A wave of mass struggle has surged in Haiti, anti-regime riots and protests washing over the country over the last nine weeks. Sparked by fuel price increases, the protests have linked dire living conditions to the unelected Prime Minister Ariel Henry.
The protests are part of a larger movement that began in 2018 in response to a series of economic, social, and political crises. The ruling clique around Henry is associated with the deeply unpopular right-wing Haitian Tèt Kale Party, which was in power from 2016 to 2021 under President Jovenel Moïse but also has close links to both the current government and to Michel Martelly, who was the president from 2010 to 2015.
From the end of last year, the mass movement slowed, but protests were renewed on 21 August demanding action on fuel shortages and inflation. In response, Prime Minister Henry announced the end of government subsidies. Haitians already unable to afford petrol, diesel and kerosene faced a doubling of prices. The protests moved into a new phase, in which thousands embraced the tactic of “peyi lok”, meaning country lockdown, which was used throughout 2018 and 2019 to halt all economic activity.
From the capital of Port-au-Prince to all major cities and even small towns, protesters have built barricades with wood, bricks, metal, even cars and trucks, which they often set on fire. These have served to shut down the country and to impede police, who have used tear gas and live ammunition in unsuccessful efforts to repress riots and protests.
Protesters have burned and looted banks, courthouses, politicians’ homes and cars, UN buildings, and the French and American embassies, along with food storage from international charities that has failed to meet the needs of the Haitian people.
The key demand at this point is for the resignation of Henry. But slogans have emerged acknowledging that this will not be enough. Protesters in recent weeks have begun chanting for “Dechoukaj” (uprooting), a term that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s when workers, students and the urban poor overthrew the right-wing Duvalier dictatorship, which had ruled since 1957.
The governments of Martelly, Moïse and Henry have overseen ultra-neoliberal programs, growing authoritarianism and a massive corruption scandal in which billions of dollars vanished from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program, which was promised for Haitian infrastructure. Protesters believe this money went straight into the pockets of the rich, including into a company run by Moïse at the time.
At the same time, the government sold off massive tracts of farmland to foreign companies, compounding the food insecurity faced by around 4.5 million Haitians. Inflation soared, reaching 20 percent under President Moïse, and is now around 30 percent. For years, the International Monetary Fund has demanded austerity in return for its predatory loans, notably in 2018, when President Moïse cut fuel subsidies, which was a spark for the 2018 protests.
Moïse used his presidential powers to sack judges and political opponents who tried to restrict his powers or investigate him for corruption. He dissolved the parliament and ruled by decree after cancelling elections in October 2019. The last battle between Moïse and the masses occurred when he refused to step down at the end of his term in February 2020.
Moïse was assassinated in his home in July last year. Ariel Henry emerged as the head of state following Moïse’s death and was able to use the promise of elections and political stability in the wake of the assassination to quell the anti-Moïse protests.
He hasn’t delivered on those promises. Elections have still not been held, and economic misery has worsened. With no end in sight to the crises that arose under Martelly and Moïse, larger layers continue to enter the struggle, most notably the working class.
In September there was an uptick in strikes, as workers used their power to shut down production alongside the blockades of the protesters. Dominique St Eloi, the leader of the National Coordination of Haitian Workers, noted in a 14 September online statement: “Many factories did not work today ... in Port-au-Prince or in the Northeast ... Factory workers are in rebellion”.
The most significant action came in late September, when a two-day nationwide strike was called by a variety of organisations and trade unions alongside the United Front of Transporters and Workers of Haiti. The strike proved successful in bringing workers into the streets, shutting down transport and other sections of industry such as telecommunications. For three days after the strike, workers led marches that brought thousands into the streets across Haiti.
The discontent hasn’t been limited to these few sectors. In August, port workers refused to work in the face of armed gangs hijacking shipments of oil, and women workers in garment factories launched militant strikes in February against sweatshop wages and sexist abuse from management, building barricades to fight off the police.
With no real domestic support, Henry has increasingly turned to the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the United States to intervene. The trend of these talks has reflected a desire among regional leaders for a US-approved military intervention and occupation, led by either the UN or an international coalition should intervention be vetoed by the UN Security Council.
Such a move would aim only to crush the protests and protect the interests of capitalists. In his bid to convince the US to intervene, Henry has waged a propaganda campaign to relabel the mass movement as a violent gang struggle. While armed gangs are a powerful force in both organised crime and political struggle in Haiti, the protest movement is larger than all of the gangs and has consistently demanded that they be crushed.
The last military intervention was the disastrous fifteen-year UN occupation from 2004 to 2019, which still has a legacy in the current United Nations Integration Office in Haiti (BINUH). That occupation was spearheaded by regional powers, including Lula’s Workers’ Party government in Brazil, and used by the US, Canada and France to oust popular Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The occupation brought misery to Haiti. It exacerbated political instability through propping up unpopular leaders and only entrenched the power of armed gangs through an influx of arms. And the UN forces were alleged to have committed atrocities such as rape.
It will take a significant struggle not only to topple Henry but to get real social change in Haiti. Rank-and-file workers building solidarity between all workplaces, taking the lead in the mobilisations and developing a program to unite the rural towns, the students and the urban poor would challenge the power of the ruling class.
Only through such an escalation can the desired uprooting take place.