Haiti: Trapped Between U.S. Guns, Death Squads, and the Next Colonial Invasion

By Danny Shaw, North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), March 15, 2024

Haiti is again breaking news. One of the top news stories in the world on March 12 was the alleged “cannibalism” of a Haitian gang. No different than the Department of Health’s equating Haitians with carriers of the AIDS virus in the 1980’s and Hollywood films such as The Serpent and the Rainbow, this disinformation campaign is a racist attack on the collective Haitian self-esteem. Such propaganda seeks to ideologically justify the impending fourth U.S.-directed invasion and occupation of Haiti in the past 100 years. 

But where there is repression, there is resistance. Haitian grassroots actors and their supporters around the world are saying no to both internal and external mercenaries usurping Haitian participatory democracy. As Haitian Bald Headed Party-affiliated (PHTK) paramilitary death squads rampage through Port-au-Prince, seeking to displace and massacre as many families as possible, Jake Johnston’s new book Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism and the Battle to Control Haiti is a valuable contribution to understanding the geopolitical origins of these “gangs.” The book provides context on why the Biden government appointed the unelected prime minister, Ariel Henry, in 2021 and then requested his removal from office last week  as continued support for the illegitimate leader became untenable.

Gangs or Mercenaries for Hire?

Johnston’s page-turner is a necessary read for those new to Haitian studies, as well as those long familiar with the anti-dictatorship and anti-paramilitary struggles that Haiti has embarked upon in decades and centuries past. One thing is clear: the current paramilitaries, described in the mainstream press as “gangs,” must be analyzed on the historical continuum of U.S.-sponsored, state-affiliated armed groups, tasked with subduing the perennially “restless natives.” The preferred weapon of the mercenary gang bosses—Izo, Kempès, Barbecue, and others—is the torching of the communities they seek to subdue. Johnston points to the Michel Martelly administration (2011 - 2016) as being the first expression of the PHTK to use armed mercenaries to do their bidding. This assault on Haitian democracy, as personified by the politically-active populations of Belè, Lasalin, Solino, Delma anba, and the other ghettos of downtown Port-au-Prince, has reshaped Haiti’s capital city (spellings of Haitian words are in Haitian Kreyòl and not in the French colonial language). While early 2021 saw a mass movement that sought to topple the second expression of the PHTK dictatorship, headed by Jovenel Moïse, today armed and masked gunmen control some 80 percent of Port-au-Prince. 

According to the Displacement Tracking Matrix of the International Organization of Migration, 330,000 people have been internally displaced in Haiti, the majority of whom are children. Consistent with one of the principal themes of the book, I documented in visits to refugee camps at the end of January how the U.S.-sponsored Haitian state has yet to even visit the thousands of families sheltered in schools, alleyways, public plazas, and beyond.

Aid State compiles 10 plus years of Johnston’s research in the Capital Beltway and 1,400 miles away, in the ancestral homeland of Haitian revolutionary leaders Dutty Boukman, François Makandal, and Jean-Jacque Dessalines. The backdrop of the work is a literary tour de force of the spellbinding mountains of the Grandans department, the crowded refugee camp of Titanyen, and the abandoned farms of the Grannò. The reader who has not visited Haiti in the past years as a result of what the Haitian people call the ensekirité planifye e òganize (planned and organized instability) is sure to shed a tear or two of nostalgia upon reading of the landgrabs of armed thugs employed by the PHTK.

Haitian Patriots or Colonial Lackeys?

The meat of the book provides a broad overview of the corrupt inner workings of Haitian state corruption beginning with the selection of Martelly as president in 2011 up to the present, and the U.S. government puppeteers who oversee the clumsy “politics as usual.” Johnston examines from the inside-out how the “aid state”—a state almost wholly dependent on thousands of private, foreign NGO’s—both consciously and unconsciously functions to disempower Haitians. Every page confirms what almost any Haitian will tell you: politics and “aid” are a rich man’s game which mocks the lives, interests, and dignity of Haiti’s 99 percent.

Haitian young professionals searching to be of service to their country would have been militants of national liberation organizations in decades past. Today, much of this homegrown talent is compelled to follow the lure of some 10,000 NGOs that can pay salaries in U.S. dollars the Haitian left does not have access to. “Soft imperialism” contributes to an internal brain drain that discourages the upcoming generation from struggling for true Haitian sovereignty.

Johnston shows how the Republic of NGOs—one accurate nickname for both pre and post-earthquake Haiti—is not organized to respond to everyday people’s needs.The product of years of investigative journalism, Johnston shows how the Republic of NGOs—one accurate nickname for both pre and post-earthquake Haiti—is not organized to respond to everyday people’s needs. Thoroughly researched chapters show how donors responding to the 2010 earthquake, including the Clinton Foundation, Citibank, and an entire cast of neocolonial characters, squandered $10 billion dollars, $1 billion of which was from the United States, constituting the “largest ever international mobilization to respond to a natural disaster.” A high percentage of that money was pilfered by Western companies who created fraudulent paperwork and looked out for corporate bottom lines, not the needs of the Haitian people. 

The chapter “The $80,000 House” explains with painstaking detail how Haitian Martelly’s government and his cronies, such as his childhood friend Harold Charles, worked with USAID and their U.S. contractors—including Thor Construction, Tetra Tech, and the CEEPCO company—in the wake of the earthquake to swindle Haiti’s population in the north. The Caracol-EKAM village was supposed to provide $8,000 homes for workers displaced by the earthquake who were the rank and file of the Clinton-USAID free trade or sweatshop project. After the vultures divided up the booty, each house turned out to have “cost” $88,000. What was supposed to be a community of 15,000 “culturally appropriate” homes for survivors of the earthquake ended up being 750 homes with major construction and sewage problems. This malfeasance was “the perfect encapsulation of everything wrong with our foreign aid system: the favoritism and corruption, the reliance on expensive foreign ‘experts,’ the lack of community consultation. Most of all, the houses stood as proof of how difficult it was to hold anyone accountable for their actions in Haiti.”

Johnston, a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, provides the necessary global—or more accurately U.S.—geostrategic context that explains how political unknowns like Martelly, Moïse, and Henry became the leaders of the nation, despite enjoying very little popular support. Johnston shows that the PHTK, the party of the U.S.-backed former president Martelly, is the principal Haitian actor at the center of the Guns, Gangs, and Neocolonialism drama that continues to play out. Interviews with former president René Préval, the head of the scaled-down UN mission Susan Page, and musician, hotelier, and former Martelly ambassador Richard Morse add to the entertaining, easily-digestible chapters. Aid State is further bolstered by chapters covering the theft of billions of dollars in Petro Caribbean funds by the Haitian state from Venezuela, and the 628,000 “zombie votes” from people who did not exist in 2016 that guaranteed victory for the PHTK and the United States’ man in Haiti, Moïse. Aid State ends with explosive new plot twists that help explain who was behind the July 7, 2021, assassination of Moïse that will shock even seasoned followers of all things Haiti.

The Only Solution: Haitian Self-Determination

The myriad threats and doxing to which the author has been subjected are the clearest proof he has exposed and touched the sensitive veins of colonial rule in Haiti.Like Jeb Sprague’s Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in HaitiMark Schuller’s Humanitarian Aftershocks in HaitiDada Chery’s We Have Dared to Be Free: Haiti's Struggle Against Occupation, and a phalanx of others, this is a book that belongs in every library of Haitian and anti-colonial studies. Johnston has been a valuable witness to an important chapter in the ongoing Haitian national liberation struggle. His lucid pen does justice to the continued mobilization of millions of Haitians against the Aid State. The myriad threats and doxing to which the author has been subjected are the clearest proof he has exposed and touched the sensitive veins of colonial rule in Haiti.

I am an ethnographer who has filled up notebooks with notes on Haitian Kreyòl and culture for almost three decades. Since 2021, I have been following the paramilitary gang war on the long-peaceful and stable ghettos of Port-au-Prince. Jake Johnston’s rigorous research over the course of fifteen years has helped me better understand the present brutality that neocolonialism has produced. Johnston’s book is a necessary read for any friends and supporters of Haiti seeking to contextualize what is playing out in the korido (alleyways) and katyè popilè (oppressed communities) of Port-au-Prince as you read this article.

Upon finishing this political science and journalistic gem, the reader wonders how, nearly one quarter of the way through the 21st century in the era of social media and identity politics, Haiti can so clearly remain a colony of the United States. Every U.S. government move in Haiti, from appointing prime ministers to organizing the next invasion, reflects their desire to maintain hegemonic control over Haiti. The years 1492 and 1697—the year of the “Peace of Ryswick” treaty which defined colonial ownership of the island the Taino natives called Ayiti—hemorrhage into 2024 as the masses of hungry and humiliated Haitians continue to dream of and fight for the Second Haitian Revolution. Until then, Haitian communities stand like David before Goliath, erecting their barricades to resist the onslaught of the paramilitaries and their foreign masters.


Danny Shaw is an International Affairs analyst with TeleSUR, HispanTV, and other international media outlets. He teaches Latin American and Caribbean studies at the City University of New York and has worked with Haitian social movements and studied Kreyòl since 1998. His work can be found at @profdannyshaw.


Posted March 23, 2024