A number of international powers have come to the conclusion that something drastic may have to be done to address the spiraling crisis in Haiti. But none of them are in any particular hurry to do it.
With armed gangs controlling as much as 60 percent of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, according to U.N. estimates; skyrocketing rates of murder and sexual assault; catastrophic levels of hunger; and a fast-spreading cholera epidemic, Prime Minister Ariel Henry has repeatedly called in recent months for Haiti’s international partners to deploy a “specialized armed force” to restore order.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres concurred, saying in November that “armed action” would be needed to restore humanitarian access to areas controlled by gangs.
The United States responded to Guterres’ call by drafting a U.N. resolution to authorize a “multinational rapid action force.” Many believe such a force could be led by Canada, which, like the U.S., is home to a significant Haitian diaspora and has played significant roles in past interventions in the island. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed that “we have to intervene in one way or another.”
But months after Henry’s and Guterres’ original pleas, there’s little momentum for an international force. The U.N. resolution lost steam, in part because veto-wielding China and Russia would be unlikely to support it, but also because no country appears to be in a hurry to offer troops to take part in such a mission.
The Biden administration has suggested it’s interested in organizing an intervention outside the U.N. framework, but it has also made clear that it doesn’t want American troops to participate. The U.S., after all, has a less-than-distinguished history of military interventions on the island, and 16 months after the fall of Kabul, there’s little appetite in Washington for another risky military mission. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has suggested a mission could be led by a “partner country with the deep, necessary experience required for such an effort to be effective.”
Looking for volunteers
Brazil’s military led the last U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, which was deployed in 2004. The Brazilian president at the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has returned to power, but his advisers have already made clear it’s unlikely Brazil would repeat what was a very unpopular mission.
And for all his earlier enthusiasm, Canada’s Trudeau now seems more reluctant, saying in late November that Henry’s request for troops isn’t enough and that “there needs to be a consensus across political parties in Haiti before we can move forward on more significant steps.”
This would be a tall order in a country with more than 200 political parties, and David Beer, a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who led the U.N. Police mission in Haiti in the mid-2000s, told Grid that Trudeau’s comments were probably “political talk for ‘We’re talking to the Americans.’”
At a recent State Department press conference, Grid asked deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel whether the U.S. had made any progress on finding a government willing to take part in an intervention. He replied that “the conversation continues to be ongoing with our allies and partners and other countries. I’m not going to get ahead of those ongoing discussions, but at the United Nations and across the U.S. government, negotiations continue with partners and other council members to set defined and specific parameters for a mission and find the most effective means to support, enable and resource it.”
Despite the lack of recent progress, several experts and policymakers who spoke with Grid expect some sort of international mission to be announced in the coming months.
“[Generally], I’m completely against an international peacekeeping force,” Daniel Foote, who served as U.S. special envoy for Haiti until resigning in 2021 in protest of the Biden administration’s policies, told Grid. But he added that the authorities and international community “have let the situation slide to such a catastrophic place right now that my friends in Haiti are telling me, ‘Man, we need help.’ So at some point, there is probably going to need to be some sort of international security assistance.”
Foote added, “If it’s done incorrectly, it’s going to be worse than doing nothing.”
Anatomy of a crisis
When discussing the violence, dysfunction and human suffering currently plaguing Haiti, it’s difficult to know just where to start. The country is still reeling from a series of disastrous hurricanes over the past decade, the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake and the cholera outbreak that followed, and more than a century of dictatorship, war, foreign military intervention and coups. Not to mention the legacy of colonialism and slavery, including a crippling foreign-imposed debt.
The current phase of the crisis dates to the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The murder is still unsolved, though a New York Times investigation presented evidence of at least a motive: Moïse was reportedly about to uncover a drug trafficking ring with links to powerful business and political figures.
After a brief power vacuum, Henry, a former neurosurgeon who had been appointed prime minister by Moïse just two days before the assassination but never sworn in, became acting president with the backing of several international powers including the United States.
The country’s powerful criminal gangs then took advantage of the political chaos to expand their territory and challenge the country’s security forces. Boasting ever-larger arsenals of high-powered firearms — many of them purchased legally in the United States — the gangs have become more brazen and more politically ambitious. The most powerful gang, G9, led by former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, blockaded the country’s main fuel terminal for two months last year, demanding Henry’s resignation.
The gangs reportedly use murder, torture and rape to force residents of areas they control into submission, and their growing territorial footprint has left many parts of Haiti outside the reach of government services, medical care, schooling or even water delivery. This, in turn, has led to a fresh outbreak of thousands of cases of cholera — a disease that has been endemic in Haiti since 2010. Nearly 5 million Haitians now face food insecurity, according to the U.N. Yet another earthquake in 2021 compounded Haiti’s misery.
Faced with this spiraling crisis, the government has seemed to be floundering. There have been recurrent mass protests against Henry’s rule and its failure to stop the violence. The demonstrations escalated sharply in September after Henry cut fuel subsidies, resulting in skyrocketing gas and kerosene prices.
The problem with intervention
Monique Clesca, a Haitian civil society activist and writer who supports an opposition movement known as the Montana Accord, told Grid that Henry’s call for intervention is “nonsensical.”
“There is no military intervention being asked to go to Ethiopia, to go to El Salvador, to go to Honduras, to go to Peru,” she said, naming other countries in the midst of political crises. “I don’t see why there should be a military intervention to go to Haiti. It is a sovereign country.”
The fact that it’s Henry calling for intervention means that any such mission would have an immediate credibility problem. Though Biden administration officials have promised that they won’t “pick winners and losers” in Haiti’s politics, Henry is widely viewed in Haiti as a Washington-backed leader.
As Vicki Huddleston, a veteran U.S. diplomat who served in Haiti for several years, told Grid, “The problem is that we have an illegitimate president right now in Haiti. If we intervene now, we’d be supporting him.”
The Biden administration also has to contend with suspicions that its main concern is not helping Haiti, but preventing further Haitian migration to the U.S. at a time when its border policies are under fire. The U.S. deported more than 20,000 Haitians during President Joe Biden’s first year, a process that included shocking scenes of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing down migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border. Early last month, the administration extended deportation protections to some 100,000 Haitians now living in the U.S., but the protection won’t extend to those who arrive in the U.S. going forward. It was what he called the administration’s “inhumane” and “counterproductive” deportations that prompted Foote to resign. He also cited a “cycle of international political interventions in Haiti” that “has consistently produced catastrophic results.”
Any U.S. mission would have to contend with the troubled legacy of its previous interventions in Haiti. These include a 20-year military occupation that ended in 1934, a 1994 mission to reinstall President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after a military coup and another in 2004 to remove Aristide from the country after another coup. (Aristide alleged that he was essentially kidnapped by the U.S. military, which the George W. Bush administration denied.) Beyond these military interventions, the U.S. has meddled in other ways, subtle and not, in the country’s politics over the years.
As for the U.N., the MINUSTAH mission had some success in tamping down violence but ended as ignominiously as any U.N. mission in recent memory. Its legacy includes widespread allegations of sexual assault by peacekeepers — including of children — hundreds of “MINUSTAH babies” abandoned by their peacekeeper fathers, and the admission by U.N. officials that the mission had likely introduced cholera in the country, an outbreak that persists to this day and has resulted in nearly 10,000 deaths.
Despite this grim history, an increasing number of government and nongovernmental organization officials are coming to the conclusion that foreign intervention might be, as International Crisis Group Latin America and Caribbean director Renata Segura recently wrote, “the least bad option.” In an article for Foreign Affairs, Segura quoted Samuel Madistin, the president of a Port-au-Prince civil society organization, saying, “People are kidnapped every day. The police are even incapable of protecting themselves. Women are filmed being raped in the street. … Whether one is for or against foreign military intervention in the country is not the right question. For us, the question is whether today Haiti has crossed the threshold of the duty to interfere. We think so.”
The path ahead
Georges Fauriol, an expert on Haiti at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid, “What’s been emerging, I think, over the last 90 days is sort of a wobbly sort of three-part plan” from the international community to help stabilize the situation in Haiti.
The first element in such a plan, which has already been implemented, was a series of sanctions by the U.S. and Canada targeting Haitian politicians and business leaders over gang ties, including the president of the country’s senate and a former interior minister. The second is a series of measures to provide equipment and technical assistance to Haiti’s beleaguered police. The third, a deployment of foreign troops, is the source of current debate. Fauriol said that “at some point, probably, as we move into January, some form of security force intervention will probably become necessary. It’s likely to be something they don’t call an intervention but more or less serves that function.”
Whatever it’s called, the mission will have its work cut out for it. Beer, the Canadian former police officer, said the challenges of foreign security intervention in Haiti include the “complete lack of a functioning government and functioning justice system, the extent of corruption, the influence of the economic elite [who often have ties to criminal gangs] and the history of the participation of the government in illicit activities.”
In Beer’s view, a new intervention to tackle gang violence is “not going to succeed unless the international community, maybe the U.N., takes over the government for a few years, recreates public services, and government structure, and a judicial system that can stand on its own.”
He conceded that there’s little appetite either in Haiti or in the international community for this option.
A Haitian solution?
When Grid asked Clesca whether a basic level of safety would have to be restored before Haiti’s political paralysis could be addressed, she replied, “I think you’ve asked the wrong question. There should be a political solution first, and then you can talk about security. With Ariel Henry, it’s really clear that there will not be a real security solution, because ever since he’s been in power, it’s gotten worse.”
International governments repeatedly call for a “Haitian-led solution,” which would likely involve some agreement between Henry and the Montana Accord — an umbrella organization of dozens of political parties and civil society groups calling for new elections. So far, progress toward such an agreement has been hard to detect.
But, striking a rare optimistic note, Fauriol noted to Grid that “for all of the crises and problems the country is going through, there’s a fairly energetic civil society and political community that is still there and survives.”
Foote, the former U.S. diplomat, added, “We, the United States and the international community, needs to take a leap of faith with the Haitian people. We need to believe that the Haitian people can come up with a solution to resolve their own problems.”
For now, those problems are growing only more dire.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.