Mises Wire

How State Intervention Fueled Haiti’s Descent into Chaos

As the internationally recognized government in Haiti loses its grip on power, the small Caribbean country is descending into violence. The media reports about the situation are quick to, either implicitly or explicitly, place the overall blame for the violence on the absence of state institutions.

Situations like this are often used to dismiss libertarians. Before Haiti, it was Somalia that experienced a so-called stateless period in the 1990s and early 2000s.

While few will suggest that libertarians want the kind of violence and chaos we saw in Somalia and see in Haiti today, it’s frequently asserted that, regardless of what libertarians want, the changes they advocate for will inevitably lead to such lawless conditions.

As straightforward as this claim may appear at first glance, it is not well grounded in reality. In Somalia, for example, economist Benjamin Powell has found that in the latter part of the 1990s, after the warring factions largely gave up fighting for control over all of Somalia, the country experienced a period of peace and economic growth that was unmatched among comparably poor countries in the region.

Still, that is clearly not what’s happening in Haiti. The country is experiencing widespread violence. Yet, when the full context of Haiti’s situation is laid out, it becomes clear that the blame for the country’s current plight lies with the actions of states, not their absence.

The Haiti we know today was born of a slave revolt in 1791. The revolt turned into a revolution against the French, which, after thirteen years of brutal fighting, led to the establishment of the sovereign state of Haiti in 1804. But the country’s problems were only just beginning.

Because of the domestic politics of slavery, the United States government refused to recognize Haiti until 1862. Instead, it enforced a crushing trade embargo on the tiny country. Meanwhile, the French government imposed harsh reparations on former slaves in Haiti for lost income.

The US invaded Haiti in 1915 and directly occupied the country for nineteen years. But even after the troops left, Washington was still in control. For the next three decades, the US government propped up the Duvalier dictatorship, overlooking its blatant brutality toward the Haitian people.

Jean-Claude Duvalier was ousted in 1986. For the rest of the twentieth century, Haiti was marred by military rule, coups, and foreign occupation.

As Marcel Gautreau detailed on Power and Market last week, political unrest continued into the post–Cold War years, thanks in large part to the US government: “Since the end of the Cold War, the US has overthrown Haiti’s government three times. In 1991 to remove President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power. In 1994 to put Aristide back in. In 2004 to remove Jean-Bertrand Aristide again, followed by an invasion of Marines.”

The political instability carried on through the 2010s as Haiti was rocked by a major earthquake in 2010 and a hurricane in 2016.

So, centuries of meddling by foreign states trapped the people of Haiti in poverty and condemned them to endure endless cycles of unpopular, foreign-backed regimes. And things are no different today.

The current unrest can be traced back to 2021 when the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, was shot and killed by a team of gunmen. Afterward, with US president Joe Biden’s backing, Haiti’s prime minister Ariel Henry took power.

The fact that Henry had become prime minister two days before Moïse’s assassination, was in contact with some of the hitmen before and after the shooting, quickly dissolved the Provisional Electoral Council, and had the backing of the United States government harmed his legitimacy in the eyes of many Haitians. But the final nail in the coffin came a year later when Henry took the first steps outlined by the World Economic Forum to begin transitioning Haiti away from fossil fuels.

Riots broke out across the country with calls for the entire government to resign. But the riots quickly grew into something else when a coalition of “gangs” from Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, built a blockade around the country’s main fuel port. Jimmy Chérizier, the charismatic leader of the coalition, demanded that some of his people be granted roles in the government.

In response, Ariel Henry began frantically working to recruit an “international police force” to help put down these “gangs” and the general unrest that his earlier actions had provoked. But the optics of pleading for foreign help only further dismantled his legitimacy. Then, earlier this month, when Henry was visiting Kenya to organize the multinational intervention, Chérizier called for the resignation of all remaining government officials and the arrest of all who didn’t comply.

Chérizier and his militants then blocked Ariel Henry from entering the country. They are threatening to kill him if he tries to return without first resigning. Henry first fled to New Jersey before settling in Puerto Rico, where he remains. Meanwhile, the internationally recognized government in Haiti has lost control over much of the country.

So, while many are simply labeling Haiti a failed state, it’s more accurate to say that Haiti finds itself in the early stages of a civil war. Specifically, a war between the US-backed regime and a number of factions that aspire to become the new state in Haiti. What makes this budding civil war unique is that the “international community” is only referring to groups like Chérizier’s as “gangs”—implying that they are not and never will be considered politically legitimate. But so far, these “gangs” are winning.

Add to that the fact that they are not being funded by the CIA or any other foreign intelligence agency, so these militants are not decked out in all the expensive, US taxpayer–funded military equipment we’re used to seeing in successful uprisings against established governments. It’s disorienting. Yet some of these groups, such as Chérizier’s so-called G9 coalition, control territory with clearly defined borders where they enjoy a monopoly on violence. That makes them a de facto state already.

Of course, war is always going to be bad for the civilian population, especially those who live in disputed territory. And, as with any war, criminal opportunists are taking advantage of the social breakdown. Interestingly, a movement has grown in response, working to arm every Haitian civilian so they can defend themselves and their families. Still, the violence plaguing Haiti is brutal, and there is no quick end in sight.

So, to review, Haiti has been tormented by heavy-handed foreign state intervention for over two centuries, leaving its people poor and its institutions crippled. After the 2021 assassination of the former president, the US-backed prime minister seized power in a way that many Haitians considered illegitimate. And later, when the government tried to enact some environmentalist reforms, the Haitians revolted. Now factions are fighting for control of Haiti’s state apparatus while the US-backed prime minister works to recruit a coalition of foreign states to invade and install him back in power.

Yet this is somehow meant to discredit those of us who argue that important institutions like money should once again be free from state control, or that people ought to have the ability to opt for a different security provider if they are not being served well, or that no single group should have a final say on all disputes including ones they themselves are involved in.

Sure, it’s possible that some hypothetical libertarian society could devolve into a Hobbesian state of nature—though plenty of convincing books dispute the notion that this is likely. But that is clearly not what has happened in Haiti. The violent and chaotic predicament facing the Haitian people is the direct result of two hundred years’ worth of foreign states working to define and control the political arrangement of the Caribbean nation. Maybe, for once in its history, that decision should be left to the people of Haiti.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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