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Proud Boys in Haiti

Failed states are no longer confined to a few corners of the Global South.

4 mins read
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A woman carries fruit on her head in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Aug. 24, 2021. (Xinhua/David de la Paz)

The way things are going in Haiti, violent gangs might not only gain an official government role; they might actually become the government. Following the gangs’ seizure of critical infrastructure and the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, Haiti is exhibiting all the familiar features of a failed state. Its people are left with a tragic choice: continued rule by a corrupt “democratic” elite, or direct rule by gangs who present themselves as “progressive.”

With law and order having collapsed, CARICOM, the Caribbean regional intergovernmental organization, has announced an agreement to create a transitional council aimed at representing a wide swath of Haitian political and civil-society groupings. The council would wield some powers that typically belong to the (vacant) office of the president, including the power to name an interim prime minister. The resulting government would be expected eventually to hold elections, thus achieving a complete political reset.

But whom will these new arrangements include? Haiti has been under a state of emergency since armed groups attacked the country’s largest prison earlier this month, killing and injuring police and prison staff, and allowing nearly 4,000 inmates to escape. The gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier – himself a former police officer – took credit for the attack and called for the government to be overthrown. Gangs now control 80% of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, having seized the country’s main airport to block Henry’s return from a diplomatic mission to Kenya, where he was hoping to secure police reinforcements.

The CARICOM agreement bars anyone with prior criminal convictions or sanctions against them, thus disqualifying Chérizier. But Chérizier has long been known to harbor political aspirations. He is not only a gang leader but also a populist politician, telling an interviewer in 2019: “I would never massacre people in the same social class as me.” Earlier this month, he said: “We won’t lie to people, saying we have a peaceful revolution. We do not have a peaceful revolution. We are starting a bloody revolution in the country.”

Chérizier has likened himself to Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and even Robin Hood. But he also admires François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the right-wing dictator who ruled Haiti with an iron fist from 1957 to 1971 (and who also terrorized Haitian society with armed paramilitary groups, led by the infamous Tonton Macoutes).

In a warning issued late on the night of March 11, Chérizier announced that the alliance of gangs known as Viv Ansanm would not recognize any government resulting from the CARICOM agreement, arguing that, “It is up to the Haitian people to designate the personalities who will lead the country.” Similarly, an adviser to Guy Philippe, a Haitian rebel leader who recently returned to the country, warns that Port-au-Prince will be burned to the ground if the next government does not include Philippe.

Haiti’s story is a long-running tragedy. For more than 200 years, it has been punished for the successful slave rebellion (beginning in 1791) that allowed it to emerge as the world’s first black republic. Forced to pay reparations to France, its former colonial overlord, the only chance it ever had to prosper was when Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Lavalas party took power a couple of decades ago. But Aristide, a thorn in America’s side, was toppled in a coup in February 2004.

Haiti is an extreme case of a broader phenomenon. Violent gangs have also occupied parts of cities in Ecuador and Mexico; and, of course, a gang of outgoing US President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021. Trump now promises that one of his first official acts, if re-elected, will be to pardon all those convicted for their participation in that assault.

The strongest of the gangs that organized the January 6 insurrection are the Proud Boys, an exclusively male neo-fascist organization that openly promotes and engages in political violence. Recall that when asked about his appeal to white supremacist and paramilitary groups at a presidential debate in 2020, Trump infamously responded, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” The group’s leaders have since been convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes against the United States for their attempt to block the constitutionally prescribed transfer of presidential power.

Interestingly, the Proud Boys have an initiation process that includes physical hazing, such as being punched unless you correctly answer pop-culture trivia questions, and members must “abstain from pornography.” Strange as these rituals sound, they are familiar mechanisms. Fraternal rituals play the role of poetry, as described by Ernst Jünger, a reluctant Nazi fellow-traveler who, like the Proud Boys, celebrated the purifying effect of military struggle: “Any power struggle is preceded by a verification of images and iconoclasm. This is why we need poets – they initiate the overthrow, even that of titans.”

Failed states are no longer confined to a few corners of the Global South. If we measure a state’s failure by the cracks in the edifice of its power – that is, by the evidence of brewing ideological civil wars, deadlocked assemblies, and increasingly insecure public spaces – we must recognize that France, the United Kingdom, and the US are clearly on the spectrum. The Norwegian political theorist Jon Elster was correct, in 2020, when he wrote: “We can reverse the common dictum that democracy is under threat, and affirm that democracy is the threat, at least in its short-termist populist form.” Recent experience offers clear signals of what will happen if Trump wins the November presidential election.

One might appropriately paraphrase an old joke from East Germany: Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Trump are given an audience with God and allowed one question each. Putin begins: “Tell me what will happen to Russia in the next few decades?” God answers: “Russia will gradually become a colony of China.” Putin turns around and starts to cry. Xi asks the same question about China. God answers: “With the Chinese economic miracle over, you will have to return to a hardline dictatorship to survive, while asking Taiwan for help.” Xi turns around and starts to cry. Finally, Trump asks: “And what will be the fate of the US after I take over again?” God turns around and starts to cry.

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author, most recently, of Heaven in Disorder (OR Books, 2021) and Surplus-Enjoyment: A Guide For The Non-Perplexed (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).

1 Comment

  1. Why hasn’t the West intervened in Haiti? How sad and sickening to witness the lawless violence so close to other Caribbean beauty spots. Haiti is indeed such a beautiful country and we have so many fond memories of visiting Haiti. Talking of Port au Prince, Graham Greene and the Hôtel Oloffson, Haiti may be a shocking place to live now but not everyone thinks Haiti is Hell and that sentiment would not just be limited to Graham Greene were he alive. Of course, Graham was one of the great writers of the 20th Century and an MI6 spook.

    One other ex-spook used to love Haiti until the TonTon Macoute hunted him down like a wild animal. Maybe he deserved it? Was he front running the real CIA Haitian equivalent to the Cuban Bay of Pigs?

    If you relish and yearn for Haitian spy thrillers as curiously and bizarrely compelling as Graham Greene’s Comedians, crave for the cruel stability of the Duvaliers and have frequented Hôtel Oloffson you’re never going to put down Bill Fairclough’s fact based spy thriller Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files series. His Haitian experiences may have been gruesome but they make for intriguing reading compared with today’s grim news.

    Beyond Enkription is an intriguing unadulterated factual thriller and a super read as long as you don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots. Nevertheless, it has been heralded by one US critic as “being up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”. Little wonder Beyond Enkription is mandatory reading on some countries’ intelligence induction programs.

    Beyond Enkription is so real you may have nightmares of being back in Port au Prince anguishing over being a spy on the run. The trouble is, if you were a white spook being chased by the TonTon Macoute in the seventies you were usually cornered and … well best leave it to your imagination or simply read Beyond Enkription.

    Interestingly Fairclough was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6 (see a brief intriguing News Article dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website). If you have any questions about Ungentlemanly Warfare after reading that do remember the best quote from The Burlington Files to date is “Don’t ask me, I’m British”.

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