The latest crisis in Haiti: How did we get here?

OPINION: Some observers may conclude that Black people simply cannot govern themselves, but Haiti — the first free Black republic — has never been able to catch a break under the weight of colonial oppression and imperialist occupation.

Jimmy Cherizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs a gang federation, walks hand in hand with children as he visits La Saline district of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph, File)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The Caribbean nation of Haiti is in utter turmoil as the country’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry has announced his resignation this week in the midst of international pressure. This, as most of the capital city of Port-au-Prince is controlled by armed street gangs — actually paramilitary groups — who freed thousands of people from prison and united to consolidate power. Plans were afoot but now halted to deploy 1,000 Kenyan police backed by the United Nations to Haiti to control the violence.

Following the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse — and the removal of all democratically elected institutions with the failure to hold elections as the terms of all remaining members of the Senate expired last year — Haiti has become a de facto dictatorship. These circumstances have fueled the gangs — who are now independent after being financed and armed by government officials and Haitian oligarchs — and their killing, kidnapping and extortion.

How did this happen? Making sense of the crisis taking place in Haiti means understanding the most recent events unfolding with the role of the gangs. More importantly, however, is an unpacking of the historical context behind Haiti, a country that has been denied true independence and self-determination for 220 years.

Considering what is unfolding in this African diasporic nation, it is easy for observers to conclude that Black people simply are unable to govern themselves, not realizing that Haiti was never able to catch a break under the weight of colonial oppression and imperialist occupation.

The first independent Black republic has been punished for liberating itself, while the U.S. and other Western powers have propped up dictators in Haiti and economically exploited the people.

First free Black republic

With its independence in 1804 through a revolt of enslaved Africans against France, Haiti became the first free Black republic and served as a role model and inspiration for oppressed and enslaved Black people in the United States and beyond. George Washington was concerned about an international “spirit of revolt among the Blacks” that started in Haiti, saying “Where it will stop, it is difficult to say.” The governor of South Carolina warned Washington that white people were outnumbered by Africans in his state in a “nearly similar” situation as Haiti.

The rebellious Black people of Haiti succeeded in overrunning Napoleon’s army, which was a glorious thing, but ultimately the French colonizers made them pay a heavy price for their freedom. For one, the U.S. and France imposed a crippling economic embargo on Haiti from 1804 until 1863. And France forced Haiti to pay reparations to remain independent and avoid having the European power return and take over once again. This became known as Haiti’s “double debt” — with a ransom demanded by the former enslaver and a loan Haiti was forced to pay for decades. That loan, which amounted to $560 million in today’s money but ultimately deprived the Haitian economy of $25 billion, helped enrich French banks and placed Haiti on a long road of resource starvation and taking out even more loans.

It is no wonder that Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. And where the French left off in the exploitation of Haiti, America picked up. The U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 and stayed until 1934, killing 15,000 Haitians, establishing a forced labor system and robbing the country as imperialists do. For example, the U.S. Marines stole Haiti’s $500,000 gold reserve and handed it over to the Wall Street bank now known as Citibank.

US intervention

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam propped up brutal and corrupt dictators such as François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 until his death in 1971 and was followed by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was “president-for-life” until 1986. These men imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands of Haitians and stole millions of dollars from their people.   

Fast-forward to 2004, and we see the origins of the unrest in Haiti today. “Haiti has been and continues to be the main laboratory for U.S. imperial machinations in the region and throughout the world,” said Jemima Pierre, Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at UCLA and a research associate at the Center for the Study of Race, Gender and Class at the University of Johannesburg.

According to Pierre, the 2004 coup d’état against Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, backed by the U.S., Canada and France and supported by the U.N., is at the root of the current problems. “And the U.S. Marines flew into his home, put him on a plane with his security officials, his wife and aide, and flew them to the Central African Republic,” Pierre told “Democracy Now!” calling the present crisis in Haiti “a crisis of imperialism” and accusing the world of unwittingly participating in the occupation of Haiti.

The world exploitation of Haiti continued. The U.N. “peacekeepers” stationed in Haiti from 2004 to 2017 raped hundreds of women, fathered and abandoned hundreds of children, and sexually abused children. The U.S. and NGOs took advantage of the 2010 Haitian earthquake to provide much of the relief aid to contractors rather than local people and imposed economic policies that hurt the Haitian economy and destroyed local agriculture.  

Haiti, the first Black republic, was punished for liberating itself, and the nation continues to serve a life sentence in the most recent crisis. Notice that other countries have dictated what will become of Haiti to this day, and Haitians have been denied control over their own destiny. Until Haiti has a right to self-determination, its occupation continues. 

David A. Love,

David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is

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