Haiti: The Breakdown of Democracy Through the Collapse of the State

Flaming tires seen early on February 11, 2019, in the streets of Hinche in the center of Haiti. Photo from Voice of America.

By Camilo González

The Breakdown of the State and Democracy

Haiti is going through an accelerated collapse of the state, but also of its democracy. The Haitian State is one of the most fragile states in the world. Its Human Development Index has worsened for two consecutive years. Constantly besieged by climate disasters -the last earthquake was in 2022- the country is again facing the threat of cholera with a poor health and education system. I addition, insecurity has spread. There are about 200 gangs throughout the country including 95 in the capital alone and with an estimated territorial dominance of 60%.

Democracy is also ill. Since 2015, Haiti suffered a steady decline in its democratic features. According to Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), it is an electoral autocracy due to the postponed elections, an inefficient electoral authority and constant attacks on institutional checks and balances from officeholders. In a similar way, Haiti is among those countries where political and civil rights have suffered significant declines. According to Freedom House, it is already considered not free due to strong restrictions on political participation, attacks on judicial independence and the physical insecuity of its citizens from police and gangs.

Violence Durable Legacy

Understanding why democracy in Haiti is flawed requires an understanding of how political elites have historically tolerated violence. Militias survive despite new democratic institutions. Duvalier’s legacy –Tontons Macoutes– mutated into many private armies like Chiméres of the last government of Jean Bertrand Arístide (2000-2004) and the former military officers who overthrown him in 2004 have since formed armed gangs.

With the post-2004 intervention by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), armed gangs retreated to the suburbs of Port-au-Prince and survived as armed groups with close ties to communities. These groups exercised limited control over the provision of goods and services, and demonstrated hesitancy against seizing them from MINUSTAH as well as other NGOs. However, with the 2010 earthquake, the gangs became effective and brutal intermediaries for humanitarian aid, which contributed to the construction of solid social fiefdoms with value for future electoral politics.

During the post-2010 election period, politicians approached these armed groups with the intention to serve as mobilizers of the communities they controlled. Gangs helped politicians win more votes, but it also enabled them to violently attack rivals in their districts, which explains why during electoral years, the homicide rate increases. Haiti was simultaneously building a democracy alongside undemocratic “brown zones.” But over time the brown zones spread and put both the proper functioning of the state and democracy at risk.

A Criminal Erosion of Democracy

Democracy does not work in a vacuum. It requires the presence of a state that enforces the rules of the game between citizens and officials within a territory. Without the state, democracy is not possible. Instead, the law of the strongest is imposed. For this reason, Charles Tilly in his book Democracy, stated that a democratic regime is a relationship between state and society mediated by elections, civil and political rights, and respect for the rule of law.

For Tilly, Haiti is a low capacity-undemocratic regime. We have seen a progressive process of de-democratization, which is the loss of democratic attributes in the state-society relationship. This has been largely due to the increased power of gangs that has undermined the breadth, equality and protection of citizens’ rights, as well as the mutual commitment to respect the rules of the game. According to this analysis, the authoritarian drift of President Möise (2017-2021) strengthened the gangs which radically changed the relationship between citizens and their rulers. However, the power vacuum following his assassination opened an opportunity for gangs to overtake state authorities in territorial control in a country where an authoritarian momentum had already decimated institutions.

Gangs expanded. They left their criminal enclaves and decided to pursue the expansion of their territorial domains with serious consequences for the freedoms and rights of Haitians. This expansion was the product of a political decision to transform gangs into political actors. To contain the wave of protests against the cases of government corruption related to Petrocaribe oil contracts, President Jovenel Möise of the PHTK party (Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale) decided to use gangs as a repressive force. In collusion with government agents, the G-9 gang of Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a former police officer accused of extrajudicial executions, committed the massacres of La Saline (2018), Bel-Air (2019) and Cité Soleil (2020) areas where the opposition had its greatest political activity. With the opposition at the margins, the president set out to try to modify the constitution and stay in power longer, however, the violence so ingrained in the Haitian political culture ended up asassinating him in an untidy mercenary coup in July 2021.

The fallout from the coup has eroded political stability even further. The power vacuum has entirely hollowed out the state and democracy for this Caribbean country. Möise’s successor, Ariel Henry, barely possesses the most nominal power and a few months ago the parliament ceased to exist because the constitutional period of the legislators expired. The big culprit: the empowerment of gangs that has violently questioned government authorities and puts at risk the normal functioning of democratic procedures.

Haiti teaches researchers and political decisionmakers two important lessons. First, it is necessary to rescue the authority of the State in order to implement a reliable set of democratic institutions. But secondly, pacts between politicians and criminals undermine democracy. The latter seems to have emerged as a new democratic backslider in a volatile world.

About the Author

Camilo González is currently a professor in the Department of International Relations of the Faculty of Political Sciences and International Relations of the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. His research interest are authoritarian politics, electoral behavior and multilateralism in Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter @CamGlez94.

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