Recent Developments

Haiti is a small peninsular country about the size of Maryland, flanked by the Caribbean Sea and sharing its eastern border with the Dominican Republic. It is the poorest country in the Latin America and Caribbean region—in 2022, more than half the country lived below the poverty line and remittances made up 22% of GDP. In the UN Human Development Index, it scored 163rd out of 191 countries. In 2023, it sat 172nd out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index (the global average is 43). For its population of 11.6 million, suffering is the lifestyle. Having perennially teetered between instability and failure, Haiti is now mired in anarchy by the largest and most coordinated explosion of gang violence in its history. Led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, the gangs forced the unpopular prime minister, Ariel Henry, to resign, forcing him into exile in Puerto Rico and taking control of 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince. They have torched police stations, blockaded roads, airports, and the country’s fuel terminal, and orchestrated prison breaks. 160,000 people in Port-au-Prince have been displaced; looting of aid supplies and fears of famine is rife. Six out of 10 hospitals in the country are out of service. Makeshift refugee camps and neighborhood barricades have cropped up amid the collapse of (already substandard) infrastructure. Poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water, and crowding have raised fears of a renewed cholera outbreak, denying closure to one of Haiti’s greatest traumas. 

International efforts are underway to fill the political vacuum, with no success yet. In March, Haiti’s neighbors met in Jamaica to plan a nine-member presidential council, but diplomatic efforts have been hampered by squabbling among factions, including between gangs. In the meantime, on March 12, Kenya indefinitely postponed its agreement to send a UN peacekeeping force. Officials said that they will not send troops until UN funds have been made available and a transitional government is in place. Though the U.S. has pledged to contribute to funding the mission, Haitians have little hope for a salve any time soon.

Historical Background:

Haiti has endured wave upon wave of tragedy. The island, called Hispaniola, was settled by Spain in 1496. In 1625, it was colonized by France and named Saint-Domingue. The indigenous Taíno population was decimated by measles and smallpox; to fill the labor gap, the French trafficked and enslaved 800,000 Africans into a notoriously brutal colonial regime to mold the colony into the jewel of its empire. It provided 40% of Europe’s sugar and 60% of its coffee. In 1804, at the end of a five-year rebellion, Haitians overthrew French rule and proclaimed itself a republic—Haiti remains the only country to successfully gain independence from a slave rebellion. Political and financial stability was elusive, however; despite being nominally independent, Haiti has been continually besieged by foreign interference. France exacted reparations for former slave owners until 1947. In 1915, the U.S. helped overthrow the president and installed a pro-American government and constitution. It did not withdraw troops until 1934, and only relinquished fiscal control of the country in 1947. In the following decades emerged a pattern of dictatorships, military coups, and economic plight. In 2004, a military coup toppled the president, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who’d been in and out of power since 1990 as Haiti’s first democratically-elected president. 

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) entered the country that year intending to restore order against gangs. However, it was criticized for tolerating right-wing paramilitary groups, covering police abuses, and sexually abusing and exploiting women and girls—a recurring problem that has plagued other missions, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The mission became most notorious, though, for spreading a cholera epidemic that killed about 10,000 and infected about 800,000. The epidemic originated from a peacekeeping camp, for which the UN apologized but refused to compensate victims and their families (the mission remained in Haiti until 2019). 

The next decade was marked by climate disaster and further political strife. In 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed 300,000, displaced 1.6 million, and led to another cholera outbreak. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew killed hundreds and damaged thousands of homes. In 2018, the Petrocaribe embezzlement scandal and IMF-mandated cuts to fuel subsidies stoked protests against the government of Jovenel Moise. In July 2021, Moise was assassinated by unidentified gunmen and his successor, Ariel Henry, became unpopular by repeatedly postponing elections on the basis of restoring security. The disorder was accentuated in August by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed 2,000 and injured 13,000 and Tropical Storm Grace, which battered the country with landslides and flash floods. Haiti is still weathering these tides of torment.


The crisis in Haiti has domestic and international implications. Domestically, Haiti risks becoming a failed state. More than 3 million refugees have fled Port-au-Prince to the rural, southern region, which lacks sufficient infrastructure and resources to receive them. With the Presidency currently vacant, there is no clear path ahead for how to install a new government, who should compose it, and crucially, how to ensure that civilians see it as legitimate. The gangs that have unleashed anarchy tap into Haitians’ ire about inequality, corruption, and injustice, and long-standing distrust of elites.

There are several international implications, as well. 

First, peacekeeping has lost credibility. The UN’s reputation in Haiti is terribly tainted. The prospect of a Kenyan-led UN peacekeeping force did not inspire much confidence in the first place; Kenya’s backing out sends a message about the future of peacekeeping. With no standing army of its own, the UN is an institution with responsibility but not authority; vested with a mandate to maintain international peace, it must somehow convince member states to send their nationals to die for a country and cause that is not theirs. This disconnect has trampled efforts to achieve peace. 

Second, climate change exacerbates insecurity. Climate change makes natural disasters more frequent, more intense, and less predictable. Haiti has so far been condemned to bear the burden of an issue it has little part in creating. Its coastal location, poor urban planning, and shoddy infrastructure make it a sore target. Dependence on subsistence farming, which degrades the environment, reeks with irony: perennially looted by foreign powers that used their wealth to generate the climate crisis, Haiti must choose between its economy and its environment. Involuntary migration, a consequence of the climate crisis, has become a political pawn for many wealthy countries. Despite pledging aid to a peacekeeping mission in Haiti, the U.S. has continued a pattern of deporting Haitian migrants that ramped up under former President Donald Trump; under the controversial Title 42, the Biden Administration has deported 27,000 Haitian asylum seekers.

Third, the U.S. firearm industry is a visible player in the region. The U.S. sends back not only refugees, but guns. Haiti is a hotspot for regional arms trafficking. The gang-run country does not have the ability to manufacture its own firearms—most of its guns come from Florida and other states with lax regulations. There are estimated to be 500,000 unregistered guns in the country. In 2021, 85% of the guns found at crime scenes in Haiti were traced to the U.S. This is a problem for the entire Caribbean—a whopping 98% of guns in the Bahamas in 2022 were traced to the U.S. 

These three implications frame a bigger, pressing concern: the legacy of colonialism. For most of its history, Haiti was pinned under foreign interference, whether it was French rule and reparations, American interference, or UN negligence and abuse. The parallels can be tragic. Half a millennium after European settlers exterminated the indigenous population with smallpox and measles, the Haitian people today are still subjugated by cholera. Half a millennium after being turned into an export colony for colonial Europe, the country’s main industries remain sugar refining and textile manufacturing. Despite their tangled history, the U.S. remains Haiti’s biggest trading partner. Ironically, Haiti, while struggling to shed the yoke of colonialism, has been left to stand alone in its current crisis. The winners of the old world order cannot yet abdicate their responsibility to Haiti; as long as Haitians feel failed by foreign powers, the gangs will have an audience.