Haiti’s Political Instability Trap

On July 7, 2021, the world awakened to the tragic news that Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, had been assassinated. Although many are familiar with the sudden removal of Haiti’s presidents in the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the first time one had been killed in office since 1915. And while the two deaths are separated by more than a century, they may be closer than we think.

Moïse’s assassination must be understood in the context of Haiti’s long history of political instability. It demonstrates how difficult it is to escape a bad equilibrium and the unintended consequences of externally imposed state building.

From Haiti’s beginnings, the country has been plagued with political instability. In 1804, Haiti declared independence from France, becoming the first, and ultimately only, nation of former slaves to gain sovereignty. But the path to self-rule was difficult. Within two years of independence, the first ruler was assassinated. During the rest of the 19th century, the two most common ways an executive ruler left office were by force or death. Turnover was so frequent that the Wikipedia list of heads of state of Haiti includes a column noting how long the ruler held office, with many tenures measured in days.

The 19th century established a pattern for overthrowing the ruler, one that looks remarkably similar to what happened in July 2021. An aspiring ruler would rally a paramilitary group, often from the north of Haiti, then march into Port-au-Prince. If the incumbent had enough warning, he would flee the country, but if not, he died in office (Schmidt, 1995 p. 42). In July 2021, a similar pattern was used. While we do not have a clear story for who authored and financed the assassination, the perpetrator rallied his own paramilitary group of former Colombian military officials hired from a private security company.

By 1910, the pattern had been so perfected that it was executed effectively over the next five years. Between July 1911 and July 1915, seven different men held the office of president. Not one left because his term had expired. Five out of the seven were forced out by the paramilitary playbook. But there was a break with the fifth that can be linked to Haiti’s current political problems.

When paramilitary forces struck President Guillaume Sam’s home in July 1915, Sam escaped to the French embassy. Responding independently, his military commander killed hundreds of political prisoners, including one of the former presidents who had been forced out of office. Shocked by the prison massacre, Haitians in Port-au-Prince descended on the French embassy, pulled Sam to the streets, and tore him apart. The next day, U.S. marines landed in Port-au-Prince.

The U.S. occupation of Haiti lasted from 1915 to 1934 and altered the political economy of Haiti. Triggered by Sam’s violent death, the United States’ main concern was securing the Caribbean against a potential German threat. Thus, an immediate consequence of the Occupation was aligning Haiti’s interests with America’s. But the long-run effects of the Occupation came from a focus on building state capacity while disregarding the general Haitian population.

A good example of this tension occurred with the Occupation’s first goal: stop the coup pattern. The Occupation’s strongest opposition forces were the paramilitary groups that were so often recruited to topple regimes. Even if America had never come to Haiti, the country would never gain political stability if the paramilitary groups could not be stopped. The government needed to regain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. But the American leadership wanted to go beyond stopping them. When Marines finally killed the opposition’s main leader, Charlemagne Péralte, they took a photograph of his corpse tied to a door then dropped hundreds of copies from airplanes over areas with active resistance (Dubois, 2012 p. 261). Providing a legitimate threat to the paramilitary groups was crucial to building state capacity, yet it was accomplished at the cost of Haitian dignity.

Even before the American leadership suppressed the resistance, it was clear that the international community expected the Occupation to improve political stability. Within the first years of the Occupation, the number of business licenses held by foreigners increased by 80% (Palsson 2021c). True to expectations, Americans found more opportunities to build state capacity.

The biggest motivation to build state capacity came after a 1922 decision to extend the Occupation. America consolidated Haiti’s debt and sold it to American bondholders. With skin in the game, America ensured the debt was paid by eliminating bureaucratic corruption and improving customs collections. When the Occupation ended in 1934, Haiti’s bureaucracy was at its strongest (Heinl and Heinl, 2005 p. 472).

While the American reforms were largely motivated by self-interest, they established important precedents. First, they demonstrated how to build capacity. This was important in 1942, when the government found itself in a crisis due to American mobilization in World War II. The American war efforts diverted crucial sources of trade revenue, leaving the government unsure about its fiscal future. This prompted the government to invest in fiscal capacity by reforming the income tax code and to invest in legal capacity by creating better property titles (Palsson 2021b). A second precedent was peaceful transitions between presidents. Stability returned to the Haitian presidency, with presidents serving their whole terms.

But the presidential transitions demonstrate the danger of building state capacity while disregarding the population. The American leadership had done little to buttress democratic institutions. Thus, in the first election after the Marines left, the incumbent president, Sténio Vincent, not only dissolved the legislature in advance, he ran unopposed. Each subsequent election had problems up until François Duvalier was elected in 1957. His administration put an end to problematic elections by eliminating elections altogether.

Duvalier’s rule represented the apotheosis of the Occupation strategy of building state capacity without building democratic institutions. Duvalier inherited a modernized bureaucracy unaccountable to the public. One example of how the Occupation’s reforms enabled Duvalier was how he maintained local control through roughly 500 section chiefs, local army officers created by the Occupation and endowed with bureaucratic powers (Hallward, 2007 p. 17).  It is questionable whether he could have maintained his rule for 14 years, and then passed it to his son for another 15 years, without the Occupation’s focus on establishing state capacity while ignoring the general population.

The setup for today’s problems in Haiti come after the end of the Duvalier dynasty, when the international community sought to reverse this Occupation focus: building democratic institutions while ignoring state capacity. The reversal was perfectly suited for Haiti and the times: after 30 years of an oppressive dictatorship, there was a strong case against empowering the government, and in the twilight of the Cold War, American foreign policy was focused on promoting democracy. As a result, Haiti has elected its presidents since 1990. But presidential stability has not been guaranteed: since 1990, Haiti has had two coups d’état and this year’s assassination.

Yet the focus on democratic institutions has been more about appearance than execution. As long as it looked like elections decided the president, it did not matter that there were always problems. This distinction made little difference until 2010, the election that is crucial for understanding the Moïse administration. After the earthquake in January 2010, Haiti held a presidential election in November. In the first round, no candidate won a sufficient share of votes to win the presidency outright. For the first time, the presidency would be decided by a runoff. The top two candidates would advance, but there was a problem: while there was a clear first-place candidate (Mirlande Manigat with 31.4% of the vote), the second-place and third-place candidates were separated by less than a percentage point (Jude Célestin, with 22.5%, and Michel Martelly, with 21.8%). With some accusing Jude Célestin of cheating, the country was at an impasse on who to advance.

To break that impasse, the international community intervened. The Organization of American States examined a sample of ballots and found some “irregularities.” It recommended removing the irregular ballots from the count, which would advance Martelly over Célestin. Note how strange this recommendation was. It was not a full audit followed by a recommendation to remove irregular ballots. Nor was it a recommendation to investigate further. The full recommendation was to remove the irregular ballots found in the sample and recalculate the vote. Not even an undergraduate research assistant would be brazen enough to make such a recommendation! Yet in January 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Haiti and explained that the recommendation would be honored. Martelly was advanced to the runoff over Célestin and then won the presidency in March.

Moïse owed his presidency to this intervention for two reasons. First, Martelly picked Moïse as his party’s candidate for the 2015 election, so without Martelly’s victory there would be no Moïse. Second, the intervention in 2010 may have altered participation in 2015. While Moïse was not forecasted to win, he won the election on a historically low voter turnout of 18%. My work examining the 2010 and 2015 elections argues that this low turnout can be partially explained by voters who were discouraged by the 2010 intervention (Palsson 2021a). Although the intervention was supposed to promote democratic institutions in the short-run, it may have damaged these institutions in the long-run.

As Moïse took the presidency, Haiti was in decline. Not only was the country still trying to recover from an earthquake that killed 200,000 people, it was dealing with a major political scandal. According to a Haitian Senate report published in 2016, the Martelly administration had been embezzling and squandering billions of dollars intended for earthquake recovery. Among those implicated in the scandal was Jovenel Moïse himself. The popular response to the revelation led to a massive movement on social media (#KotKòbPetroCaribeA) and protests that immobilized the capital. In January 2020, because the country had failed to hold legislative elections, the mandates of most legislators expired and Moïse was left to rule by decree. Combined with soaring inflation, a shrinking economy, and widespread kidnappings, Haiti was already in a tough position before COVID even arrived.

Thus, while we don’t yet know the full story behind Moïse’s assassination, the years leading up to his death were filled with political economy challenges. And to a degree, those problems can be traced back to the last assassination in 1915. Moïse was an unpopular president who rose to power because the international community intervened in the democratic process. The focus on democratic institutions was a result of the previous policy that ignored such institutions in favor of building state capacity, a process that created one of Haiti’s worst dictatorships. And the choice to focus on building state capacity was inspired by the decades of political chaos before 1915 that eventually ended in President Guillaume Sam’s assassination.

Haiti seems unable to escape this awful equilibrium. And with the poor track record of foreign interventions, there is a legitimate question of whether Haiti can find a path to stability.

Works Cited:

Dubois, Laurent (2012). Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Metropolitan Books.

Hallward, Peter (2007). Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment. Verso.

Heinl, Robert Debs and Heinl, Nancy Gordon (2005). Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People 1492—1995. University Press of America, Inc.

Palsson, Craig (2021a) The Medium-Run Effects of a Foreign Election Intervention: Haiti’s Presidential Elections, 2010-2015. Working Paper

Palsson, Craig (2021b) State Capacity, Property Rights, and External Revenues: Haiti, 1932—1949. Working Paper

Palsson, Craig (2021c) “A Whirligig of Revolutionary Presidents” Political Stability and Foreign Investment in Haiti, 1910—1920. Working Paper.

Schmidt, Hans (1995). The United States occupation of Haiti, 1915—1934. Rutgers University Press.


  • Craig Palsson

    I am an Assistant Professor at Utah State University in the Huntsman School of Business. I received my PhD in Economics from Yale University, where my dissertation was on the economic history of Haiti. My work still largely focuses on the historical political economy of Haiti. When I am not doing research, I am either making economics-themed videos for my YouTube channel Market Power, playing with my four kids, or getting pummeled twice a week in Brazilian jiu jitsu.

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