nationality, that loves the place. For instance, you will use your skills to help the education of citizenship of Haiti. We need education centered on the promotion of citizenship, because Haiti is a country where we have a lack of civics now.

And also, we need a kind of international solidarity from brown and Black folks around the world for the Haitian people. Because the Haitian Revolution was led in the name of racial justice, no matter your skin color. The Haitian Revolution was about human dignity. The Haitian Revolution symbolized life and signified decency. If we want to give decency to our society, we should [promote] the values of the Haitian people.

The Haitian Revolution was a revolution anticipating Black Lives Matter, when Black Lives Matter was not actually hashtagged.

Gabby Birenbaum

How can the international community help Haiti in a way that embraces that solidarity you were talking about?

Jean Eddy Saint Paul

I think international solidarity can take many forms. For instance, the Haitian diaspora, and allies and friends of Haiti who want to help, they should not send their money to international NGOs. They should identify the local organizations that are on the ground doing the work.

We can call in small donations. And those donations should go directly to the people, to organizations on the ground that would help the victims. But if we repeat the mistakes of 2010, sending money to big NGOs, big international institutions, we will see the repetition of the corruption of 2010. International NGOs will get more money, and the victims won’t receive anything. Their lives will be less and less dignified.

The Haitian diaspora should come together. We need to have less division, less conflict among us in the diaspora. The many people from the North, they should come together in a diasporic organization in order to go and create and found schools and hospitals. We need to form what we call a strategy of local development aid in Haiti.

Gabby Birenbaum

What steps should Haiti take to prepare for future storms and earthquakes, like updating building codes and alarm systems? How can it rebuild in a way that is resilient?

Jean Eddy Saint Paul

You cannot do that if you don’t have strong institutions.

Because we had 11 years, from 2010 to 2021. So what did we do in 11 years? Nothing! To do what you’re asking, you need decent politicians. They are the [ones who] will make the decisions and be placed in the institutions.

But if we still have that lack of leadership, if we don’t have strong institutions, then those institutions cannot do this by themselves. They need individuals with a high sense of ethics and responsibility and commitment in order to help the situation. An earthquake is not a fatality. It’s just a natural disaster. But in Haiti, because of bad political leadership, the earthquake has added more pain to the daily lives of the population.

Haiti has many seismic faults. We cannot predict when the next earthquake will be in Haiti — two weeks, two years, 20 years, we don’t know. But we know for sure another earthquake will hit Haiti. We cannot have investment without institutions that are working.

Clarification, 4:47 pm: This story has been updated to clarify the number of years Jean Eddy Saint Paul lived in Haiti.

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