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Possible US mercenary role in Haiti concerns expert

Friday, February 22, 2019

LAWRENCE — Haiti appears to be perpetually in crisis. And yet one expert sees the arrest of a group of heavily armed men in Port-au-Prince as a disturbing new development, coming amidst the latest spasm of violence in the democratic island nation with a complex history that must be understood in a larger historical and social context.

Cécile Accilien is associate professor and acting chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies at the University of Kansas. She is a native of Haiti and directs KU’s Institute of Haitian Studies. She is available to speak with the media about Haitian politics and society.

Accilien said deadly riots in Haiti’s capital city over the past two weeks are the result of frustration with the two-year-old presidency of Jovenel Moïse – a typical point in the cycle of frustration and government turnover in which Haiti seems locked.

Accilien, who last visited Haiti in November, said bitterness and resentment were building even then over a scandal involving the apparent diversion of PetroCaribe funds that Venezuela had promised would help build up Haiti’s infrastructure. People are angry regarding gas shortages, failed government promises, inflation and corruption, she said.

These issues follow a hurricane, earthquake and cholera outbreak that killed 10,000, among other disasters in this decade. So unrest is nothing new.

“You had this program that was supposed to make the price of gasoline lower,” Accilien said. “In fact, in July 2018, the price of gas went up 40 percent. So people took to the streets, crying out, ‘How can this be?’”

In August, a writer’s tweet about the scandal drove people into the streets demanding accountability. In October and November, there were nationwide protests.

Those riots – and prices — calmed down, Accilien said, only to flare again these past weeks. At least nine people have died in clashes, with many more injured. Things heated up starting Feb. 7 — an important date in Haitian history, marking the departure in 1986 of Jean-Claude Duvalier, ending nearly 30 years of a family-run dictatorship.

That heightened level of violence makes the apparent involvement of mercenary groups disturbing to Accilien. It’s another indication of power working behind the scenes, reinforcing the class divide, economic inequity and who has access to resources in the country, she said.

“That speaks to these larger issues,” Accilien said. “Robert Maguire and Scott Freeman edited a 2017 book titled ‘Who Owns Haiti?: People, Power, and Sovereignty,’ in which scholars analyze the idea of Haiti’s sovereignty from several perspectives, including the role of the United States, France, Canada, Brazil, the United Nations, as well as the countless number of NGOs and other international actors. 

“These days of unrest push us to ponder the question of who owns Haiti, and what does that mean, historically, politically, economically and socially? Throughout Haiti’s history as an independent nation since 1804, one way or the other, the Haitian people always know and assert that the country belongs to the people in spite of corruption, the meddling of foreign forces and social inequalities.”

To interview Accilien, contact Rick Hellman at rick_hellman@ku.edu or 913-620-8786.