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Last week, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henri resigned, unable to contain the rampagings of criminal gangs, which have stormed government buildings and freed prisoners. Meanwhile, as Haiti's legitimate authorities strive to establish a temporary government, the capital remains under the control of a figure known as Jimmy Cherizier, alias Barbecue. Latin American historian Victor Marques has traced how Haiti's heavy colonial legacy, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the UN and the broader international community, culminated in a criminal revolution in this resource-rich nation yearning for a peaceful existence.

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Content
  • Jimmy Cherizier, alias Barbecue

  • Henri's failure

  • Attaining independence

  • Duvalier, Tonton Macoutes, and the voodoo cult

  • Aristide and the Cannibal Army

  • Earthquake and devastation

Jimmy Cherizier, alias Barbecue

The chaos in Haiti erupted in late February after Prime Minister Ariel Henri's departure to Kenya to coordinate the deployment of foreign troops against the rampant gangs. The groups’ declaration of war against the prime minister triggered a series of coordinated attacks on government buildings, including the presidential palace, the Ministry of Interior, and the police headquarters in the western district of Haiti. The assailants even raided the main prison in Port-au-Prince, releasing several hundred inmates and plunging the nation into further turmoil.

In 2019, the UN concluded a 15-year peacekeeping operation in Haiti, initiated to combat growing instability after the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. The absence of international support fueled social unrest, ultimately culminating in the assassination of President Moïse in 2021. His death served as a catalyst for the impending collapse of the state, with Cherizier's call to arms amplifying the turmoil.

Jimmy Cherizier, known as Barbecue, emerged as the most influential leader of the criminal underworld in Haiti. Following the assassination of President Moïse, Cherizier rallied his followers in support of a revolution against what he deemed the “corrupt political elite.” His rise to prominence marked a significant shift in the country's power dynamics. Cherizier's ascent to power was notable for his leadership of an alliance comprising the country’s nine largest criminal organizations, known as the G9 Family and Allies. This coalition, announced on Cherizier's YouTube channel in June 2020, initially enjoyed tacit support from President Moïse, as their activities actually helped maintain a semblance of order on the streets. This “service” shielded them from the police.

Jimmy Cherizier
Jimmy Cherizier

Murals adorning Haitian slums portray Barbecue as having a striking resemblance to Che Guevara. In interviews with foreign journalists, he assumes the persona of a Caribbean Robin Hood, extolling the virtues of freedom fighters like Fidel Castro, Thomas Sankara, and Malcolm X. While he holds admiration for Martin Luther King Jr., Barbecue notes the difference between himself and the American civil rights leader: “he didn't wield weapons in his fight, but I do.”

Cherizier, a former police officer, was ousted from the force in 2018 due to his involvement in various crimes, notably the La Saline slum massacre. In this gruesome event, 71 people lost their lives, seven women were subjected to rape, and 400 homes were set ablaze. Despite Barbecue's claim that he got his nickname from his mother's street-side grilled chicken business — and not because he enjoys burning people alive in their homes — his actions have drawn condemnation from the United States and the UN Security Council, resulting in sanctions imposed against him in October 2022.

Despite his notorious reputation, Cherizier exudes charisma. Leveraging social media and his YouTube channel, he disseminates his ideology and recruits members to his armed criminal faction. He claims that his gang fills the void left by governmental ineptitude, warning that, “If Ariel Henri refuses to step down, and if the international community continues its support, we will inevitably slide into civil war, culminating in genocide.”

Barbecue employs social demagoguery, asserting that his armed struggle aims to uplift the impoverished masses and dismantle the systemic inequality perpetuated by the ruling elites. This rhetoric strikes a chord with some denizens of Haiti's slums, who yearn for a brighter future amidst their struggles.

Henri's failure

As early as October 2022, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henri sought assistance from the UN, urging for the immediate deployment of an international contingent to restore order and quell the bandits. However, it took a year for the UN Security Council to approve the creation of another special mission to ensure security in Haiti — and even after that, none of the world’s developed countries participated.

Ariel Henri
Ariel Henri

In 2022, a political agreement stipulated Henri's term should end on February 7, but it wasn't honored. Despite several months of efforts by Caribbean Community leaders to persuade Henri to form a temporary unity government, no progress was made. Although Henri pledged to hold elections in 2023, they never took place. The authorities cited security concerns as the reason. Elections have not been held since Moïse's assassination, and one of the factors contributing to the current unrest was Henri's agreement at a summit of Caribbean Community countries in Guyana to delay general elections until mid-2025. Due to the delay, Haiti currently lacks both a president and a parliament.

During Henri's visit to Kenya, the country pledged to lead an operation in Haiti involving thousands of police officers, with the U.S. and Canada promising $260 million for its funding. Benin offered two thousand military personnel, and Senegal, Chad, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Belize expressed readiness to send their troops. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele stated that his country could help address the security issue in Haiti with a UN Security Council resolution, approval from Haitian authorities, and coverage of all mission expenses. Bukele has managed to curb organized crime in El Salvador through extremely harsh methods over the past few years and was recently re-elected for a second term, so it is possible that his experience could be beneficial for Haiti.

But Henri never managed to return to Haiti from Africa. He arrived in Puerto Rico after being unable to land in the Dominican Republic, which had closed its land border with its Haitian neighbor. Caribbean leaders held an emergency meeting in Jamaica regarding the catastrophic situation in Haiti, with representatives from the U.S., France, Canada, the UN, and Brazil in attendance. During the meeting, Ariel Henri finally announced his resignation, later saying that the government would “step down immediately after the formation of a transitional council” that would enjoy the support of the U.S.

Attaining independence

Seeds of the current unrest can be found in Haiti’s turbulent history. In 1804, Haiti became the second country in the Western Hemisphere — after only the U.S. — to achieve independence. Its revolution represents the world's only successful uprising of black slaves resulting in the establishment of an independent state. As a result, the Haitian republic was declared, and a constitution was adopted in 1805. The fundamental law declared all Haitians “black,” regardless of skin color, and virtually all of the country's white population — tens of thousands — was exterminated during the uprising.

Haiti’s revolution represents the world's only successful uprising of black slaves resulting in the establishment of an independent state

In the rest of Latin America, the process of attaining independence unfolded differently, usually with significant intermingling between the local population and the remaining Spaniards, as slavery wasn't as pervasive elsewhere. However, Haiti took a distinct path, initially establishing a monoethnic state with its elite composed of emancipated slaves. By the time of Haiti's second president, Petion, in 1816, a new constitution was adopted that declared him president for life. But Petion didn’t last long in office, dying of yellow fever in 1818. Over the course of the 19th century, Haiti had over 20 presidents, many of whom met untimely ends through assassination.

In 1825, France finally recognized Haiti's independence. However, the young republic had to agree to pay substantial compensation to former slave owners for their lost property — and the payments continued until 1947. This compensation proved to be a heavy burden, severely hampering the country's economic progress. By the early 20th century, half of Haiti's tax revenue from coffee crops, its primary source of income, was allocated to these payments. France received approximately 90 million francs in gold over the years, equivalent to about 21 billion dollars in today's currency. The repercussions of this arrangement continue to be felt in Haiti, one of the world's poorest nations. In 2003, then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide unsuccessfully demanded the return of this sum.

Duvalier, Tonton Macoutes, and the voodoo cult

From 1915 to 1934, U.S. forces occupied Haiti, but in order to understand how the country ended up in its current state, it is more important to focus on the authoritarian reign of the Duvalier dynasty, which lasted from 1957 to 1986. After winning the presidential election of 1957, former Health Minister François Duvalier established militarized units known as the Tonton Macoutes to counterbalance the army, which attempted to overthrow him in 1958. Comprised mainly of criminals, the name “Tonton Macoutes”stems from the folkloric image of the zombie in Voodoo culture — a figure used to frighten children. The Tonton Macoutes were tasked with eliminating opposition figures and extorting businessmen, operating through terror, as they received no official salaries. Their brutality knew no bounds, with tens of thousands of Haitians falling victim to their vicious tactics. Gruesome images of severed heads and bullet-riddled bodies adorned Haitian newspapers, which depicted the horrors wrought by the Tonton Macoutes.

Tonton Macoutes
Tonton Macoutes

Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” was revered as the supreme voodoo priest. He exploited the racist variant of négritude to ideologically justify his regime, capitalizing on the Haitian people's ignorance and stoking racial hatred towards whites and mulattoes. Graham Greene vividly portrays the Duvalier era in his novel The Comedians, and today Haiti differs from that time only in that the current chaos is even greater. The dictatorship was replaced with turmoil.

Aristide and the Cannibal Army

After the downfall of the Duvalier regime and a series of coups in 1991, Haiti witnessed the emergence of its first legitimate president in decades, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide, a former Catholic priest, won the first truly democratic elections in Haitian history and was renowned for his sharp criticism of the Duvalier regime. However, within months, he was ousted in a military coup and fled to the United States. In 1994, the US conducted a special military operation under the auspices of the UN to facilitate his return to power, known as “Operation Uphold Democracy.”

Aristide's supporters also formed militarized groups, but the dissolution of the Haitian Armed Forces in 1995 effectively fueled the growth of organized crime. This condition was imposed by the U.S. upon Aristide's return to power, and it was done under the pretext of rearming and retraining the military. However, many former soldiers instead found informal employment in criminal activities.

In 2004, during Aristide's second term, Haiti was once again rocked by unrest amid demands for his resignation. This time, a significant role in Aristide's ousting was played by the Cannibal Army, a semi-criminal armed militia formed in the early 1990s. Subsequently, this group changed its ominous name and became known as the Gonaïves Resistance Front. Additionally, the president's opponents organized the Haitian Liberation Front, which gained control over all major cities in the country. In response to the escalating situation, a new American military intervention was initiated to prevent further bloodshed. French troops were deployed to the Haitian capital, followed by the arrival of a UN force consisting of 7,000 troops.

Due to its authoritarian style of governance and political repression, Aristide's regime lost support both domestically and internationally. Consequently, Aristide was placed under the protection of U.S. Marines and subsequently sent into exile in the Central African Republic. In 2006, Haiti elected a president, Préval, who was closely aligned with Aristide. However, his rule also faced serious challenges, including widespread unrest and food riots sparked by rising prices. In 2008, UN soldiers were forced to defend the presidential palace against rebel attacks.

Earthquake and devastation

In 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of over 220,000 people. Around 3 million Haitians were left homeless, and the country literally lay in ruins. City streets were filled with so many bodies of the deceased that bulldozers were used to remove them, and a cholera epidemic ensued. UN food warehouses were looted, and at the Port-au-Prince airport, which was under the control of the U.S. Army, up to 200 planes landed daily. In other cities, military aircraft dropped containers of water and food from the air.

Haiti received significant international aid, but much of it was stolen, and the country never fully recovered from the earthquake. Many still live in tent camps. The economic situation became catastrophic, with 60% of Haiti's population living below the poverty line, surviving on $2 per day. Unemployment reached 80%, with doctors and engineers earning around $250 a month. 75% of Haitians lack proper sanitation, and 10 children under the age of 5 die daily from poisoning due to unsafe surroundings and contaminated water. Trash is often dumped directly into rivers flowing into the ocean. Remittances from emigrants account for about 25% of GDP, twice the income from exports.

While Haiti has deposits of gold, bauxite, and copper, they are largely undeveloped. Once a producer and exporter of sugar, Haiti now imports it from the neighboring Dominican Republic, where according to some estimates, up to 2 million Haitian immigrants work on sugar plantations.

Moïse, UN peacekeeper violence, and gangs

Throughout these turbulent years, the once-muted activities of gangs gradually gained momentum. Following the coup against Aristide in 2004, a succession of UN peacekeeping missions entered Haiti, often becoming sources of violence themselves. A significant international scandal erupted in 2017 when an Associated Press investigation revealed how hundreds of Haitian children had endured years of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers, particularly Sri Lankan police officers, who ultimately returned home without facing punishment.

These and other acts of violence by the “blue helmets” met resistance from the gangs — there was no other opposition, and as a result, the gangs gained experience and influence by combatting the military itself. They now hold de facto power in most regions of the country, operating their own courts and police.

Port-au-Prince
Port-au-Prince

In 2017, President Jovenel Moïse launched initiatives to repair roads, improve water and energy systems, and establish a new Haitian army. However, protests erupted over fresh government corruption allegations, which became grounds for halting parliamentary elections. In 2018, Moïse survived an assassination attempt, but in July 2021, he was killed in his home. Haitian authorities sought UN aid to investigate the murder. To date, five culprits have received life sentences.

Moïse had appointed Ariel Henri as Prime Minister just two days before the attack. Since he had not been elected, Henri's legitimacy was widely questioned. Per the constitution, in the absence of the President, the Chief Justice was to assume duties, but he had died recently from COVID-19. Thus, the Prime Minister was next in line. This legitimacy crisis created a power vacuum — one that was exploited by criminal groups.

Criminal coup d'état

An open question remains: will Henri be able to return to Haiti to transfer power to the interim prime minister under relatively “normal” conditions? Or will the criminal alliance of Cherizier, who effectively controls most of the country, prevent him from doing so? Without the introduction of an international military contingent, resisting the gangs will no longer be possible. Moreover, it is obvious the armed groups have ties to corrupt political figures — both in power and in the opposition. These corrupt actors supply the gangs with weapons, finances, or political protection. Such connections have always existed, mainly in poor neighborhoods with large voter bases. However, after the 2011 elections, these relations reached a new level — gangs are now used as subcontractors to carry out political violence.

In short, Haiti has seen the politicization of crime, a situation similar to what recently happened in Ecuador. However, while Ecuador's state managed to maintain control, Haiti may face a criminal coup within days. When criminal gangs make political demands, a standard police operation is insufficient. But Haiti lacks such military capacity, and it remains unclear whether the international community is ready to intervene. For now, the U.S. and European countries are urgently evacuating embassy staff, while Florida's governor has sent 250 law enforcement officers south in anticipation of uncontrolled Haitian emigration.

And yet, despite the nearly nationwide turmoil, Haiti is home to one deceptively peaceful place. Approximately 130 miles north of the capital Port-au-Prince, which is practically overrun by gangs, the private port of Labadee continues to welcome guests to its resort. Royal Caribbean ships still visit Labadee without any issues. There is a private beach with extensive grounds — inaccessible to locals thanks to the work of private security guards. Incoming tourists have no idea what's happening in the rest of this country of 11 million, where last year alone over 8,000 citizens died violently.

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