Haitian and French Petrol Protests in the Age of Climate Change

Port au Prince, Haiti, July 2012 (Alex Proimos, Wikimedia Commons)

For the past several months, major unrest has occurred almost simultaneously in both Haiti and France over rising gas prices, accusations of government corruption, and inflated costs of living. However, national and international media attention has focused more on recent events in France while ignoring the protests in Haiti, which has resulted in the death of several protestors at the hands of police and other state officials.

The two nation’s histories are inextricably linked: the Caribbean country Haiti, known in the nineteenth century as Saint Domingue, was once the wealthiest colony of the French empire. After the formerly enslaved Africans of Saint Domingue wrested freedom from their owners and declared themselves independent from colonialism in 1804, the French army later imposed an indemnity for 150 million francs on Haiti to compensate for their lost “jewel” of sugar and coffee production. To avoid future French incursions, this money was paid with interest – to the tune of 22 billion in today’s dollars and is often cited as a critical cause of Haiti’s underdevelopment, along with the West’s economic and political isolation of Haiti throughout the nineteenth century. Despite ongoing calls for France to repay the indemnity, since it had stolen enough in human life and labor value, no such conversation has been breached by France’s current President Emmanuel Macron.

Now it seems that both are facing crises and a growing protest movement around a different resource: petrol.

In early July 2018 at the behest of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Haitian government quietly increased gas prices by 38%, kerosene by 51%, and diesel by 47%. The resulting jump in transportation costs caused working people to spend nearly half of their daily wages to travel to and from work and school. Anger over the gas hikes heightened as violence quickly spread in Port-au-Prince. Roads were blockaded, businesses were burned, and three people died amidst the melee.

Weeks later however, the unrest returned in the form of peaceful protests in Port-au-Prince, Les Cayes, Jacmel, Cap-Haïtien, Gonaïves, Saint Marc, and other towns, organized through social media using the hashtag #PetroCaribeCorruption. The hashtag frame not only brings attention to the hikes in gas prices but reflects the general frustration with Haitian President Jovenel Moise and his suspected role in the government’s overall mishandling of nearly $2 billion in development aid loans from Venezuela. Despite #PetroCaribeCorruption’s non-violent second wave of action, @HaitiInfoProject reported violent police repression of protesters. On November 13, men dressed as police massacred at least 21 unarmed men in the La Saline neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Several towns were later pictured blockading their roads with scraps to prevent what were speculated to be either gang members or UN-backed mercenaries from entering and seeking retribution against the opposition. Many continue to call for President Moise’s resignation.

The protests have re-ignited conversations about the role of the United States government in supporting corrupt regimes and destabilizing Haiti – from the early 20th century military occupation by the U.S.; to the 1991 overthrow of President Jean-Betrand Aristide backed by the now late President George H. W. Bush’s administration; the shady dealings, lack of transparency, and wasted funds from the Clinton Foundation and the American Red Cross in the wake of the 2010 earthquake; the U.N. peacekeepers who contaminated post-earthquake camps with cholera and were accused of raping women and girls; and the suspicion of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s interference with the election of Michel Martelly – there is no shortage of ways in which Haiti and Haitians have been exploited by foreign powers.

Against this backdrop of French colonial slavery and U.S. imperialism, government corruption in Haiti as well as an onslaught of natural disasters have only further hindered the stability and development of a deeply needed infrastructure. The work of Crystal Andrea Felima has brought attention to the structural vulnerabilities that affect Haiti’s ability to effectively respond to environmental disasters. Hurricanes, droughts, floods, earthquakes, and cholera outbreaks exacerbate already existing ecological problems in Haiti. Without clean water, proper sanitation, trash disposal, paved roads, sufficient hospitals, and disaster preparedness plans, the lives of everyday Haitians – and the environmental well-being of the country in general – is at risk that is worsened by the effects of climate change.

Marginalized communities of color and nations of the Global South are generally most vulnerable to natural disasters associated with climate change, while the United States, China, India and the European Union (EU) are the highest purveyors of carbon emissions, which reached a record high in 2018. However, the EU’s emissions declined by just under 1% in 2018, which might suggest the bloc and its respective country members might be taking a more progressive stance to address the global effects of human activity-induced climate change.

Yellow Vest Movement, Belfort, France, December 1, 2018 (Wikimedia Commons) 

Enter the recent French protests against a new tax on diesel and petrol to curb carbon emissions, and that have expanded to reflect widespread dissatisfaction with President Emmanuel Macron. Known as the Gilet Jaunes, or the “Yellow Vests,” the protestors wear bright yellow vests that all motorists are required to carry in their vehicles. Since mid-November, the Yellow Vests have created road blockades, burned cars, and destroyed buildings in their resistance to rising costs of gasoline, which they state unfairly targets the poor and working-classes in rural areas especially. Though it is a protest movement primarily organized by members of France’s working class, when viewed from a global, post-colonial perspective, the question arises whether the Yellow Vest movement represents a ‘counter-revolution’ in relation to efforts to reduce harm from carbon emissions to the world’s environment. Unlike its former colonial possession, Haiti, France remains one of the world’s wealthiest nations, it has a stable social welfare system and infrastructure including inter-city and inter-national high-speed light rail, meaning it is much more likely to be equipped to absorb the collective increases to living costs related to increased gas prices.

Would these new gas taxes have radically altered the quality of life of everyday French people in the same way that they present economic strain to Haitians? So far, the Yellow Vest movement has been successful in forcing the French government to repeal the potential fuel hike. Yet, the issue raises the question of why the French shouldn’t pay a gas tax, while the IMF, an organizational body in which France has significant voting power, forces Haiti to bear the financial and ecological burdens of attempts to curb carbon emissions and the fight against climate change. The Yellow Vests do not claim an anti-climate action stance, still one wonders if the Yellow Vest movement, which has recently spread to Belgium and the Netherlands, is part of thewider trend of populist, nationalist movements of the global white working class against globalization, wealth distribution, and immigration from the Global South.

Scholars note that present-day France is a racist society both in terms of systemic discrimination and the persistence of racial stereotypes and prejudices grounded in the country’s legacy of slavery and colonialism. Making up nearly 4% of France’s population, Black French of Caribbean and African origin and other “visible minorities” undoubtedly feel the strain of higher prices and costs of living due to discrimination in housing, employment, and in public spaces . Individuals from communities of color are pictured in the Yellow Vests protests, yet there does not seem to be indication of widespread Black participation or coalition with Black-led organizations such as the Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires. The apparent absence of Black activists among the Yellow Vests protesters is not for a lack of discontent with aspects of life in France, evidenced by riots in 2005and 2017 in Parisian suburbs. Perhaps given the persistent racism in French society, Yellow Vest protesters have not forged ties of solidarity and a broad-based coalition with Black French organizations and members of the Black working class.

Are we seeing a 21st century revival of reactionary attempts to preserve rights for some (freedom from tax hikes for the French) while denying rights (to a carbon free environment) to all? The #PetrolCaribeCorruption might provide a foil to the Yellow Vest movement – showing hypocrisies in so-called “progressive” movements that when viewed from the margins are actually quite conservative, similar to when the 1789 French Revolution declared the Rights of Man while actively denying the freedom and rights of enslaved Africans in the colonized Caribbean. The anti-slavery stance of the Haitian Revolution went beyond calls for liberty, brotherhood, and equality within French republican ideals, which scholars Anna Julia Cooper and C. L. R. James argued were hindered from true universalization due to the unwavering commitment to slavery and white supremacy. If indeed the Yellow Vests are in favor of climate action, what might it look like for them to bridge geographic and national boundaries to establish solidarity with #PetrolCaribeCorruption not only to address recent issues around fuel prices, but as part of a reparative justice politic to atone for past wrongs?

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Crystal Eddins

Crystal Eddins is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the 2018-2019 Ruth J. Simmons Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice at Brown University. She holds a Dual Major PhD in African American & African Studies and Sociology from Michigan State University. Eddins’ areas of research are the African Diaspora, Historical Sociology, Social Movements, the Digital Humanities, and 18th century Haiti (Saint Domingue). Follow her on Twitter @CrystalNEddins.