The Haitian political activist Marie Antoinette Duclair appears to have been unaware that two men on a motorbike were following her car through the badly lit streets of Port-au-Prince.
Her passenger on the night of 29 June was a journalist, Diego Charles. They had been attending a meeting, and she was now, at 11 o’clock at night, dropping him at his home in the Christ-Roi area of Haiti’s capital.
As Charles walked to his door the gunmen on the motorbike opened fire, killing him first before murdering Duclair as she sat in her car.
Just over a week later another assassination drowned out interest in that bloody night of violence: that of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, who was gunned down in his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince by mercenaries in an apparent coup attempt.
If there is a link between the two events it is that they are both brutally representative of the situation in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s most impoverished nation, a country that since 2018 has been convulsed by protests and violence, where guns – and those prepared to use them – are the currency in an escalating crisis.
In those days, a few weeks before the advent of the global coronavirus pandemic, Haiti’s long-running political crisis had brought demonstrations and violence to the streets, even if few then had any sense where it would lead.
“We’re fighting against a system where we can’t eat and we don’t get paid. That’s why we’ve taken to the streets,” Drelien explained then. “The president [Moïse] isn’t working for us. He’s no friend of the people – only of the bourgeoisie and businessmen, while we live in poverty.”
Now Moïse is dead, assassinated in his private residence in the Pelerin 5 district of Pétion-Ville, the wealthy enclave where Haiti’s political and business elite live in the hills above the capital. And Haiti’s long-running crisis has reached full throttle.
It has become routine to see one of the world’s most corrupt and ill-governed states lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe, amid coups, failed governments and natural disasters. But this current crisis brings a particular question to the fore – how, despite being the recipient of $13bn (£9.5bn) in international aid since the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people, has the situation for Haitians, by most indicators, continued to worsen?
The very modest gains in poverty reduction in Haiti, according to the World Bank, has gone into reverse, with 60% of the country living in poverty and the richest 20% of the population holding more than 64% of its income.
Haiti is unusual among failed and fragile nations. It is not only an “aid state”, hugely dependent on external development assistance and remittances from Haitians living abroad, but one where aid and foreign intervention, far from helping, has helped undermine an almost nonexistent administration.
Few who have not visited Haiti can fully comprehend the absence of services and institutions, planning or state direction.
Even as the current crisis was beginning, in an interview three years ago, Joël Boutrue, then deputy special representative for the UN stabilisation mission in Haiti, was blunt. “Haiti would be better off without aid,” he said. “Or at least, without the bad kind of aid that allows the administration and the elites to continue without changing.
“It would be better to create the conditions in which change could happen,” he added. “If we get involved, we should do so in an intelligent way, even if that is less visible in terms of the value it brings.”
And while it is only a part of the picture, it is a significant one. The world’s first black republic and the first country to be founded by former slaves, Haiti declared independence from France in 1804. The new nation faced blockades, isolation and protracted interference over two centuries from white-majority powers, including France, which imposed a century of impoverishing reparations for the loss of its slaves, only paid off in 1947, in exchange for recognition.
While some of the toxic consequences of intervention have been obvious, others have been more subtle. As US historian Robert Taber wrote in the Washington Post last week, some have been well documented, “including the Clinton administration cratering the Haitian rice market in the mid-1990s and a UN peacekeeping force reintroducing cholera in the mid-2000s.”
“The notion of Haiti as an aid state is a corrective to the idea of failed state,” says Jake Johnston, a researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, who coined the term and returned from Haiti a few days before Moïse’s assassination. “It’s not just about aid itself but about foreign interference and intervention.
“And when you talk about the ‘aid state’, it is a country [in which] current institutions have been shaped more by outside actors than internal ones. That has manifested itself in different ways, not least by the fact that since the years of the [Baby Doc] Duvalier dictatorship (which ended in 1986), aid has bypassed government, which has had a deeply corrosive effect.
“Rather than strengthening institutions, the mechanisms by which it has been delivered inherently undermine those same institutions, especially in more recent decades, which has seen the outsourcing of the state,” said Johnston.
“Economic policies have been imposed by multilateral banks, like the IMF, which has seen agricultural subsidies slashed. The education and health systems have been turned over to private actors like NGOs. All of which has created a separation between the people and a government that is not governing.”
If that has hollowed out Haiti’s institutions, foreign interventions including aid policy have had, in Johnston’s telling, a more insidious effect.
“Aid to Haiti has been used for political purposes going back years. It is transactional. It has gone up under certain leaders and it has gone down when someone isn’t liked, or it goes to an organisation that shares the interest of the donor country,” he said.
This profound disconnect between a barely governing ruling class, drawn from a wealthy elite, and the barely governed, leaves little incentive for those notionally in charge to combat Haiti’s many problems – from the violent criminality represented by its gangs to its lack of services, rampant poverty and devastating environmental despoliation.
In a Haiti where politicians and criminals alike enjoy impunity, politics historically has relied on the armed gangs – operating like paramilitaries – rather than electoral accountability to remain in office, from Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tontons Macoutes to the Chimères [or ghosts] of the Jean-Bertrand Aristide era, and the gangs used by both sides under Jovenel Moïse.
“The thing is that I don’t think a lot people realise how aid has been used intentionally to weaken the Haitian state. There’s a long, if little-known, paper trail, going back to the end of the Duvalier dictatorship, particularly involving the US,” he said.
“There are documents that very specifically talk about using private, voluntary organisations – now known as NGOs – to funnel money away from the Haitian government to recreate its functions elsewhere.
“It happened again explicitly during the period of the Aristide government [the leftwing president who fell victim to a coup and was reinstated by a US military intervention] and there are public documents from USAid and other government agencies saying we were withholding money and giving it to private organisations to weaken the policies of Aristide.”
The consequence, as critics have pointed out in recent years, has been to deepen the long-running democratic crisis in Haiti, with electoral participation plummeting since Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in the 1990s to the first post-quake elections, which saw less than 25% of the population vote.
Recent governments have been largely divorced from Haitians’ lives of poverty, nominated from within the same tight circle of politically connected oligarchs with the blessing of foreign powers, not least Washington, which have pursued short-term stability over long-term sustainability.
All of which came to a head in the PetroCaribe scandal that began during the presidency of Michel Martelly and in which Moïse became embroiled when he succeeded Martelly.
The $3.2bn PetroCaribe scheme – from which about $2bn is alleged to have been stolen – was an alternative model to improve the Haitian situation, in which funds freed up by a deferred payment credit scheme for Venezuelan energy were then to be dispensed by Haiti’s government for large-scale development projects.
Where the PetroCaribe scandal was different – if not in the corruption – was the ability of ordinary Haitians and Haitian institutions to ask what had happened to the missing billions.
“The thing about PetroCaribe,” says Katz, “was that it was supposed to be the thing that the post-earthquake reconstruction was not. Venezuela in its munificence was going free up all this money for Haiti to spend on itself.
“If there had been a better leader, more accountable to the people, rather than Martelly, it might have done some good.”
Jean Marc Brissau, a young Haitian who studied as lawyer in Port-au-Prince before leaving for the US, identifies another critical issue that has contributed to Haiti’s problems: the exodus of the country’s well-educated people, who have been put off becoming involved in the problematic politics.
“The gangs control the country, so educated people like myself can’t find a place in Haiti,” he said. “We don’t feel welcome. You don’t feel like you would want to be involved in politics and be labelled as corrupt or killed or kidnapped.
“So you say to yourself I can better change things from abroad. It’s not the way it should be, but this is the way it is.”
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.
During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?
In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021. Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.
The story of al-Jalaa tower
The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.
Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi
Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.
The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.
Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.
After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.
The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.
As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.
Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi
Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”
Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?
“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”
Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:
“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”
Joe Dyke heads the investigation team at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars Anas Baba is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Gaza
UK prime minister Boris Johnson has said his government is in talks with its US counterparts to ensure that American citizens can enter the UK “freely” and “in the way they normally do,” Reuters reported on Wednesday. The Financial Times reported earlier this week that the UK was expected to announced the reopening of England for fully-vaccinated travellers from the EU and US this week.