Commentary—Finally, it’s time for the US to stop pulling strings in Haiti

Haiti’s deepening crises have so far been resistant to the Biden Administration’s proposed solutions, but that is because the United States resolutely blocks the easiest solution of all – ceasing the interference that generated the crises in the first place. Haitians have demonstrated their capacity to negotiate and compromise to get their democracy back on track, but each time the United States has blocked the plans in order to promote its friends at the expense of Haiti’s democracy.

Haiti’s government is led by Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was installed in 2021 by the Core Group, a collection of countries led by the United States that does not include Haiti. Henry has no constitutional legitimacy. His reign has brought Haitians an unending series of deepening economic, security, and political disasters. The recent armed group takeover of much of Port-au-Prince is the latest in the series, but probably not the last.

Henry followed the directions that the US Embassy gave him, so no matter how much horror his regime inflicted on Haitians, the State Department propped him up persistently enough for his term to extend longer than that of any Haitian prime minister in at least 40 years. The armed group takeover prevented Henry from returning to Haiti and that made him no longer useful to the United States, which has tossed him aside. Henry announced last week that he will resign when a new government is named, but challenges in forming a new government might extend his record streak for weeks or months.

Shortly after Henry’s 2021 imposition as prime minister, a broad-based collection of Haitian civil society came together to propose the Montana Accord, which would have created a consensus-based transitional government to stabilize Haiti and run fair elections within two years. The United States rejected the proposal on the pretext that the two-year timeline was too long. That was 31 months ago, and Haiti now has no elections in sight.

This dire situation was not only predictable, but it was also predicted. Haitian-American officials, Haitian civil society, members of Congress, and other experts had been warning for years that the US propping up of Henry would lead to increasing tragedy for Haitians.

Many of these voices came from Massachusetts, including Boston City Council President Ruthzee Louijeune, US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, US Sen. Ed Markey, and Massachusetts’s Haitian American community. The Biden Administration ignored these pleas and stood resolutely by its friend, until the armed groups – many with connections to his government and PHTK party – rendered him no longer useful. The US quickly pivoted to a new structure that would maintain its control over Haiti but with new faces with less baggage.

The State Department announced meetings in Jamaica under the auspices of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to establish a replacement for Henry. The department insisted from the start that anyone participating in the transitional government must agree, in advance, to support the deployment of a Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission led by Kenya.

The proposed MSS may be the most ill-considered mission in the long history of ill-considered armed foreign interventions. Henry proposed it to the UN Security Council in 2022. The stated purpose was to combat gangs, but Haitian observers contend the mission would primarily serve to buttress Henry’s regime against growing popular protests. Haitian civil society opposed the mission, repeatedly insisting that the first step toward security must be a transitional government with the legitimacy to organize elections and determine how the international community can best help Haiti.

Delays in finding a country to lead the mission led to a year’s long delay in the UNSC even voting on the proposal. Even then, although the Security Council approved the mission last October, it did not want to be associated with it. The authorizing resolution insisted that the mission not be an official UN mission, that the organization would have to take responsibility for it because it would need to apply too much “robust use of force” on Haitians.

The countries that the Biden administration first tapped to lead the mission, including Canada, Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors, and Brazil, knew enough about Haiti to refuse to lead the mission, precisely because it was propping up a hated regime and would lead to disaster. The Biden administration, likely concerned about election-year cell phone videos of troops shooting indiscriminately in crowded neighborhoods – as happened with the last foreign intervention in Haiti – refused to send US troops.

Last August, Kenya – 7,500 miles away with no diplomatic relations with Haiti, but in need of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the United States offered – agreed to lead the mission. But the exploratory delegation that Kenya sent to evaluate conditions in Haiti quickly realized how deadly the planned mission would be for Haitians and Kenyans alike, and proposed to limit its scope to protecting public infrastructure.

The United States was not open to renegotiating the deal, and Kenya withdrew its proposed limits. But Kenya’s High Court blocked the deployment as unconstitutional. Ariel Henry then opened the door to the armed group takeover when he flew to Kenya on March 1 to sign an accord that Kenya’s president, William Ruto, hoped would overcome the court’s objections. Kenyan lawyers insist that the agreement itself is illegal and are continuing their challenge. In the meantime, Kenyan officers who had volunteered for the mission are changing their minds. The Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on March 12 that due to the lack of a government to work with in Haiti, it was suspending deployment.

But after a call from US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Ruto reversed course the next day and said the mission was back on. Republican leaders in the US Congress present another obstacle by their refusal to appropriate funding for the mission until they receive better justification for the expenditures.

Meanwhile, the Jamaica talks are stalled. On March 11, CARICOM announced that seven sectors had the right to name a member of the Presidential Council if they agreed to accept the MSS and provided their nomination within 48 hours. Although most sectors named their candidate quickly, one has so far refused to participate, and another has named two. A week later the Council is still not operational, with the most recent 24-hour deadline having expired on March 16.

The expected next steps are the US naming, perhaps through CARICOM, other sectors to designate a Presidential Council member. That process may succeed sooner or later, but it is unlikely to put Haiti on the fast track to democracy, for several reasons.

One is that the US has signaled clearly that it will continue its persistent control of Haiti’s government by imposing its conditions on the Presidential Council. A legitimate, broadly supported, sovereign transitional Haitian government might request foreign police assistance. But a government allowed to form only if it accepts a US-imposed occupation force originally designed to prop up a hated, repressive government is not sovereign.

Such a government may not be legitimate or broadly supported either. The Montana Accord and the Fanmi Lavalas party had for principled and practical reasons persistently opposed the MSS since it was announced But they were faced with the bad choices of reversing their popular stand or sitting out and letting sectors with no chance of winning fair elections rig the rules for the next one. So, they named their Council member on the hopes that such a flawed process might nevertheless produce a modest democratic opening.

In the end, only Haitian voters can decide whether this compromise was justified. But in the meantime, many of the groups’ supporters will be alienated by the choice.

With the US pulling the strings, some sectors granted a seat at the table will conclude, astutely, that their most likely path to power is through appointment by the State Department rather than election by Haitian voters. They will have little incentive to compromise toward fair elections, and significant incentives to quietly sabotage the process in the hopes that things will break down enough for their opportunity to arise. This concern is magnified with a large, seven-member presidency, a dynamic that presages a long, drawn-out path to elections that may not be very fair.

The armed groups themselves are trying to push into the negotiations. They are getting help from former US Ambassador to Haiti Pamela White, who told Fox News on March 17 that the armed group leader Guy Philippe, who finished a US federal prison sentence for drug money laundering last September, “is someone that can help with situation and I believe we should be dealing with him.”

There is an alternative: Let Haitians negotiate and compromise with themselves to come up with a process that has support outside the US Embassy compound in Haiti. The US could jump start this process today by dropping its insistence on the MSS and on its proxies having a seat on any transitional government.

When allowed, Haitians have a history of coming together to make their way out of a crisis. Haiti won its independence in 1804 by defeating Napoleon, with no outside help. In 1986, when the US finally withdrew its support from Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haitians eventually wrested power from the military, established a new Constitution, and held fair elections. In 2006, they voted their way out of the crisis created by the 2004 ouster of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by the United States, France, Haitian elites, and Guy Philippe.

Skeptics will say that the past two centuries of US policy to Haiti provide little reason for hope that the US will seize the current opportunity to allow democracy in Haiti. Haitians will point out that President/Slaveowner Thomas Jefferson’s refusal to recognize the second independent nation in the Americas in 1804 (reversing the pro-sovereignty position of his predecessor, Quincy’s John Adams, a slavery opponent) lasted 60 years.

Haitians will keep connecting dots through the 1915-1934 Marine Occupation, our support for the Duvaliers (until Baby Doc, like Ariel Henry, was dumped when no longer useful), and the 2004 coup d’état, right up to today.

The skeptics are probably right that Haitian democracy and sovereignty will never be given by the United States. But during St. Patrick’s holiday time in Boston, it is worth reflecting on how Haiti’s democracy and sovereignty might be seized in the long run. Ireland, the original English colony, suffered seven centuries of occupation and forced underdevelopment, followed by decades of economic dominance after partial independence. But the Irish kept fighting for true sovereignty, in the home country and by developing political power in the diaspora. Today, Ireland is not yet completely free – the United Kingdom still clings to Northern Ireland – but the parts of Ireland that are free constitute one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe, with a per-capita Gross Domestic Product exceeding the United Kingdom’s by some measures.

There are reasons to believe that Haitians have a chance to seize their democracy back, too. Haiti has a long and rich tradition of community organizing, but underdevelopment, repression, and outside interventions have left the organizing historically fragmented within the country and isolated from the world outside. But the advent of social media, and a new generation skilled in its use, is allowing broader organizing in Haiti and connections abroad that facilitate the delivery of news, analyses, and calls to action directly from anywhere in Haiti to a worldwide audience. The Haitian diaspora in the United States is blossoming in numbers, education level, economic success, and professional attainment, all of which are inexorably transforming into political power.

The Biden Administration now faces a choice. It can, like President John Adams, embrace an opportunity to have a stable, prosperous, but not subservient neighbor. Or it can, like President Jefferson and his successors, continue to ensure that Haiti remains unstable and poor. If the Administration does not want to listen to Haitians and Haitian Americans, perhaps it will listen to Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever… Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

Human rights lawyer Brian Concannon is the executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.