The recent assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Möise and the power vacuum he left have deep roots in United States imperialism. Many scholars and journalists have examined, and continue to examine, how the U.S. empire has systematically worked to undermine and suppress democracy and destabilize nations throughout the world. Additionally, carceral historians have recently begun to examine the role of the carceral state as part of the U.S. empire. Within this context, Haiti holds a unique space within U.S. carcerality and empire. Haiti’s history as the first free Black republic in the western hemisphere has given it a peculiar position within the U.S. empire that has left many scars upon the nation that are still felt today. Additionally, by examining how ideas of Law-and-Order policing in Haiti work, we can see how policing in the U.S. functions in a similar manner: to protect property and suppress dissent.
In 1915, the U.S. invaded and occupied Haiti in order to “pacify” the nation. The occupation was the culmination of over 100 years of the western colonial domination of Haiti’s economy. The occupation shifted the sense of patriotism and national unity that was embedded in the original Haitian army, replacing it with a force whose sole purpose was to oppress other Haitians. As Haitian scholar Ralph-Michel Trouillot points out, the first Haitian Army—created during the war for independence that toppled European forces that sought to take the island for themselves— “saw itself as the offspring against slavery and colonialism.” Although the army has participated in many civil wars and coups that had peppered Haitian politics since independence, it was a representation of the nation and the idea of a Black free republic. It was a force made up of the very people it sought to protect.
The U.S. occupation and the formation of the gendarmerie changed all of that. Through paternalistic ideas premised on white supremacy, the U.S. created a security force that was focused primarily on policing and controlling the Haitian people. The U.S. also made efforts to “modernize” the country for foreign investment, rather than helping the nation defend itself from foreign invasion. The gendarmerie was used to suppress uprisings by Haitian nationals such as Charlemagne Péralte and the Cacos rebellion, silence the press, and stifle political independence. Additionally, the modernization of Haiti’s infrastructure implemented the corveè system of forced labor which reintroduced slavery to the free Black republic for the benefit of white foreign investors. A legacy of the occupation was the creation of a militarist authoritarian state.
After the U.S. occupation ended in 1935, little was done to improve Haitian infrastructure or the conditions for many locals. In 1957, François Duvalier rose to power and subsequently transformed the state from an authoritarian rule to a totalitarian government. He did this by replacing military leadership with loyalists and taking control of key military units and equipment. Policing and security were maintained by Duvalier’s quasi-personnel militia, the Tonton Macoutes. Unpaid and untrained, Macoutes used violence, intimidation, and street justice to suppress any anti-Duvalier sentiment throughout the country. The Macoutes were a legalized criminal gang central to the totalitarian state and the Duvalier regime, as well as essential to Haiti’s viability as a location of the U.S. empire and neocolonial extraction. The Duvalier regime ended in 1986 after popular protests against U.S. neoliberal reforms and state violence forced his son Jean-Claude Duvalier into exile.
In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overwhelmingly elected as president of Haiti, but after eight months in office, a coup forced him into exile. In 1994, as part of the process of returning Aristide back to power, the Clinton administration mandated the establishment of a military and police force “that will obey civilian government not destabilize.” Echoing the same paternalistic logic behind the creation of the gendarmerie during the occupation, policing was critical to the Clinton administration’s plan for “consolidating the spread of democracy” throughout the Caribbean. Additionally, it would also stabilize the political situation in Haiti to encourage foreign investment into the country. The immediate purpose of the new U.S. trained civilian police force would be to ward off any “on scene abuse” or “human rights violations” by opposition groups on the ground.
The U.S. Department of Justice funded a program to achieve the goal of creating a civilian national police force and revamp the criminal justice system in Haiti. This initiative was named the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), which was contracted to work with the Haitian government to train, aid, and provide guidance. Created in 1985, ICITAP took over many of the functions and responsibilities for the Cold War era Office of Public Safety (OPS). OPS was created in 1962 under the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to train and advise foreign government’s internal security apparatuses. The OPS’s mission was to suppress radical and nationalist groups that were either leftist or neutral and to install or support “friendly” regimes, whether democratically elected or not. As a CIA operative noted at the time, the “U.S. cannot afford the moral luxury of helping only those regimes in the free-world that meet our ideals of self-government.” These comments betray the U.S.’s support of the Duvalier regime, and more importantly, its reluctance to condemn Duvalier and his personal police, the Tonton Macoutes.
OPS was disbanded in 1974 after it became public about its use of torture, controversial training techniques, and operational methods. That did not discourage the U.S. from using policing as a pacification tool. ICITAP had a much narrower mission than the OPS: the professionalization and training of foreign police forces in modern forensic, policing, and criminal justice techniques. ICITAP’s mission in Haiti was simple, to create a “civilian Haitian National Police Force” (PNH) to “be trained in humane techniques” which are “associated with civilian policing in a democratic society.” In its introduction pamphlet, ICITAP notes that its “training emphasizes the rule of law and internationally recognized human rights standards.” The goal was to prevent “disorder” that “could escalate into general chaos” and would disrupt democracy. The PNH, once fully trained and funded by the U.S., would stabilize the country, and protect democracy from any radical or nationalist resistance.
Yet the U.S.’s interest in Haiti was based more on protecting capitalism than it was democracy. Aristide was elected on a populist and radical liberation theology platform, which posed a threat to U.S. hegemony throughout all Latin America, thus making the Aristide a threat to U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere. During the first months of his presidency, Aristide doubled the minimum wage, abolished the Army, and blocked U.S. backed neoliberal economic reforms. The U.S. also feared that Aristide would align with communist Cuba, spreading leftist ideologies to other Caribbean nations such as Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Additionally, Aristide’s demand that France repays the indemnity to Haiti, made Aristide a threat to postcolonial civilization and the western imperialism predicated on racial capitalism.
Within this context, the efforts at reforming the police took on economic and political auspices. ICITAP recruited 50% of its trainees for the PNH from the disbanded and feared Haitian Army. Additionally, top Army officers who refused to support the coup against Aristide in 1991 were purged from the police ranks, making the police force a recycled Duvalier-era Haitian Army that used violence and brutality “against popular protests.” Heavily armed paramilitary units primarily tasked with protecting U.S. financial investments, including Haiti’s national flour mill, sold to U.S. firms for $9mm. Additionally, a 1997 Human Rights Watch report noted that “Members of this US-trained force have committed serious abuses including torture and summary executions.” It is estimated that between 1995 to 1999 the National Police Force was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Private security firms also began proliferating during this period. In fact, it was the police themselves that started these firms on the island. Police chief Pierre Denize, while lauded for his anti-corruption/brutality campaigns, ran Cobra, a private security company. Ironically, the success of his business depends on the perception of how well the police are perceived to be doing their job. Poor policing leads to more business for Denize.
The legacy of 20th century policing in Haiti is fraught with foreign interference premised upon white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. With the events surrounding the assassination of President Möise, it is not surprising that his own security team has been placed under suspicion. The power vacuum that now exists in Haiti is centered around Washington as Haitian politicians and elites jockey for Washington’s approval to be the next president of the island nation. Additionally, the parallels between the U.S. policing at home and abroad became clearer over the last year as police disproportionally cracked down on peaceful protests against police violence, yet allowed Trump supporters to rampage through the capital building with little resistance. The history of the U.S.’s role in undermining popular reform and democracy both domestically and abroad, through the auspices of “law and order” and democracy, leaves little doubt how the U.S. empire views policing reform in primarily poor and Black communities and countries, and who the police really serve.