Haiti: The Curse of History

13 March 2024

Haiti: The Curse of History

By Gwynne Dyer

It may seem that the violence and chaos that have gripped Haiti are finally being addressed. The unelected acting president nobody wanted, Ariel Henry, has resigned. An international police force may soon arrive in the Caribbean island to restore order. There is even talk of a free election. But nothing is fixed, and the violence isn’t over.

Listen to what gang leader Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier said last week: “We’re not in a peaceful revolution. We are making a bloody revolution in the country because this system is an apartheid system, a wicked system.”

Apartheid? That was the oppressive system that protected the privileges of whites in pre-1994 South Africa. There are practically no whites in Haiti. What’s the man even talking about?

’Barbecue’ (the name allegedly refers to his habit of incinerating his victims) is not confused. He is deadly serious about fighting a revolutionary race war against ‘the arabs and the mulattoes’ whom he sees as the oppressors and exploiters of black Haitians.

That’s a vast over-simplification of Haiti’s real social structure, but there is just enough truth in it to convince the angry and illiterate young men in the gangs that now control 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Once they just stole things and shook people down and did a bit of rape and murder, but now they have a cause.

Or at least some of them do. How many is hard to say, because when career criminals take over a country they always need some plausible political cover, but maybe enough of them to get a race war going. And if they did they would win it, but that would be just one more repetition of an old theme.

Cherizier and his ‘G9 Family and Allies’ coalition of gangs have come together with the rival ‘G-Pep’ coalition to oppose yet another international attempt to bring in foreign troops and police to “stabilise” the country. (The lead country this time would be Kenya.)

Instead the gangs propose a three-member ‘troika’, picked by them, to lead the country on a journey that might include elections at some point, but would fundamentally reorder Haitian society and put poor blacks in charge.

It is unlikely that this coalition will attain its goals or even last very long. Its leaders are mobsters whose power over their own associates comes from being exceptionally violent men with short tempers. But they do have a point.

There has never been a slave-owning society worse than the one that flourished in Haiti under French rule in 1625-1791. Slavery was practically universal in the world at the time – about a third of West Africa’s population were slaves – but what happened in Haiti was particularly efficient and murderous.

Slavery had died out in Europe during the Middle Ages, but when the opportunity arose to get rich by using slave labour to grow sugar cane on West Indian plantations, Europeans were more than happy to go back into the business. The nearest place that had large numbers of slaves for sale was West Africa, so that’s where they bought them.

The African slave traders were glad of the new customers (previously the export trade had all been north across the Sahara to the Islamic countries on the Mediterranean). The demand never slacked, and at least ten million slaves were sent west across the Atlantic in the next two centuries.

The ones that went to Haiti died very fast, because it was cheaper to work them to death and just buy some more. ‘Turnover’ was so high that when revolution came to Haiti two centuries later (as part of the great French Revolution of 1789), slaves were almost 90% of the population – but most of them were still fresh out of Africa.

However, there was also a significant number of mixed-race ‘mulattoes’. European women were scarce in Haiti in the early days, and the white fathers of these mulattoes mostly looked after their children – so they grew up free, educated, and in many cases slave-owners themselves.

In the latter stages of the Haitian revolution, more than 200 years ago, almost all of the whites fled or were massacred, but some of the mulattoes took on leadership roles: Toussaint L’Ouverture, for example. They took charge because they knew how to do things – and they still dominate in those roles today, which is greatly resented by the ‘black’ majority.

This is a drastically compressed version of Haitian history, and the exceptions almost outnumber the facts. But it’s why ‘Barbecue’ talks the way he does, and why he warned that there might be a “civil war” that could end in “genocide” if Ariel Henry did not step down.

It’s still possible. History is a burden everywhere, but in Haiti it’s a curse.