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Will the international community intervene in Haiti — again?

The pressure is on, despite a nightmarish history of foreign meddling in the Caribbean nation.

Analysis | Reporting | Latin America

Crises in Haiti often portend military intervention by the United States or other outside forces. The United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, and since then, persistent political and societal upheaval has served as the impetus for armed interventions. 

These interventions of course have tended not to help Haiti. “Meddling in Haiti's affairs, not to protect democracy, but to protect U.S. interests, has been the norm,” said Monique Clesca, a Haitian writer and activist, in an interview with RS. 

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed from office in 1991 but a U.S. intervention successfully restored him in 1994.  With the Caribbean nation confronted with another political crisis a decade later, the United States then pressured Aristide to resign, replaced by a U.S.-backed provisional government. The United Nations Stabilization Mission troops in Haiti, also known by its French initials MINUSTAH, were brought in and were stationed in Haiti from 2004 to 2017. Itis best remembered for the widespread sexual assault committed by peacekeepers and the disastrous spread cholera that a Nepali contingent brought with them. 

MINUSTAH was a “failure by any standard,” Brian Concannon, the Executive Director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti tells RS, “except for keeping democracy out of Haiti.”

In short, the United States’ history in Haiti has failed to create any kind of sustainable political change, instead yielding a cycle of crises and foreign intervention interspersed with other periods of calm in which the quality of life for most Haitians has remained poor and stagnant. Given the history of international meddling, Clesca told Responsible Statecraft, “even the thought of an intervention in Haiti is almost sacrilegious.” 

Now, Haiti is confronting another major crisis, and the calls for another intervention are ratcheting up. In October, Haiti’s de facto prime minister, Ariel Henry, took the rare step of calling for foreign military intervention. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has asked for “a specialized armed force” to help restore order in the country. The New York Times reported in late November that top officials in the Biden administration are hoping to organize a multinational armed force to intervene  —  which as of now would not include the United States. 

Against a backdrop of increasing gang violence, economic turmoil, food and fuel shortages, yet another cholera outbreak and political crisis, the request for some kind of action is understandable. But Haitians themselves do not all necessarily agree with the Henry government’s request.  Initially, there appeared to be a more broad consensus against intervention. 

In October, for example, the U.S.-based Haitian Times reported that “to many Haitians, the request is a threat to Haiti’s sovereignty [and] an insult to Haitian people.” An NPR report from the following month read “talk to people in the streets of Haiti, and the overwhelming response is emphatic against another foreign intervention.” 

The Montana Accord, a civil-society led group of Haitians who oppose the current regime has released a statement that reads, in part, “History teaches us that no foreign force has ever solved the problems of any people on earth."

There appear to be three primary fears driving the opposition to intervention. First, the country’s colonial and intervention-heavy history creates a concern that even foreign influence that is framed as humanitarian or narrow in scope can easily transform into another protracted nation-building effort.  

Second, there are worries that introducing foreign armed forces into an already dangerous and highly combustible situation could escalate, instead of decrease, violence in Haiti. As Daniel Foote, the former Special Envoy to Haiti who resigned in protest of the Biden administration’s policy and who has been a vociferous critic of intervention, told The New Republic in October, “Foreign soldiers seen as an invading force, propping up a dictator, could be met by more than street protests. There could be a bloodbath.” 

In addition, there is always an elevated risk of violence when unfamiliar foreign forces are forced to differentiate between innocent protesters and  gang members.

Third, critics say bringing in foreign forces risks legitimizing if not strengthening Henry’s unelected rule, which is under a cloud of accusations tied to the assassination of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. 

Jake Johnston, Senior Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told RS that the U.S. and its partners may be more interested in re-establishing basic stability in Haiti to keep their preferred leader in power, rather than see a true transition to democracy. “Henry is the embodiment of the political system that has been created and perpetuated by the international community in Haiti (…) to me the motivation is to get Haiti back on the tracks it was on, to get things back to how they were two or three years ago,” he says. “Troops feed into that because that is the mechanism by which you can get to that next point quickest.”

Some of the protests against Henry have also included vitriol directed at the United States. A common chant has been “Down with the prime minister! Down with the occupation!” and protesters have demonstrated with Chinese and Russian flags, presumably symbols opposing western imperialism. 

There are countervailing considerations. Even some Haitians who understand the catastrophic history of international interventions and acknowledge the potential repercussions of another one have been driven to a certain level of hopelessness by the conditions on the ground. Intervention may be a bad option, but, among the range of available bad options, it may not look as terrible as the status quo. As the situation on the ground worsens there is a sense that in the short term, foreign help may be the only way to fight back against the gangs’ grip on power, even if it would not provide a sustainable fix.  

A recent report by the International Crisis Group sums it up: ‘While some Haitians see these risks as outweighing the potential benefits of such a mission, others — seemingly especially those in gang-held areas — do the same calculation and arrive at the opposite result.”

Another consideration driving U.S. officials pushing for an intervention is a desire to thwart the possibility of a major wave of Haitian migrants coming to the United States. Even a short-term neutralizing of gangs could limit the possibility of such an exodus. The New York Times reported that the number of migrants from Haiti intercepted by the Coast Guard is already four times greater than it was last year. 

What’s missing here is any sense of what such an intervention would look like or what it would hope to accomplish. The recent push from administration officials to put together an intervention force is partly a continuation of Washington’s constant desire to “do something” when confronted with crises overseas — and doing something so often means turning to military solutions.

“There is an assumption there that a military intervention can do something to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. And I think that’s a mistaken assumption,” says Johnston. “Explain to me how this is actually supposed to address these concerns. I don’t think anybody has an actual plan for how this is supposed to work in a way that is at all feasible."

A woman displaced by gang violence reacts after she and others were removed by authorities from the Hugo Chavez Square where they had taken refuge, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti November 17, 2022. REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol
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