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Haiti Violence: How My Trips Around The Caribbean Nation Showed A Different Side

On 15 March, the Indian government announced its readiness to evacuate its nationals from Haiti.

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Haiti is always in the news for the wrong reasons. On 15 March, the Indian government announced its readiness to evacuate its nationals from Haiti in view of the deteriorating law and order situation in the Caribbean nation.

For decades, Haiti's 11.6 million inhabitants have been plagued by political instability, socio-economic disparities, and violence. The country does not have a single elected representative. Its National Assembly sits empty. The vacuum has been filled by violent and influential gangs that indulge in kidnappings and extortion. These gangs control 80 per cent of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

A few years ago, I visited the villages of Caye Pierre and Labadee on the northern coast of Haiti.

To the enthusiastic traveller who prefers reality to romance, these villages reveal nothing of the real Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
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In and Around Haiti: The Emerging Political Hotspot

Wide open spaces and created gardens were everywhere and no bullying traffic, no ghettos, no trappings of poverty and ignorance were in sight.

Here, the hills were clothed in lush mahogany and tropical oak forests, and we saw nothing of the naked, vulnerable, ravaged landscape, stripped of its tree cover by hungry peasants that dominates Haiti. We were too far away from Port-au-Prince, the graffiti-daubed, strike-weary capital, to be disturbed by the echoes of banging and sawing of a populace strengthening its doors and windows in readiness for another violent political rally.

At one corner of the island lay the Dragon’s Nest, a mess of protruding black rocks chiselled by the lashing sea. A cave down below had a small hole at the top of the rock. Each time the churning sea forced water upwards, the air went hissing through the hole, sounding like a dragon releasing a nostrilful of air.

Musset Saintus, a young Haitian guarding the point, upon coming to know that I was from India engaged me in a conversation on Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism.

"Have you seen the Dalai Lama? And Satya Sai Baba?” he asked.

His eyes widened when I told him that indeed I had.

"I practice meditation,” he said, earnestly.

"And not voodoo?” said I, amazed. “Did voodoo not originate in Haiti? What has happened to your original, home-grown religion that you are looking elsewhere?”

"We have exported voodoo to America,” said Musset, flashing his white teeth. "My father and mother still practice voodoo.”

“Why don’t you invoke your spirits to provide your country with some good leadership?” I asked.

Musset’s laughter roared above the sound of the splashing surf. "Our spirits have gone on strike. They don’t seem to deliver anymore. That is why 80 per cent of the people here are now Roman Catholics.”

Haiti has been cursed with centuries of rotten leadership. The Spanish conquerors had killed thousands of the native Arawaks while searching for gold. Imported African slaves were harshly treated by the French. The century after independence was turbulent, with Haiti being ruled by a series of monarchs and dictators.

Duvalier’s Excesses and the Rise of Authoritarianism in Haiti

In the late 1950s, the US-backed President Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, another one of the 20th century’s most brutal despots, declared himself Haiti's "president for life" and employed his dreaded security force, the Tonton Macoute, to terrorise the population, killing tens of thousands of citizens.

When Papa Doc's life term expired in 1971, his son Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") inherited his father’s iron rule. The son, keen to show that his sword was as sharp as his father’s, bagged over 60,000 political scalps and tortured thousands until he was forced out by reformers in 1986. Duvalier fled to France where he lived in style in a villa near Cannes until 1990 when his wily wife divorced him for a conspiring businessman and made off with the remaining Duvalier fortune after four years of extravagant spending.

In 1997, regaining his enthusiasm for public service, Duvalier announced he would return to transform Haiti into a "pluralist democracy," but Haiti told him to get lost and refill his empty coffers elsewhere.
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Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest-turned-tyrant was elected president in 1990, overthrown a year later, and it took the intervention of the US Military in 1994 to restore him to power.

Sweeping into office as the "champion of the poor”, promising to raise Haiti’s people out of "misery” and into "poverty with dignity”, Aristide, a former radical leftist, spent USD 7 million to buy four official mansions, including a USD 1.5 million hilltop spread for the prime minister.

He promoted thugs, pickpockets, drug peddlers, kidnappers, arsonists, cold-blooded gangsters, and unprincipled policemen and, over the years, his commitment to their cause waxed, not waned. Opposition politicians and journalists were ruthlessly hounded, and their offices and homes burned, by the chimère, Aristide's hired thugs from the slums.

Soon the Opposition was running around like headless chickens. The country's depleted coffers are being filled with payoffs from drug dealers who used the country to trans-ship an estimated 10-15 per cent of the cocaine that entered the United States.
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A Crumbling Healthcare System and Mounting Public Agony

Meanwhile, the country – the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first to abolish slavery – remained the poorest in the region and got poorer. Two-thirds of Haiti's inhabitants live in poverty, half of all adults are illiterate, and less than a quarter of rural children attend primary school.

In the World Water Council’s list of countries with safe water, Haiti is at the bottom. Infant and maternal mortality rates remain among the highest in the world and little Haiti produced more new cases of HIV-AIDS each year than the entire US.

More than 4,000 Haitian children are smuggled every year into the neighbouring Dominican Republic by desperate parents to work on plantations, construction sites, or as beggars.
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With their voodoo spirits out of service, I suggested to Musset that the Haitians try out their ancient method of keeping the minds of their leaders away from the affairs of the state. Christopher Columbus reported in his journals that though the naked and timid islanders were themselves content with one wife, they messed up their chief’s peace of mind by providing him with twenty.

Occupied with his internal family duties and squabbles, the wounded chiefs never had the time to loot the public purse or indulge in witch-hunts. Similarly, if the present leadership could be provided with two dozen wives, there would be no law and order problems and hunger would be eradicated.

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In July 2021, Ariel Henry was appointed as Haiti’s unelected prime minister – two days before the murder of the incumbent president Jovenel Moïse. It is suspected that he had a hand in the president’s assassination. This month he went to Jamaica to attend a summit. His return to Haiti was blocked by the gangs that control the capital. On 11 March, in a video message posted on social media from Jamacia, he announced he would step down.

Haitians can now look forward to an overdue election. The two main contenders are Guy Phillipe, a former senator who returned to Haiti last year after serving seven years in an American federal prison for laundering drug money; and Jimmy Chérizier, a warlord better known as "Barbecue” who leads a group of gangs called G9.

It seems not enough good people are left in Haiti to get the country out of its misery.

(A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of Explorers Club USA, and Editor of Indian Mountaineer, Akhil Bakshi has written 27 books including Rum, Reggae and Columbus: Cruising the Caribbean. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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