The streets of Haiti had been clogged for months with angry protesters who burned tires, stormed banks and robbed stores. Gangs, with the sometimes tacit permission of the police, have been kidnapping nuns, fruit vendors and even schoolgirls for ransom.
And then Wednesday, the country slid deeper into turmoil when a convoy of gunmen brazenly rumbled up to the home of the president, Jovenel Moïse, in the middle of the night and shot him dead.
Almost every time that Haitians think their circumstances cannot get any worse, it seems the nation takes another ominous turn, and it is now teetering on the verge of a political void, without a president, a Parliament or a functioning Supreme Court.
The country’s morass has for decades put it near the top of a list of nations, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, that have captured the world’s imagination for their levels of despair. In the shadow of the richest country in the world, people wonder, how could this happen to Haiti?
Haiti’s troubled history goes deep, lying in its roots as a former slave colony of France that gained its independence in 1804 after defeating Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces and later suffered more than two decades of a brutal dictatorship, which ended in 1986.
Then, after an earthquake devastated the country in 2010, an influx of foreign aid and peacekeeping forces appeared to only worsen the country’s woes and instability.
Haiti’s failures have not occurred in a vacuum; they have been assisted by the international community, which has pumped $13 billion of aid into the country over the past decade. But instead of the nation-building the money was supposed to achieve, Haiti’s institutions have become further hollowed out in recent years.
When the president let Parliament’s term expire last year, it left Haiti with 11 elected representatives — Moïse and 10 senators — for its population of 11 million, eliciting a strong condemnation but little repercussion from Washington. For the next year and a half, until his assassination, Moïse increasingly ruled by decree.
Haiti is less a failed state than what an analyst called an “aid state” — eking out an existence by relying on billions of dollars from the international community. Foreign governments have been unwilling to turn off the spigots, afraid to let Haiti fail.
But the money has served as a complicating lifeline — leaving the government with few incentives to carry out the institutional reforms necessary to rebuild the country, as it bets that every time the situation worsens, international governments will open their coffers, analysts and Haitian activists say.
The aid has propped up the country and its leaders, providing vital services and supplies in a country that has desperately needed vast amounts of humanitarian assistance. But it has also allowed corruption, violence and political paralysis to go unchecked.
Although they deny it, Haitian politicians have traditionally relied on gangs to sway elections in their favor and to expand their political turf. In the last three years of Moïse’s term, more than a dozen massacres by gangs linked to the government and police forces have killed more than 400 people in anti-government neighborhoods and displaced 1.5 million people, yet no one has been held accountable for the crimes.
When a political or human rights scandal erupts, the U.S. government issues paper-tigerlike condemnations.
Instead of embracing the long road to reforms and creating a system that works, Haitian civil society leaders contend, the United States has propped up strongmen and tied the fate of the nation to them. Many Haitians repeatedly denounced the U.S.’ support of Moïse but said they had little power to stop it.
“Since 2018, we have been asking for accountability,” said Emmanuela Douyon, a Haitian policy expert who gave testimony to the U.S. Congress earlier this year, urging Washington to change its foreign policy and assistance approach to Haiti.
“We need the international community to stop imposing what they think is correct and instead think about the long term and stability,” Douyon said in an interview.
The United States needs to condition aid to Haiti on its leaders cleaning up and reforming the country’s institutions, Douyon and other analysts said. And powerful figures need to be held accountable for the violence and corruption that permeate every aspect of the country.
“There will be a lot of calls for international intervention and sending troops, but it’s important that we take a step back and see how international intervention has contributed to this situation,” said Jake Johnston, a research associate for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, who coined the term “aid state.”
“There’s already been billions of dollars spent on so-called nation-building in Haiti, which has only contributed to the erosion of the state and politicization of these institutions,” Johnston said. “To now say we need to do more of this, well, that won’t work.”
The assassination of Moïse on Wednesday punctuated yet another chapter in the country’s violent decade. The assassins who raided Moïse’s compound killed a president who was brought to power in 2016, winning the election with only about 600,000 votes. Just 18% of voters cast ballots, and there were widespread accusations of fraud.
Yet the United States propped up the unpopular and controversial leader, supporting Moïse amid calls for his ouster in 2019 when it was discovered that international aid given to the government had gone missing.
Moïse insisted in February that he would stay on for an extra year as president because he had been prevented from taking the post for that long while the electoral fraud accusations were investigated. Despite demands from civil society leaders that he step down, Washington supported him. Critics said his holding onto the office was unconstitutional, and anger boiled over on the streets, throwing the capital Port-au-Prince into more uncertainty and violence.
Another failure of U.S. nation-building has been playing out thousands of miles away from Haiti, in Afghanistan, where the United States tried for 20 years to wrest control of the country from the Taliban before exiting the country. The Afghan military abandoned bases or surrendered to the Taliban en masse as the United States withdrew its troops. There, the international community provided more than $2 trillion in assistance since 2001.
The nation-building exercises that the United States and its international partners have embarked upon in Haiti and around the world have done little to create functioning states, instead creating a system where questionable actors with little national support — like Moïse — are propped up, the easiest way to achieve short-term stability.
In Afghanistan, the United States has relied on warlords and strongmen to achieve their objectives, who often politicize and undermine institutions, leaving a vacuum when they are inevitably assassinated or overthrown.
Civil society leaders in Haiti and Afghanistan have both urged the United States to help these countries build up their institutions and secure the rule of law, creating democratic systems that outlive any one political leader and provide long-term stability.
With continued U.S. backing, Moïse had grown increasingly autocratic, passing an anti-terror law late last year that was so broad it could be wielded against his opposition.
Earlier this year, he declared he would write a new Constitution, giving broad powers to the military and allowing future presidents to run for a second consecutive term. He scheduled a referendum on the Constitution and a national election for September, despite warnings that holding an election amid so much violence would suppress voter turnout and bring the same political figures to power that have helped cause Haiti’s struggles. Yet the United States supported Moïse’s plans.
“It’s hard to think of the present moment as an opportunity, as it will likely create more chaos,” said Alexandra Filippova, a senior staff attorney with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, an organization that provides legal representation for victims of human rights abuses.
“If the U.S. and other international partners are serious about helping Haiti,” Filippova added, “they need to listen to Haitian civil society and take the hard road: building an actual foundation for democracy.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.