Why Haiti Advocacy Needs New Strategies

As the Biden administration continues to ignore Haitian civil society proposals for a pathway out of crisis, confronting white supremacy across borders is essential.

March 2, 2022

Black Lives Matter demonstrators protest the Biden administration's immigration policies in Los Angeles, September 21, 2021. (Ringo Chiu / Shutterstock)

As many as 10,000 Haitian apparel workers, among the lowest paid in the world, protested their stagnant wages last month. After issuing a warning letter to the interim prime minister, they mobilized two days of strikes on February 9 and 10, also demanding a seat at the table. In response, the Haitian government shot at the protesters and blocked the roads.

Given the plummeting value of Haiti’s currency, the workers’ wage of 500 gourdes per day was just a little higher than it had been in 1991: $4.60 compared to $4 three decades ago. On February 21, the interim government announced an increase, but it fell short of protesters’ demands of 1,500 gourdes. Haitian law calls for an adjustment when inflation is over 10 percent, and this past year it’s been 25 percent. So people again took to the streets, and the government responded by shooting into the crowds, wounding four and killing a journalist.

Just the day before, the Dominican government began constructing a wall to cover half of its border with Haiti. The move follows a 2015 pogram that expelled over 144,000 people rendered officially stateless following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling stripping Dominicans of Haitian descent of their birthright citizenship. The wall is also a manifestation of centuries of economic policies aimed at isolating the people that first said no to slavery and defeated the three most powerful armies in the world to gain independence in 1804. While Haiti’s poverty wages trigger international migration, the global racial capitalist order forces them to stay put—or violently returns them.

An Illegitimate Government

The timing of the protests—and Dominicans’ sealing of the border—is not random. February 7, 2022 was the date that the U.S. government and other foreign powers recognized as the end of the rule of Haiti’s slain president Jovenel Moïse, as well as the deadline they imposed for the transition following his assassination last July.

Indeed, at the end of January, Haiti’s organized civil society held an election to select leaders to oversee a two-year transition process. The vote followed the “Montana Accord,” a power-sharing transition plan ratified by over 900 groups, according to the Commission in Search of a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. The transitional prime minister, Steven Benoît, made history in 2009 by leading the parliamentary effort to raise Haiti’s minimum wage. 

Despite this civil society proposal, the Biden administration continues to back interim prime minister Ariel Henry, who rejects the Montana Accord and increasingly lacks legitimacy. Henry had been scheduled to take oath on July 7, 2021, the very day that Moïse was assassinated. Not only was the timing suspicious, investigations later revealed that Henry was in direct contact with assassination suspects.

Why would Biden continue to stand by Henry? How did we get here?

Reaping What He Sowed

Having empowered armed territorial groups to commit violence to maintain his power base, Moïse was thus held responsible for the rise in kidnapping and violence in recent years. According to investigations by the Haitian human rights organization RNDDH, there were at least 13 massacres from 2018 to mid-2021, resulting in 487 people murdered, 129 “disappeared,” 33 women and girls raped, and 679 children left orphaned. Among the perpetrators of these attacks was gang leader and former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier. In June 2020, Chérizier announced a gang federation called the Group of 9 or G9. In January 2021, ahead of the date that many believed marked the constitutional end of Moïse’s term of office, February 7, 2021, Chérizier and G9 organized a demonstration in support of the president.

Chérizier then proclaimed the start of a “revolution” on June 23, 2021, the same day that René Sylvestre, head of the Supreme Court and Moïse’s constitutional successor, died of Covid-19. A week later, human rights activist Antoinette Duclaire and journalist Diego Charles were murdered along with 15 others in a midnight attack. The Organization of American States demanded change, and Moïse announced his seventh prime minister, Ariel Henry. Precisely one week later, July 7, the day Henry was set to take office, Moïse was killed also in the middle of the night.

Amid the institutional void, earthquakes as powerful as the one that destroyed Port-au-Prince 11 years prior struck on August 14. The United Nations made an emergency appeal for $187 million, a sum representing a little more than one percent of aid pledged after 2010. The disaster affected an estimated 800,000 people, destroyed or seriously damaged 139,000 homes, and claimed 2,200 people’s lives. Solidarity initiatives from local communities across Haiti provided emergency medical care, food, water, and assistance rebuilding. Attempting to apply lessons learned from international failures of the 2010 response—or what Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck termed “Fatal Assistance”—Dr. Jerry Chandler of Haiti’s National Directorate of Civil Protection was given a visible role. However, despite the 2016 humanitarian “Grand Bargain” between big donors and aid organizations that promised to localize responses, including with specific targets for funding, in the wake of the August 14 earthquake local organizations were still left behind, not adequately resourced, and not given decision-making roles. 

In the middle of these complex crises, an estimated 18,000 Haitian people arrived at the U.S. border via South America. Following Brazil’s and Chile’s leadership roles in the UN military mission following the second ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, these two countries and others provided space for Haitian migrants. Both countries had left-leaning governments at the time, and Brazil faced a labor shortage for infrastructure development in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. When the games were over, particularly after far-right Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018, Haitian migrants faced increasing white supremacist and xenophobic hostility.

In September 2021, this racism was exposed to the entire world when a photo of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on horseback whipping a Black Haitian man, Mirard Joseph, went viral. Scores of U.S. social movement organizations spanning a range of causes and generations issued statements of protest, and some like the Family Advocacy Network Movement held in-person demonstrations. The Haitian Bridge Alliance joined Justice Action Center to sue the Biden administration on behalf of Celon and others denied due process. In this context, in a January special election, Miami voters elected their first Haitian representative to congress, Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick.

State of the Unions

On March 1, Biden offered his first State of the Union address—an opportunity to reflect. Many had hoped that the Biden presidency would signal a change in U.S. policy toward Haiti and immigration. Indeed, as a candidate opposing Trump, who in 2018 declared that Haiti was a “shithole country,” Biden promised greater aid accountability, collaboration with Haitian civil society, and an end to deportations.

Black and Haitian voters helped propel Biden to the White House. For one Haitian activist, who remains unnamed to protect their identity, Biden was a free rider, leveraging goodwill for being Obama’s vice president. Black voters organized by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams among others handed not only Georgia’s electoral votes to Biden but the U.S. Senate, sending two Democrats to Washington.

Like his three Democratic predecessors, Haiti provided Biden an early opportunity to define his foreign policy. Instead, as another Haitian activist has argued, Biden coasted on Trump’s foreign policy, showing support for Moïse despite his growing opposition and authoritarian rule. While reauthorizing Temporary Protected Status for Haitian people, the Biden administration kept Steven Miller’s xenophobic use of Title 42, using Covid-19 as pretext for mass deportation.

Biden deported over 20,000 Haitians in his first year, just shy of the total deported by the three previous presidents over 20 years. Nearly everyone apprehended at the border since September 2021 was deported to a country that the U.S. government deems unsafe for U.S. citizens. The double standard speaks volumes about how little Haitian or Black lives matter even to Democratic administrations. The so-called “centrist” logic of high-level Democrats who control the party and administration holds that pitching to those they consider “swing” voters—who they imagine as white—is the way to stay in office. This conveniently forgets the lessons that Obama and ACORN showed in 2008, or Abrams showed in Georgia in 2020: giving Black voters and other traditionally marginalized groups a reason to turn out to the polls makes all the difference.

 In other words, there has been no political cost of Biden’s disastrous policy toward Haiti. Now, more than ever, it is important that solidarity activists move beyond the comfort zone of NGOing. Being right or invoking human rights has not stopped these atrocities. We need to join, support, and link arms with vital movements in the United States and make connections and mobilize as if our lives depend on it, because they do. And, if our solidarity is to mean anything, as movement actors we need to move beyond being performative “allies” and act as “accomplices,” changing the calculus and putting our own bodies on the line to disrupt white supremacist state policy.

The multifaceted crisis calls for solidarity between groups working on different issues, seeing the intimate connection between immigration and anti-Blackness, and anti-Haitianism in particular. Haiti is in many real ways the ongoing foil to U.S. white supremacy, as well as a warning for the real human costs of global racial capitalism. Lessons from Haitian understandings of the interconnection of seemingly distant crises are urgently needed.

Mark Schuller is Professor of anthropology and nonprofit and NGO studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. Schuller’s research has been published in over fifty scholarly publications. Schuller is the author or co-editor of eight books—including Humanity’s Last Stand: Confronting Global Catastrophe—and co-director/co-producer of the documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Recipient of the Margaret Mead Award and the Haitian Studies Association’s  Award for Excellence, he is active in several solidarity efforts.

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