While things are heating up in Haiti, in New York it’s getting cold. Freezing cold. Perhaps this is one reason so few people showed up outside the United Nations headquarters on Friday afternoon to demand the withdrawal of troops from Haiti and that a legitimate election take place.
But it wasn’t just the weather that kept people from coming to the protest, organized by the Coalition Against Sham Elections and Occupation, a recently-formed coalition of Haitian community groups. It may have also been a lack of clarity about the Coalition’s platform. “People know what they are against: the UN, the elections. But they don’t know what they’re for,” explained Kim Ives, a journalist for Haiti Liberte who has been working in Haiti for decades.
Ives compared this moment in Haiti’s history to a similar one in 1934, when guerrilla actions forced a nearly two-decade-long US occupation to end. Then, as now, people were out in the streets, demonstrating, and intermittently showering their occupiers with threats and acts of violence.
“The new constitution of ’86, and the election of [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide, signaled the beginning of a period of national democratic revolution,” said Ives. It was during that time, when Aristide’s Lavalas Family came into power following decades of the Duvalier dictatorship, that Haiti saw itself finally breaking free from economic dependence on its powerful neighbor. The UN occupation that followed Aristide’s ousting and his replacement by Rene Preval, Ives explained, was a way of keeping a hold on Haiti, preventing it from moving toward sovereignty.
As those who braved the cold shouted their demands at the UN building across the street, things were not so peaceful in Haiti. Following Wednesday’s election, Haiti erupted into violent clashes between civilians and UN troops. The Associated Press reported on December 11:
As soon as the results were announced Tuesday night, [presidential candidate Michel] Martelly’s supporters barricaded the streets of the capital, throwing rocks and robbing passers-by. Gunshots rang through the night. Protests spread to every major city in the country, fueled by widespread disaffection with Preval, and there were days of clashes with U.N. peacekeepers and police.
On Thursday, a group of men—some wearing Celestin shirts—shot and killed people in a shantytown beside the crumbled national palace. New York Times photographer Damon Winter watched as the headquarters of Preval’s preferred candidate, Jude Celestin, was set to flames by disgruntled protesters and UN troops responded to the uprisings with gunfire and riot control grenades:
“I think the violence is justified,” said writer and student Edna Bonhomme, adding that an unequal power balance forces Haitians to act aggressively to make themselves heard. Violence on the streets is a response to the structural violence in the lack of aid after January’s earthquake, the absence of a safe water supply that allowed cholera to spread last month, and the general impoverishment of the first nation in the Americas to achieve independence from European rule.
The situation is certainly desperate; Haitians are not only devastated by natural disaster but also paralyzed by a political crisis. But are these violent clashes really accomplishing anything good? What does it say to the world when Haitians take to the street, shutting down businesses and instigating general chaos? Rather than displaying democratic yearnings, these actions express confusion amongst the populace, and could be unfortunately interpreted as a sign that Haiti needs more, not less, foreign intervention and supervision.
The UN troops go by the name of “peacekeepers,” but their presence is an ongoing part of the violence of foreign domination in Haiti. Furthermore, their mandate permits them only to respond to violence in kind, as they are not a diplomatic body with political power.
There is a sense of acute panic about what is next for Haiti. At the moment, Haitians are able to agree on what they don’t want: the United Nations’ presence in their country, and Uncle Sam’s influence on their politics. “They need to let Haiti take care of its own problems,” said Mompremier. While policy-makers, aid workers, and private developers bear major responsibility in the reconstruction of Haiti’s politics and infrastructure, it is up to Haitians to make sure the international community truly hears their voices, not just their gunshots.