As the poorest Caribbean state descends into chaos caused by the corruption of its elites, protesters on the streets are calling for help from a man who has never set foot in the country – Vladimir Putin.
“Down with Americans, long live Putin!” chanted around 200 demonstrators in the capital Port-au-Prince on Friday, some holding up printouts with the face of the Russian president.
Protesters burned the American flag as criticism of the links between Washington and the unpopular government of President Jovenel Moise. They called Moise, elected in 2016, a US-installed puppet, who is surviving due to US reluctance to exert international pressure.
“This symbolizes a complete divorce from the Americans. We have suffered enough of their occupation, this cannot go on,” the protester who set the flag on fire, calling himself Bronson, told AFP.
From a country firmly lodged in Washington’s sphere of influence, if it is of any interest to outsiders at all, Bronson launched a last-ditch appeal to distant powers.
“We are asking Russia, Venezuela and China to take a look at the misery we live in here,” implored Bronson.
Looting & deadly clashes
It is tempting to treat the small-scale demonstration as a comically eccentric sideshow, but the protest has helped draw international attention to a spiraling crisis that is anything but funny.
Since February 7, the low-built but densely settled Port-au-Prince, which has still not fully recovered from the devastating 2010 earthquake, has been rocked by near-constant flash demonstrations demanding the resignation of the government.
Barricades have blocked off key roads, and both private businesses and public institutions such as schools have been operating intermittently. As supplies of food, drinking water and fuel have dwindled, looting has become commonplace.
Police have repeatedly used tear gas and ammunition to disperse demonstrators, who have the president’s residence as one of their targets, alongside international embassies. At least six people have died in clashes. Major Western countries have told their citizens to leave, while over 100 Canadian tourists had to undergo emergency evacuation.
The crisis was sparked by revelations of years-long misappropriation resulting in losses of $2 billion from the discounted oil program Venezuela developed for the island nation in the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed over 100,000 people. Hence, its namecheck between the more obvious powers, though perhaps as the only nation in the region with an even more severe street crisis, it is hardly in a position to monitor Haitian officials.
In any case, the sum is trivial by international standards – the US spends about $2 billion of its defense budget every 24 hours – it is significant in a country where nearly two-thirds of the 11 million population live on less than $2.50 a day.
After a week of conspicuous silence, Moise and Prime Minister Jean Henry Ceant have addressed the public. In a speech broadcast at the weekend, Ceant blamed inequality, poor governance and corruption as the long-term problems, but urged protesters to avoid violence, and specifically condemned the US flag-burning.
But whether that will be enough to win actual backing rather than words of support from Washington for the embattled government – Trump famously listed Haiti on his alleged roll of “shithole countries” – is less clear. The US provided valuable aid and refugee shelter in 2010 but has little interest in bankrolling a distinctly non-strategic ally with few precious resources. Meanwhile the economy remains totally dependent on exports to the US – which constitute 90 percent of the total – and remittances from America comprise a large proportion of GDP.
So for all the full-hearted SOS signals for Moscow and Beijing, who have less contentious opportunities closer to their doorstep, the fate of Haiti for better or worse, will remain entwined with that of the United States.