A NEW HAITIAN REVOLUTION? Rampaging gangs, deploying revolutionary rhetoric, have vowed to repel an international intervention.

By Ryan Grim, Deconstructed, March 15 2024

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HAITI’S PRIME MINISTER Ariel Henry has been compelled to resign as armed gangs tighten their grip on the nation’s capital, seizing control of police stations, the main international airport, and freeing thousands of prisoners. This week on Deconstructed, researcher and writer Jake Johnston, who has spent more than a decade reporting on Haiti, joins Ryan Grim to discuss the latest wave of violence hitting the country and the events that led to it. Johnston’s new book, “Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti,” details how U.S. and European goals have continuously undermined the nation’s governance and economy. Johnston is also the senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research where he leads Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch.

[Deconstructed theme music.]

Ryan Grim: I’m Rxyan Grim. Welcome to Deconstructed.

Today, on the show, we’re joined by Jake Johnston. He’s the author of the new book, “Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti.”

Jake, thanks so much for joining me.

Jake Johnston: Thanks for having me.

RG: This was a conversation we’ve been planning for quite some time, but it turns out that you’ve published your book on Haiti quite into the news firestorm, which seems like [it] happens every, what? Three to ten years? You’ve written for The Intercept a bunch in the past, I’ve been following your great work for a long time, so this is something that you’ve seen unfold. What’s the timeline? How often does Haiti pop into the news?

JJ: Yeah, certainly there’s been a bit of a cycle, we’ve seen this happen time and again. Each decade there’s been a big event that has certainly captured the world’s attention in regard to Haiti, and there’s a contrast there, with the moments of intense attention, and then far longer periods of total silence.

RG: Let’s set the stage a little bit. Let’s start around the earthquake and, also, the election of 2010. That seems to be a defining moment that sets the course for now. So, talk a little bit about this wild election of 2010.

JJ: So, as you’ve mentioned, this was 2010. There was a devastating earthquake, a huge earthquake that hit just outside of Port-au-Prince in January 2010. Hundreds of thousands, up to a million displaced, up to hundreds of thousands of dead. It’s hard to overstate the destruction of this earthquake and the ripple effects that it had for the whole country.

That’s obviously a really challenging environment to hold an election in, right? A million people displaced, where are they supposed to vote? Do they even have their documentation? Things like this. But this was also a moment of extreme importance for the international community. And when we talk about the international community in Haiti, we’re talking predominantly about the United States.

There were $10 billion pledged from Governments across the world to “build back better,” which is a phrase that keeps getting recycled in various different contexts. 

RG: It’s just too good. You’ve got to keep using it.

JJ: Too vague and too good to not keep using it.

So, that was the mantra. There’s all this money. Bill Clinton was the special envoy in Haiti, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state at the time. So this was not just important in terms of the money, but this is a political thing.

RG: She was sending Cheryl Mills over there, her chief of staff.

JJ: Yeah, all the time, right? Exactly. So there was high level interest in this process, and that meant there was a lot riding on this electoral process, and getting a government that could be the desirable ally that we have looked for in Haiti for a very long time, and failed to achieve, certainly from the U.S. perspective. And so, there was a lot riding on this vote, and a lot of challenges to doing it.

And so, it was really pushed forward by these international actors. [They’re saying] OK, we have to have this vote, we need to have this vote. So they scheduled it about nine months after the earthquake, and it was, quite predictably, a mess, right? It was really difficult. People were turned away from the voting polls.

And that day of the election, around midday, a number of political parties held a press conference. And there’s an interesting note. I get into this in the book: the statement had been drafted ahead of time, the room had been reserved ahead of time. This was a coordinated effort. But, [at] midday, on the election, a group of parties come together and denounce the whole thing as a fraud, accused the government — then led by René Préval — of orchestrating this huge fraudulent plan to choose his new leader, denouncing the whole electoral process, and setting off street protests, both in the capital and in rural areas, that shut down the vote entirely.

And so, hours after that, there’s a meeting at the headquarters of the chief U.N. diplomat in Haiti. And this goes back to a little more context, but the U.N. has had a permanent presence in Haiti for the last 20 years, a political mission on the ground that has served, in a lot of ways, as sort of a de facto fourth branch of government in Haiti. And they convened all the diplomats together and The Haitian prime minister at the time. And actually discussed at that meeting sending a plane to take the president and fly him out of the country. At this point, it was no longer an election, this wasn’t about democracy. This was just a political problem to be solved, right? And it goes on from there.

Of course, when we actually get the results of the election a few days later, it shows an extremely tight race between three candidates, which generates more chaos and more confusion and what’s going to happen. And, in that context, the U.S. reached an agreement, put some pressure to the Haitian government to bring the organization of American states — this is the regional grouping, all of the hemispheres governments — to come in, analyze the vote, and give the true accounting of what happened.

But what they ended up doing, without any full recount of the votes — without any statistical analysis of the 20 percent of the vote that never even showed up at the tabulation center — is they just changed the results. And they took the government-preferred candidate out, and they put this individual and ostensible newcomer to Haitian politics — a popular musician, Michel Martelly — into the all-important second-round vote. And he eventually went on to win the presidency. 

RG: And Michel Martelly, in my understanding — you know Haiti and U.S. foreign policy better — this was Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton’s candidate. Like, this is who they wanted to see make it through.

JJ: Yeah, I’d say this: I think there are often crimes of opportunity, right? And so, whether this was their candidate from the beginning, or whether there was a moment—

RG: This is a guy we can do business with.

JJ: Exactly. Was recognizing that, [of] what was on the table in front of them, this was the one they wanted, right? And I think there was that choice that was made. And Martelly and his campaign had a lot of help. I mean, this was the time where there was a lot of celebrity interest in Haiti. You had big name Hollywood stars showing up on the ground, Sean Penn was down there, right? Later became an ambassador-at-large for the Martelly government. Big musicians, Wyclef, Pras. So, there was a lot of tension and high-level focus.

And Martelly is a showman, right? That’s his background. He’s a stage persona, and I think he played into that really well, and fooled a lot of people.

RG: And your assertion here that they just changed the votes, that’s not just a supposition on your part.

You and I were talking yesterday about this radio interview that has bounced around Haiti for years now. The head of the electoral commission, years afterwards, went on the radio with a journalist. We can play a very tiny clip of it, [but] it’s not in English.

[Interview audio plays]

RG: Tell us basically what the head of this election commission is claiming here. Claiming isn’t the word; admitting to and apologizing for is, I think, a better way of putting it. 

JJ: I mean, in most simple terms, he’s saying, “the results we presented were not the actual results.”

RG: Directly from the head of the election.

JJ: That’s what he’s saying. And it’s also, it’s not just the head of the electoral council. There were members of the electoral council who denounced this as it was happening. We did our own — the organization I work for, the Center for Economic and Policy Research — we transcribed by hand 12,000 tally sheets that were processed by the electoral council and posted online, and ran our own statistical tests to see where the fraud was happening and what was going on.

And it’s not that there was no fraud. The real lesson here is that any choice about who was going to advance out of this process where the vote was shut down halfway through the election on election day, where a million people were displaced and turned away from the voting polls, where 20 percent of the vote never even got counted or brought to the— It was going to be a political decision. You couldn’t tell who won this election, right? It was that flawed.

And so, you had to understand that any answer they gave was going to be political, unless you reran the election. And the government actually offered to do that, and it was flatly rejected by the international community.

RG: And so, you use the phrase “aid state” as the title of your book. What to you is an aid state, and how does Michelle Martelly and his gang fit into that?

JJ: Yeah. So, I use it because it’s really easy, I think, for folks coming in and out, or seeing Haiti pop up in the news once a decade, or something like that. When there’s a crisis, you look at Haiti and you say, oh, this is a failed state. The impression that that gives is [that] Haiti can’t govern itself. Of course, more outside intervention is the answer to what’s happening.

And so, “Aid State” is really trying to push back on that as a narrative, and to broaden our understanding of what has led to the failures we see. And that involves not just Haitians; and, in fact, maybe in a leading role, non-Haitians, and, particularly, foreign governments. And, again, the United States government, who’ve played an outsized role in Haitian affairs, certainly over the last few decades. But this is obviously a story that Haitians know go back centuries, to its independence, successful slave revolts, a country punished by the rest of the world for its freedom, right?

And so, there’s a long history there, this dynamic has existed. But I think, really, over the last 20 years, and especially since the earthquake, this influx of foreign assistance of outside assistance and support has had really negative political implications.

And so, the way Martelly, I think, fits into this most directly is, again, through this electoral process, he was then in power. And then you had all of these international actors whose interest was supporting this new person in power, getting all of their projects done. Ribbon cutting ceremonies, big brochures and flashy things, and celebrity intrigue. It was something other than the interest of the Haitian people at stake here. And so, he was sort of the frontman for this whole thing, but the results of that are twofold: one, these aid policies totally undermined local organizations, the state itself. And two, Martelly was in power, systematically dismantling those institutions from the inside as well.

And instead of saying, whoa, whoa, whoa, why are we backing this guy as all of these democratic checks and balances and corruptions start to proliferate? We just continually backed that because, for the United States, for external actors, the priority in Haiti has almost always been short term stability over all else.

RG: I think for a lot of well-meaning people who are following the tragic saga of Haiti over the last decades and centuries, they often throw their hands up and say, “what a shame, what a mess, we really don’t have any other choice other than to have the U.N. send in a peacekeeping force, or we just need to take control of this of the situation from them,” without thinking, that is what external forces have been doing to Haiti for decades. 

Yet we continue to think, well, the problem must be the Haitians. It can’t be the thing that we keep doing year after year after year. We just need to do it better and harder, and this time we’ll do it.

JJ: And we’ll learn our lessons, right, we’ll learn from our past mistakes. 

RG: Right. And so, in that context, I want to talk about some of the internal Haitian politics that you touch on in the book, and I hope that listeners can think about it through the lens of the constant screwups, the constant making things worse that the West has brought to bear when it comes to Haiti, rather than thinking, OK, well, it’s a real shame, the U.N. needs to send in a bunch of Kenyans to crack down. To think, well, maybe not. What if that’s not the thing to do? What if we’re going to get the same result from that that we got all these other times?

So, a couple of characters in your book that I wanted to linger on: Guy Philippe, who has such an absolutely fascinating life story. A police officer who runs death squads and leads a coup, but is a much more complicated figure today.

So, who is Guy Philippe? 

JJ: This is a fun history here with Guy. Guy’s story in a lot of ways starts in the early 90s. He was trained in Ecuador, actually, he was training to become part of the military in Haiti. Ecuador, strong presence of U.S. military at the time. Human Rights Watch said he received U.S. training at this time in Ecuador, and he’s there with a cadre of other people training to become military officers. When they come back to Haiti, they come back to the recently restored Jean Bertrand-Aristide, who was overthrown in a military coup in 1991.

So, in ’95, he actually disbands the military. Says this military for decades, being involved with coups, internal repression. We don’t face external threats, we face internal threats, and the military is not for that.

RG: The Dominican Republic is not invading.

JJ: Exactly. So, the military gets disbanded, and that leaves a bunch of these new recruits — including Guy Philippe — with nowhere to land.

RG: Like De-Ba’athification did in 2003.

JJ: And, at the same time, there’s a new police force being stood up in Haiti with a lot of international support. Vetting officers, overseeing who’s getting put into it. And a bunch of these military, trained for the military, get incorporated into this new police force, including Guy Phillipe, and a number of other former military or people trained for the military are put into positions of leadership in the police.

And, in 2000, Guy Philippe leads an attempted coup or attack on the National Palace, then held by René Préval, the president. But he was about to hold an election, and the most likely outcome was Aristide’s return to power in 2001.

RG: So it was really against Aristide.

JJ: A preemptive strike to stop Aristide from coming back to office.

After that, this is denounced. OK, Préval, this is a coup. And kicks off from the police — a number of these section chiefs or people who control different communities in Haiti — a big group of them who were involved in this are all trained in Ecuador, this is a little clique. And they flee to the Dominican Republic, get safe haven from the Dominican authorities there, and basically set up shop across the border, and begin organizing, training, and coordinating to lead paramilitary assaults on Haiti, which they begin in earnest a number of years later in 2004.

And that is the paramilitary side of, again, not the only reason or the only factor in the overthrow of Aristide in 2004, but certainly a significant player in that effort.

RG: And so, he has hinted that he had links to the U.S. Do you think that’s accurate? And, also, what was his beef with Aristide?

JJ: Yeah. His beef with Aristide. I mean, this is a guy who has said just about everything over the years, right? He’s an admirer of Che and Fidel, but also Bush and Pinochet, OK? So, what his ideology is here [is] very much unclear, or what his ultimate goal is, I think, is also a little bit unclear.

What we know is that he was also deeply involved with drug trafficking at the time. I think as much of anything, from what I understand, there was some sort of a beef over control of the drug trade.

In terms of U.S. support, there’s no doubt that there was general U.S. support for the coup. The U.S. was trying to undermine the Aristide government from the moment they stepped foot in office. And so, there was a certain shared goal in that regard with Guy.

RG: He was involved in ousting him the first time.

JJ: Exactly. So, going to something in the book, I cite a former CIA analyst who was looking at this at the time, and sees this group of guys in the Dominican Republic, and is like, they’ve got good logistics, good comms, they seem to be getting all these big arms. Like, OK, what’s going on? You know, is this us? Was the CIA doing this?

According to him, he looks into it. No, it wasn’t the CIA, but it was the State Department that was actually providing this support. And at the time, the State Department has a number of these cold warriors who had been around in the early ’90s when Aristide was overthrown the first time, and they’ve come back, and just tried to overthrow Chavez in Venezuela; Chavez was the only one in Latin America who actually denounced the coup against Aristide in 2004.

So, there are all of these players and connections. And there’s something obviously much bigger than just Haiti, right? This was a concern of the neocons inside the Bush administration at the time.

And so, I think the best evidence we have is that that was the main U.S. support for this effort. It was actually through the State Department. 

RG: And so, then Guy Philippe, gets, what? Kind of backstabbed a little bit? He’s successful in coup-ing Aristide, but he doesn’t really manage to take power. And then it seems like he slinks away back to obscurity for a while.

JJ: Yeah, there’s a certain parallel to what we’re seeing now, where Guy is going around and claiming himself to be president.

At the time, his threat of force was almost leverage to push Aristide out, right? Not necessarily a direct threat to Aristide, but provided the leverage necessary to push Aristide out.

So, he made deals with many people in the private sector who were pushing for Aristide out, civil society, etc. He was the muscle behind this political effort to topple Aristide; or, at least, the perceived muscle. But, once Aristide’s gone, nobody wants him to be the one in power, or his buddies.

And so, exactly. He gets basically ditched by the people who had just been using him to seek this overthrow, and basically fades [away]. Originally, his base of support is in the Grand Anse. It’s one of the most remote parts of Haiti. It’s in the Southern Peninsula, all the way at the tip there, and that is where he stayed for most of the next decade, but he pretty quickly found himself on the DA’s most wanted fugitive list.

Those drug connections came out pretty quickly after this, and there were a few high-profile raids, helicopters—

RG: And he says he’s framed. He says this was—

JJ: Because he did plead guilty — eventually we can get to this part of the story — he gets arrested many years later after winning a Senate seat, in fact.

RG: So, he runs for Senate in these later elections. He believes, probably, this is a coming-out-of-the-shadows, this is becoming legit. You write in the book about the bandits becoming legal in this election.

So, talk about that one. 

JJ: Yeah. “Bandi legal,” which is “legal bandits.” It was the name of a song, one of Martelly’s popular kompa songs from back in the day. So, these guys have power and then they’re making it a reality.

Again, [this] gets into this concept of an aid state, and how this intervention plays out, because it’s not just public services that have been outsourced through aid programs; it’s elections themselves. Foreign donors are funding the electoral apparatus, they’re providing training to the electoral council and the polling staff. They’re writing the rules of the game, right? The electoral law, the law and political parties. These are drafted with the consultation of foreign experts. And then, ultimately, it’s a foreign entity that deems it legitimate or not.

And so, there were a few changes in the runup to this election. One, you only needed 20 signatures to create a political party, so you had this massive proliferation of parties. Hundreds participating in this, because you get access to resources, access to voting booths, [which] can be manipulated, but they also removed a criminal check in the electoral law. And so, even people who had criminal backgrounds, have been arrested, were perfectly allowed to run in this electoral process, and Guy Philippe is certainly one of those.

And so, he participates, and there’s no doubt that he has a certain base. We can be honest about that. And he won the election, and was set to take office in January, 2017.

Now, it’s interesting, because here we see these Faustian bargains that are made all the time in Haiti with international community brokers. So, that electoral process, it was so fraudulent, so problematic, that they ended up having to throw out the presidential results altogether and re-hold the election. But all of the deputies and senators elected in that process? Well, they agreed to swear them all into office, because Haiti needed some functioning institutions. You need somebody to work with.

So, with the U.N. and the U.S., they swore in a legislature full of bandi legal, right? I mean, they had just dominated an electoral process marred by violence and fraud, and who wins in that environment? 

RG: And, as you point out, too, the Haitian people are not idiots. They had recognized that these elections were fraudulent. And so, participation in them had dwindled quite low, which makes it even easier to go ahead and just kind of—

JJ: Exactly, that low electoral bias. So, this electoral process had about 20 percent participation, right?

RG: It looks like American levels, it’s so low.

JJ: Yes, faith in institutions might be even lower in Haiti than here. But in all seriousness, in that environment, it takes very little to actually secure political office, right? And you’re talking about not that many votes that you need to get the spot that you’re looking for.

RG: All right. So, he then winds up locked up. How does Guy Phillipe go from senator to a federal prison inmate? 

JJ: Yeah. So, certainly, this was just a few weeks before he was set to be sworn in, maybe even less days. And he went into the Capitol, to Port-au-Prince, he had largely stayed in his base of support during the campaign and electoral process, but he shows up in the Capitol and goes on the radio.

And somebody got a tip somewhere that he was there. And that’s how they found him, they showed up and they arrested him. There’s a whole sort of saga of DA agents driving him around Port-au-Prince trying to avoid political actors in Haiti who are lobbying to have him released but, of course, he’s quickly sent off to the U.S.; “extradition” is sort of a difficult word to use in this context, because there’s no real legal process—

RG: Rendition seems like a more accurate term.

JJ: Totally fair, right? I mean, there’s a reason why the U.S. arrests a lot of high-profile people in Haiti and brings them there for drug trafficking, because you don’t actually need to go through an extradition process.

RG: You throw them in a van, put them on a plane, and you’re in Miami. 

JJ: You got them in U.S. custody.

So, that is what they did with Guy. And I think you can criticize that. Guy certainly did, and plenty of Haitian politicians did, whatever their motivations may be.

But, fast-forward six plus years, Guy just got out of prison.

RG: And he pled guilty to drug trafficking.

JJ: He pled guilty to a lesser charge.

RG: He was going to get convicted no matter what. I mean, he was saying he was set up, basically, right? But no chance of fighting it.

JJ: Yeah, and he blames ineffective counsel, and appealed this multiple times, and fought it out. He got a nine-year sentence. He pled guilty to money laundering related to drug trafficking, based on money laundering for drug proceeds, and coordinating with the Colombian cartels and corrupt police officers to facilitate the entry of drugs into Haiti and, eventually, onto the United States.

He served just over six years, and then was released this last fall, when he was then held in an ICE detention center for about two months while the Haitian government and U.S. governments negotiated, discussed, debated, figured out what the hell they were going to do with this guy. And they ended up deporting him back to Haiti with a planeload of other people from ICE detention centers in November of 2023.

RG: What I hear from Haitian sources [was], after he came back, he’s even more eloquent in his revolutionary speechifying, he spent a lot of time in prison reading revolutionary tracts. And he’s always kind of had, like you said, he talked about Fidel, he talked about Che, but he also talked about Pinochet. But now he seems crisper in his kind of revolutionary PR, and seems wildly popular.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but he does seem like a powerful figure at this moment now. What a wild turn of events. 

JJ: It is certainly wild. I think, for me, personally, and I think a lot of folks in Haiti, they don’t necessarily believe the rhetoric, right?

RG: Of course.

JJ: But I think you do have to understand that he is saying things that appeal to a lot of people, right?

RG: And what is he saying? What’s his message, generally?

JJ: A perfect example is his response to this new presidential council. Which is, negotiate with these external actors, with CARICOM, with the United States. And he says, the time of foreign powers picking our leaders is over. It’s up to Haitians to determine our future. That’s something that’s going to resonate with people in Haiti, right? He said one thing that I think is not a particularly popular opinion in Haiti, is amnesty for these armed groups.

But there’s an important thing to flesh out here, because he actually went on to explain what he meant by that, right? And he said, we need to understand the networks that financed these armed groups. Who armed them? What are the political connections, what are the connections with the private sector, with the business elite? Because we know that these connections exist. If we ever want to do something to stop this, we need to understand the system that we’ve created and unwind it.

And, again, I don’t think he’s the one to do that, I don’t think he wants to do that. But he’s not wrong, and he’s the one making that case. And I think that’s a really dangerous thing. I think it is a risk to underestimate his ability to obtain significant popular support.

RG: And so, when he was running for senate, he campaigned with Jovenel Moïse — who’s the president who was assassinated back in 2021 — who was, himself, had kind of a— Would you call it an alliance with the G9 and the gangs in Port-au-Prince, or some type of an understanding?

Let’s talk about Moïse a little bit, and his politics.

JJ: Yeah. So, Jovenel Moïse was the handpicked successor to Martelly. And Martelly made this plan pretty clear from the get go: he’s my choice, he’s going to come into power, he serves his five-year term, and then I’m coming back. You can’t do consecutive terms in Haiti.

RG: Like Putin did, you need to break it up a little bit.

JJ: Right. So, he was the guy to break it up, and he was a strategic choice. He was from outside of Port-au-Prince. This is a country, a nation where you have the Republic of Port-au-Prince, and then everything else. And the government is basically absent in everyone’s lives outside of Port-au-Prince, and even large parts of Port-au-Prince, which is a bigger dynamic we can talk about.

He was a rural entrepreneur, an agricultural guy who had this banana plantation. His nickname in the campaign was “the banana man.” And they’ve done a lot of work on this. I went up to the banana plantation. I mean, it was a way to launder state money to your preferred candidate. It was never a successful banana exporting operation at all.

But it did succeed in giving him a mantra, a name recognition. And, again, this was a deeply flawed electoral process with very low participation, but he did eventually emerge victorious from that process, and take office in 2017. But he faced immediate hurdles in office.

I think, again, we say, oh, there was just an election. Why doesn’t this government have a mandate? Why don’t they have legitimacy? Well, you got 500,000 votes in a country of 12 million people. It just doesn’t actually mean that much to most people. So it’s about what you do, right? And how you can build a coalition once in power to actually govern and deliver for the population.

And there’s a dynamic that’s played out in Haiti for a very long time, where political leaders in Haiti are more responsive, and get their legitimacy from external actors, generally the United States. So if you have the support of the U.S., it sort of gives you carte blanche to not bother building that domestic base or that political coalition in the country, because you perceive that you can just go on. If you have U.S. Support, nothing can stop you, right?

And I think, in the end, that was ultimately Moise’s undoing, was that he failed to build any sort of coalition or broad coalition to actually govern Haiti. And, at each moment of crisis, when the terms of parliament expired and he was ruling by decree, when people said his mandate expired and he should leave office, instead of broadening your support, instead of reaching a deal with opponents, the U.S. came in and said, nope, we still recognize him. Nope. You have another year in your term. And that empowered him to push forward in his agenda that faced stronger and stronger and stronger rejection, and ultimately ended in his assassination in July of 2021.

RG: You see the same dynamic, I think, in Israel, that anytime Israel would encounter difficulties negotiating with the Palestinian interlocutors over the last decades, they would just say, well, the U.S. has our back anyway. We have zero incentive to compromise one inch.

Israeli political parties that urged compromise were then undermined, because the hard right would be like, well, compromise? Why? Uncle Sam’s got us to the hilt.

So then, let’s talk about Barbecue. Let me tell his, like— I don’t know if it’s a fantasy or not, but it’s the story that kind of Barbecue supporters tell of him. And, if it were true, it would be the most incredible Marvel backstory you could ever possibly imagine.

So, imagine you’ve got a kid, his mom sells barbecue on the side of the street. He becomes known as “Jimmy Barbecue,” he becomes a police officer, widely regarded as one of the best police officers in Port-au-Prince. 

He serves more than ten years, and then his enemies — his corrupt enemies on the inside — falsely accused him of involvement in a massacre or several massacres. And he’s eventually, as a result, forced out of the police department.

That kind of origin story turns him into this Robin Hood gangster superhero who’s going to take vengeance out in the areas that he controls. He’s a just Robin Hood, and has become the spokesperson for this gang or this network of nine gangs, who are now in a revolutionary effort. They seize power in Haiti for the Haitian people.

That’s the kind of Marvel version of Barbecue’s story. So, tell us who is Barbecue. It’s a good story, right?

JJ: It’s a fascinating story. I share your, you know, if it was real, it would be great.

RG: Yes. It’d be incredible.

JJ: And yet it’s not. So, Chérizier is somebody who I’ve been familiar with, investigated, looked into for a long time. So, yes, I think that is probably how he got his nickname, he was indeed a police officer in Port-au-Prince.

RG: He was indeed accused of being involved in massacres.

JJ: Yeah, but this is an interesting little bit, because I think going into the origins of his separation from the police forces is illustrative.

So, a lot of attention has been focused on this massacre in La Saline where two politically connected armed groups clashing over turf resulted in up to 70 civilians dead, OK? And Barbecue Chérizier has been publicly alleged to have been involved in that. But the story of Chérizier begins before that, right? It begins almost exactly a year before that, at a school in the Grand Ravine neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, which is an incredibly impoverished part of the city. And there was a police shooting at that school.

I was in Haiti at the time, and the reports, a bunch of people dead at the school shooting, nobody really knew what was happening. And just a few days after it, I went down to the school with a reporter from Al Jazeera who had the car and the logistics to actually get me there. And we started talking to the people there.

There was a ceremony happening at the school, family members and community members who had lost people in the crime, in the massacre, and whatever had happened, we were trying to figure it out. The courtyard, littered with bullet shells. Big bullet shells, right? Blood still on the ground, staining the courtyard.

And people told the story of what happened, which was: there was a police operation, an anti-gang operation in the neighborhood, and police believe that there were people they were after hiding on the school grounds. And this school, it’s sort of an oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle. It’s got big trees in a place where there are very few trees, it’s got a surrounding wall. It was a refuge.

But the police come into the school. They say, where are these guys? They say, nobody’s here, nobody’s here. But then the director of the school hears from one of his staff that, actually, there’s a few guys hiding in this shed on the property. And they tell the police that.

The police open the shed doors, and the guys inside shoot and kill two police officers. And the story that was told from the dozens of people we talked to on the ground that day was, after that, the police turned and took vengeance on the school director, on the teachers of the school, and on people who were present there, and beat them in the courtyard, shot them, and killed nine people that day.

And, at the time when I’m doing all of this, I didn’t know who Chérizier was, right?

RG: What year is this?

JJ: This is 2017. November, 2017.

RG: He’s still a cop then?

JJ: Yeah. Oh yeah. He was a member of the police force then.

What was interesting to me at the time was, I was interested in the role of the United Nations police. At that time in 2017, there were more than a thousand foreign police officers stationed in Haiti, and they were running help, they were backing up this anti-gang operation. And so, at the time of this shooting taking place at the school, U.N. police officers were guarding the perimeter of the school. I didn’t even know who the Haitian police officers were.

But there was an investigation launched, and the Haitian inspector general called those officers who were present at the school that day to give their story. And, instead of showing up to participate in that process, Chérizier blocked himself in his neighborhood and got into a shootout with the police, and that was his separation from the force.

He stayed on the payroll and continued to receive money from the police for well over a year, until after the La Saline massacre. But he was divorced from the police then, and that’s, really, what caused this.

And so, there’s a lot of focus on these other things, but I think it’s important to back up and tell that full story. Because this wasn’t some psyop. I mean, this wasn’t an effort to tarnish Chérizier. At the time, nobody even knew who he was. This was just a massacre at a school, and it seemed like justice was important.

RG: So how did he become the dominant gang leader?

JJ: First, we have to push back, even on that narrative.

He’s the most outspoken. He is the spokesperson for this large alliance of armed groups in the capital that we’ve seen sort of starting to work together over the last couple of weeks.

RG: They call themselves, what? The revolutionary armed something-something?

JJ: The new moniker for the big, broader Group is “Viv Ansanm,” live together, which is ironic.

But he is the most outspoken. He might have the most political ambition of any of these armed group leaders, but he’s certainly not the most powerful. And what’s really changed here — this is an interesting dynamic — Chérizier presented himself over recent years, he adopted this sort of revolutionary rhetoric— That was not always the case, that came later, once he was isolated from his prior world.

He framed himself as, I’m the one who’s fighting the bad guys. I’m protecting my neighborhood, but I’m opposed to the kidnapping, to the rapes, to these other groups. I’m protecting my territory and my people from their attacks, right? That was his narrative.

But now, over the last two weeks, this new alliance, the Viv Ansanm, live together, is his direct alliance with those armed groups that he at least claimed to be fighting over the last number of years. And that’s where the power is coming from. The muscle, right? The resources. Because the actual most powerful armed group in Haiti is under the control of a guy, Izo, who is a wannabe rap artist who puts everything he does on TikTok. It is streamed live to everybody, and he got a YouTube Creators Award last year, because of all the followers he has on YouTube. They then suspended his account shortly thereafter.

RG: They’re like, oh, wait a minute. He’s doing it through murder.

JJ: When there was an attack on the National Penitentiary a few weeks ago — which was sort of one of the early events in the last two weeks of chaotic news coming out of Haiti — Izo was flying a drone over it, and the footage from the drone was being broadcast on Tik Tok. None of this was a surprise, but you could see it happening on social media in real time, from these guys, OK?

So, I just want to say that because he’s getting a lot of attention right now, Chérizier. And [it’s] understandable, he’s the one talking. But he’s not the only one fighting right now. He’s not the only one controlling armed groups, and he’s certainly not the one with the most actual firepower.

RG: So, Kenya is now bucking the United States, actually, a little bit. Kenya, in the last couple of days, has said the resignation of Ariel Henry — who replaced Moïse — means that they want a new government in place that will invite them in. The U.S., at their briefing this week, said, no, it’s good, Henry’s team signed it. It’s still legal, it doesn’t matter what.

And they’re also saying, the condition for joining this transitional government is that you have to invite in this foreign force. So, Kenya, don’t worry, you’re still invited, and the U.S. is picking up the tab. They’re balking at it because it’s going to be a debacle for them. They can see that happening.

What would happen if nobody sends in troops? How does this get sorted out? Is there a world where Guy Philippe and the G9 just actually take power? What other domestic power is there in Haiti that isn’t just built in hotel rooms in Texas or Jamaica?

JJ: Yeah, I think there’s a few dynamics to try and provide a little context to it, right? Part of what this has been about, and the proliferation of armed groups, and the strengthening of armed groups in Haiti, is about control.

So, they really took off in 2018, really gained power there. It was a pretty direct response to a nationwide anti-corruption movement that was hundreds of thousands of people in the street. That was the threat, and that’s when you started seeing massacres, that’s when you started seeing fights for territory, that’s when you started seeing higher-powered weaponry getting into the hands of these armed groups, more money flowing in. 

There are connections to bigger interests, private sector interests, elite interests, political interests, right? Unsaid and unspoken about in Haiti are the oligarchs, these families— And we know the names and we probably don’t say them enough, and we probably don’t say them specifically enough, which probably has something to do with their litigious nature. 

RG: I noticed there’s some of those names in your book.

JJ: There’s a couple. We’ll see what I hear back. But, you know, we need to understand this context, that this was created for control. But the reality is, you can say, oh, well, let the Haitian people decide. The Haitian people are locked down right now in the capital. People can’t organize, people can’t take to the streets to express themselves. So, what we’re seeing, what we’re hearing is tightly controlled. And so it’s hard to judge where this real support lies.

What is the average person? I mean, I can still tell you what I hear talking to my friends in Haiti, everyone can tell you their— There’s, obviously, like any place, a diverse array of opinions across Haitian society about all of these issues, right?

One thing we understand is, there is capacity. It’s not [that] everybody in Haiti is crooked or unable to do this. There are highly trained and highly professional people in Haiti who want to do something about the security situation. I think there needed to be a change in leadership and governance in Haiti to facilitate that process, to give some encouragements, morale back to the police, who’ve been saying for weeks and months and years that the leadership of the police is not supporting us, our government is not supporting us. Police officers aren’t even getting paid their salary right now, and we’re surprised that they’re ceding certain ground or not risking their life on a daily basis.

So, we’re talking about spending $600 million on a one-year mission of a thousand Kenyans, and maybe a couple hundred from other countries. That’s three times the Haitian police’s annual budget.

So, I think it’s not just what exists there now, but also, if we’re going to do something to help, what kind of help are we actually providing? Are we importing security, or are we going to try and help Haiti provide a sustainable goal path forward for themselves?

RG: About a year ago, you had the Bwa Kale movement take off. What does it mean, cut the grass?

JJ: Cut it.

RG: Cut it, yeah. Which seemed to be a pretty organic anti-gang and anti-corruption movement from regular people, which turned— Well, it didn’t turn violent. It basically began violently, based on the name, as you can imagine.

JJ: Citizen justice, right? I mean, this was a population. And, again, I mentioned this earlier but, at the root of so much of what we see in Haiti is the absence of the state in people’s lives, right? A broken social contract, a state that is not accountable to or representative of the vast majority of the Haitian people.

You survive, you take things into your own hands, you do whatever you can. And the abandonment of these communities, you totally understand this movement of vigilante justice.

RG: Did it have any success in taking back territory from the gangs?

JK: 100 percent. It was a significant change in the dynamics, for sure. And there was also police involvement too.  

RG: It was teamed up with police in a populist way. There were some police officers. What’s his name? Sniper? This famous guy, famous populist figure. You saw these police kind of almost disobeying orders from the very top, and joining in with the vigilantes. And just murdering— 

JJ: Look, this is a lesson. Community policing is more effective, right? You need ties in the community if you actually want to give that community security.

And we’ve seen that happen. The Bwa Kale as a movement petered out a little bit for, I think, various reasons, but this is still happening in Haiti to a certain extent. Neighborhoods are putting up barricades and working with the police officers who either live in that community or have a base somewhere near there. They’re not going to sit back and take this, right? This is the real lesson of Haitian history, is resistance is real, and they are going to fight for their own future. And that process is playing out.

RG: I wanted to finish by playing this clip from the State Department briefing, where I was at this week. And this is an exchange between me and State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller. I wanted to just get your kind of general reaction to it.

Matt MillerThe multinational security support mission will be there at the invitation of the Haitian government. That is a key prerequisite for their deployment, and it’s what the—

RG: But you guys just made that government in Jamaica.

Matt Miller: It’s what the— Hold on. It’s what the Kenyan government said in their statement. They have to have a government that has invited them with which they can collaborate, and it’s why they’re looking for the appointment of this presidential transition council and, ultimately, a new prime minister. And, ultimately, a new government.

But when it comes to what just happened in Jamaica, again, this was a collaboration of CARICOM leaders, Haitian civil society, the United States, Canada, France, Mexico, Brazil, all of whom have an interest in seeing stability, and all of whom have the same goal, which is to address the immediate security situation on the ground, restore calm, restore peace, restore law and order for Haitians, and then establish the conditions in which free and fair elections can take place. That is our only goal. It’s what we’ve been trying to achieve from the beginning, it’s what we’re continuing to try to achieve.

RG: Are there any Haitians that the U.S. would not allow to come to power through that process?

Matt Miller: There’s not a question of the United States allowing anyone to come to power. Ultimately, as I said, that is a question for the Haitian people.

RG: What jumped out at you from that, from the State Department perspective? 

JJ: Two things. One, the idea that it will be up to a new Haitian government to determine the security assistance they need from external powers, what we’ve been talking about. A condition of joining the new government was accepting the deal that the government that now everyone sort of acknowledges was an illegitimate de facto authority that was doing nothing good, negotiated with Kenya at the urging of the U.S., and that the U.S. plans on funding, right? So, that was a condition for joining the government, so to present that as a Haitian-led process is obviously ludicrous.

And the other thing is just the concept of this as a Haitian-led solution. I do want to say one thing, which is that Haitians have been pushing for a political dialogue, for a political negotiation with Henry to broaden governance, to check his power, to put some structures in place, since the day he took office. And those efforts have been rebuffed over and over and over again. And that same dynamic we saw with U.S. support giving a leader that de facto authority to just push forward no matter the cost of that U.S. support, that’s what’s played out over the last three years.

The situation got worse and worse. The U.S. stayed by Henry, undermined these negotiations, and now presents it like, well, we’ve been asking for a year for a broad-based governance in Haiti. And, rhetorically, sure, they’ve given some lip service to that, but the reality is, they undermine that at every step of the way.

So, to now come out and say, oh, it’s the Haitian-led process. Well, if you had backed it six months ago, a year ago, there may have been an opportunity for Haitians to come around a table, to do this in a more open, democratic way, to speak to the Haitian population as this is going on. But now it’s happening with a literal and figurative gun to everyone’s head, happening in Kingston, Jamaica, where the Haitian participants can’t even fly there because the airports closed. They’re participating on Zoom, right?  And the urgency of making an agreement in 24 hours because you’ve got Chérizier, and armed groups, and Guy Philippe, demanding power, right? 

And so, that puts the Haitians who are trying to come up with a solution in an absurdly difficult bind. So the optics of this whole thing of, of submitting your proposal for governance to a board of foreign leaders who are going to come up with the appropriate pattern is ugly, right? And I think you’ve even heard it from a few people who are participating, that this process was not appropriate.

But the broader framework of trying to balance power, of getting a bunch of people on a presidential council to try and negotiate together. This is, in broad strokes, what has been negotiated and discussed by plenty of actors in Haiti over a period of a year and a half, two years. This didn’t start 24 hours ago. 

RG: Right. Jake, thanks so much for joining me. Really appreciate it.

JJ: Hey, it’s a pleasure to be here.

RG: Alright, that was Jake Johnston. The book is “Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti.” And that is our show. 

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. This episode was produced by Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. Legal review by David Bralow, Sean Musgrave, and Elizabeth Sanchez. Leonardo Faierman transcribed this episode. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw.

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Posted March 23, 2024