The Chris Kabwato Column | In the name of the people: Barbecue, Haiti and the hypocrisy of the ‘Global North’

Crisis in Haiti, roots to a dark past (David Gilkey/NPR)

At Mutare Boys High School, our A-Level history teacher was a lanky English fellow who had come to Zimbabwe as part of the expatriate teacher programme. Mr Rawlins had just graduated from Cambridge University and spoke in that high-class accent we associate with those insufferable and pompous Etonians such as Boris Johnson. He was a pensive fellow who, in the year he taught us, smiled only once in class.

Our school tuckshop sold hot cross buns with icing and our Cambrian would wolf four to six of these at break time. He wore the same attire every day – black trousers, white shirt, and sneakers. All crispy clean. But I am digressing…

One day he was teaching us about the 1789 French Revolution, and he asked: “Who were the people in the revolution?”

We pretended to scratch our heads, looked up at the ceiling, and rubbed our chins. We were as blank as bond paper, but not some smart dude named Kevin “The Kitten” Masamvu who answered: “The people were the sans-culottes [lower urban class], small traders, shopkeepers, and the peasants.”

Aside from our inability to answer questions correctly, we were mesmerised by the events leading to the revolution and the writings of the Enlightenment philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rosseau who introduced us to the concept of the social contract. We visualised the storming of the political prison and armoury called the Bastille on 14 July 1789 by the insurgents. We could hear the chants of “Libertéégalitéfraternité!” It was like reading a James Hadley Chase thriller.  

When history teaching has deliberate gaps

What our history teacher Mr Rawlins did not teach us was that there was a country somewhere in the Caribbean Sea called Haiti where people who had been abducted from Africa had been made slaves on vast sugar plantations. The owners of the plantations were the French, Spanish and British. Mr Rawlins did not tell us that when the French proclaimed their Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August 1789 in their National Assembly the slaves in Haiti were not included in Article I of the declaration: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.”

About 7,300 kilometres from Paris, the vast majority of the African-born slaves worked in the Haitian fields, whilst others were household “servants”. They had long days of backbreaking work, and many died from injuries and diseases. Starvation and malnutrition were their fare.

But you can only keep people oppressed for so long. Some slaves managed to escape into the mountainous interior, where they became known as Maroons. But a larger and more sustainable struggle was brewing.

Haiti pays the price for freedom

With the turmoil of the French Revolution and perennial European wars distracting the racist slave-owners, our brethren and sistren drew the line in the stand and revolted. In the late 1790s military leader and former slave Toussaint Louverture and his comrades such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, gained control of several areas. On January 1, 1804, the island was declared independent under the name of Haiti. France’s grudging acceptance of Haiti’s independence would come only in 1825 and at an enormous cost. In return for recognition, France demanded 150 million Francs (equivalent to $560 million in today’s dollars) as compensation and also favourable customs treatment to French imports. The military threat forced Haiti to agree to this cruel and unusual situation where enslaved people and their descendants had to compensate their enslavers and their descendants.

A man called Barbecue and the Haitian crisis

Fast forward to 2024 and Haiti is in a turmoil that grips the world. The prime minister is stranded outside the country and is forced to resign.

Our friends in the international media and their governments cast the problems of Haiti as stemming from gang wars and the absence of a functional government. Looking for a face to pin the problems on, they have zeroed in on Jimmy Chérizier, famously known in Haitian Creole as Babekyou (Barbecue). Chérizier is the leader of a militant group that controls parts of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

The challenge for the “common sense” narrative of unruly gangs being the central problem is that if you put a mic to Chérizier, you hear an intelligent diagnosis of the challenges of Haiti. So Barbecue is braaing the media and check out this quote from The Guardian UK:

“He gives women presents on Mother’s Day. He gives money to families that don’t have the means to send their kids to school. But people are aware that he is [also] one of the main people responsible for the nightmare they are living.”

Chérizier himself said to the Associated Press in 2023:

“I’m not a thief. I’m not involved in kidnapping. I’m not a rapist. I’m just carrying out a social fight.”

The quandary for the media is how to deal with a “gang leader” who is not a cannibal but is analytical and speaks of his army as “a sociopolitical structure and force that is fighting on behalf of the vulnerable.”

Enter the posturing politicians

Into the Haitian turmoil enters President William Ruto who decides that he will send 1000 Kenyan police officers to the island nation as part of a United Nations Security Council multinational security support mission. There was some gloating and toasting last October:

In what is being hailed as an historic first, the UN Security Council on Monday authorised the deployment of an international security mission to help Haiti’s national police quell surging gang violence and restore security across the strife-torn Caribbean nation.

To their credit, Kenyan civil society organisations have pushed back on Ruto’s decision, and the judiciary has also halted the deployment. However, the comrades in civil society are not doing it out of solidarity with the people of Haiti. Some even argue that it is the military that should be sent over.

It’s a hard-knock life

The challenges of Haiti are historical. We know that for decades after independence in 1804, Haiti was coerced into paying “reparations” to France and, at times, resulting in annual spending of 40% of government revenue on this odious debt. That debt severely constrained economic growth and investment in public services.

A privileged mixed-race elite with allegiance to global powers has systematically looted the country, deprived citizens of their rights and dignity and access to education, health, and economic opportunities. The United States of America occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. From 1957 to 1986, Haiti was terrorised and looted by the dictatorship of father and son, Papa Doc (Francois Duvalier) and Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier. These two internationally supported rogues (thanks to geopolitics) rendered all institutions of the state dysfunctional, except their feared and murderous paramilitary group, the innocently named Volunteers for National Security. The people called these killers the Tonton Macoute. In Haitian Creole mythology, Tonton Macoute was a bogeyman who kidnapped naughty children in the night and stored them in his backpack.

Deploying some occupation force that will prop up favoured politicians, whilst ignoring the calls for social and economic justice by the so-called gangs and the poor people of Haiti, will not bring any lasting peace. The history of past military interventions should be warning enough.

We should by now have learnt that the global north does not wish to deal truthfully with deep-seated issues that concern us in the south. They are masters at responding to symptoms and cleverly disguising their complicity in the original sin.