Cite Soleil is a young place. Fifty years ago, if you were to visit the land that is now known as the most dangerous place in the Caribbean, you would have found acres of sugar cane fields going almost up to the ocean’s edge. There would have been railroad tracks that were used to transport the sugarcane down to a processing factory, which was next to the wharfs where ships docked, waiting to take the sugar to overseas markets. The only residences were a group of state-built houses for government employees, and this settlement was known as Cite Simone, named after Simone Duvalier, the wife of the president-for-life, Francois Duvalier.
Over the course of the next fifty years, rural Haiti went through a series of economic crises. Political instability, neo-liberal economic policies, and environmental degradation forced hundreds of thousands of rural Haitian families into a mass exodus from the countryside. Most of those families went to Port au Prince to search for work, and of those families, many ended up settling in Cite Soleil, where access to cheap housing and factory jobs was easiest. Several new housing projects failed to keep up with the ever-increasing population, and people began to build informal housing and shacks on whatever land they could, mostly in floodable plains by the sea. By the early 2000s, Cite Soleil had anywhere from 300,000 to half a million residents crammed into a strip of land that was less than 21 square kilometers. It had become the most densely-populated place in Haiti.
But life was challenging for the hundreds of thousands of people trying to make a living by the sea. Many of the factories in and around Cite Soleil closed in the early 1990s due to political instability, and tens of thousands of young people found themselves without work. Economic frustrations and a sense of political marginalization led young men across Cite Soleil to take up arms. They were called chime, bandi, mafia, but outsiders called them ‘gangs’ – and they had a complex role in the community. The state had been absent from Cite Soleil for decades, and so the gangs filled this void by providing protection, a justice system, and provide financial capital for community projects. But they also abuse their power: endangering their neighborhoods through wars with other gangs, diverting resources, manipulating their communities for political gain, and killing with impunity. Communities were afraid of their local gang leaders but also in many ways dependent on them, and they trusted their gangs more than the police or government.
The power of the gangs grew through the years, until by 2004, the gangs were in full control of the territory of Cite Soleil. In 2006, the Haitian government decided to try to take back control of Cite Soleil with the help of the United Nations peacekeeping mission MINUSTAH. From 2004-2006, Cite Soleil was a war zone, barricaded off from the rest of the capital, with tanks in the streets and helicopters overhead. Many innocent civilians died during this period. By 2007, the main gang leaders of the time were either killed, in prison or in exile, and the state regained some control. However, the underlying socio-economic and political conditions that created the gangs to begin with were not solved, and so the gangs themselves continued to exist. In addition, the violence of the 2004-2006 period left Cite Soleil with a serious stigma, where most of Haiti thought of Soleyans as gangsters and criminals. This further isolated Cite Soleil from the rest of the country, and made it challenging for young Soleyans to find work in or out of Cite Soleil. Cite Soleil remains to this day the most marginalized area in the country, and has essentially become ghettoized. Cite Soleil is the only municipality in Port au Prince without two functioning state schools, without a bank, without a gas station, without a youth center, without a professional school, without a university.
Fore a more in-depth history, click here.
A Brief Overview of Cite Soleil
Above: map of Haiti, with Port au Prince highlighted
Above: map of Port au Prince, with CIte Soleil highlighted