Two years ago last month, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. Since then, the nation has been overrun by gang violence and terrorized by a massive uptick in homicides, rapes, and kidnappings. On top of that, it’s been pummeled by a series of natural disasters.
In October 2022, Haiti’s de facto prime minister, Ariel Henry, took the rare step of calling for foreign military intervention to help his police combat the gangs and restore some semblance of security. The UN Security Council, with the strong backing of the United States, is seriously considering the proposal.
Meanwhile, as of January of this year, not a single democratically elected official is currently serving in the Haitian government or parliament. Haitians and their supporters in the international community want an eventual democratic transition in Haiti, but so far Washington has not exerted any pressure on Henry to pursue such a course of action, and, as Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, tells RS, the de facto prime minister has “no incentive to negotiate towards fair elections, because there's no chance he's going to win.”
Concannon explained the dynamics that keep Henry afloat in a February piece for the Security Times. “De facto Prime Minister Henry and the PHTK are rationally playing the cards in their hand, and will continue doing so until the game changes,” he wrote. “They cannot win a fair election, so they have no incentive to make any compromises that might oblige them to organize one. (...) As long as the international community keeps propping up the PHTK, there will be no cost, and much benefit, to intransigence.”
Unfortunately, Concannon tells RS today, very little has changed since then. Haiti, he says, is, “stuck in a rut where you have an illegitimate, repressive, corrupt government that the U.S. is supporting.”
In recent weeks, Kenya has volunteered to send 1,000 officers to train and support the Haitian police, leading a proposed multinational force — a development which seemed unlikely a few weeks ago. The United States and Canada have been hesitant to lead such an operation, given the West’s checkered record in Haiti and the 13-year UN peacekeeping force there that ended in 2017.
While the multinational force was largely successful in restoring order, its Nepali contingent introduced cholera, which spread throughout the country and exacted a devastating toll on the population. Some elements within the force were also credibly accused of committing sexual assault. Nonetheless, Washington is now leading a push for a multinational force, which will require the Security Council’s approval.
“The United States looks forward to working with partners of Haiti to advance this process successfully, including through a UN Security Council Resolution authorizing a multinational force to Haiti,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Aug. 1.
The Washington Post editorial board has embraced this proposal. “The moral justification for outside intervention has only become clearer since this board endorsed that course of action” almost two years ago, when Moise was killed, it said on Aug. 3. “In the absence of any homegrown force that can restore stability, let alone organize democratic elections, Haiti’s only realistic hope is outside intervention.”
Notably, much of the editorial focuses on the potential downsides of such an intervention and how to guard against them, rather than what an operation would concretely accomplish.
Robert Fatton, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, is not very optimistic about the potential success of this intervention — even if it does pass the Security Council. Fatton pointed to the fact that Kenyan police do not speak French or Creole, do not have experience fighting gangs, and have a poor human rights record. “I’m not sure it’s going to happen, and even if it were to happen, I'm not sure that it would resolve the problems. And if it were to resolve some of the problems, it would be very short term,” he told RS.
There has reportedly been a shift in attitude toward outside intervention among the Haitian citizenry. According to an International Crisis Group report from last December, hopelessness on the ground has nudged public opinion toward accepting a multinational force, despite the potential repercussions.
Haitian Doctor Jean W. Pape made a similar case in the New York Times in June. “We have a tragic record of foreign intervention in Haiti. In our history as an independent nation, Western powers made us pay a very high price for our freedom, resulting in systemic misery and poverty,” Pape wrote. “But today I cannot see another solution.”
Last week, the Senate held two hearings on Haiti. One was the confirmation hearing for Dennis Hankins, President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Port-au-Prince.
The other, entitled, “Haiti: Next Steps on the International Response,” was hosted by the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What was clear from both hearings was that Haiti is not currently top of mind for U.S. lawmakers — only a handful of Senators attended either hearing — and that many of the members and witnesses agreed there is no simple solution to the situation in Haiti.
During the hearings, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the chairman of the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, maintained that the ultimate goal of U.S. policy is to ease Haiti’s transition to new elections. But a common refrain from a number of senators, including Kaine, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), last week was that the political situation could not be addressed until security is restored.
“I think we really have not engaged in Haiti the way we need to,” Menendez said during Hankins’ confirmation hearing. “Unless we have a multinational force to ultimately provide for security, we cannot do all the rest. We cannot have political development, unless we have security. We cannot have economic development — which Haiti desperately needs — unless we have security.”
Some experts, however, argue that the opposite is true. Haitians who do not view Henry’s government as legitimate have no desire to support a force that may only strengthen and legitimize him. “This is why it's so critical to have a government of national unity. If you don't have one, then people who oppose that government will say that they are hostage to the international community,” says Fatton. “So not resolving the political situation makes it very difficult to legitimize an international intervention.”
When American officials and other members of the international community have spoken to Henry about a political transition, “there's no talk about anything that would actually involve power sharing, which is what civil society and the opposition and basically everybody else is asking for. And that's where a foreign armed intervention does very clearly alter the balance of power,” Jake Johnston, Senior Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told RS.
During his testimony in front of the Senate subcommittee, Nichols made clear that the primary demand that he heard from Haitians and members of the Haitian diaspora is that any intervention “not be used as a way to maintain the current prime minister in power indefinitely.” He also noted that Henry has offered assurances that “his goal is to hold an election.”
Both Concannon and Johnston suggest that the Biden administration is seeking a way to navigate the current circumstance with minimal political downsides for Washington. In that context, the U.S. and its partners may opt for re-establishing a basic level of stability and security in Haiti to keep the current leader in power, rather than push for elections.
“Right now probably the main concern is that somehow the Biden administration is going to be perceived as owning this problem,” especially if there are elections and the country descends into deeper chaos or an unfriendly figure wins, says Concannon.
Johnston agrees: From a U.S. policymaker's vantage point, “sticking with Henry is the easiest option and the lowest risk option. [If] you change policy, you do something different and things don't go in the U.S. favor, then you get blamed for that,” he says.
If this path of least resistance is indeed the one that Washington and its partners choose to pursue, it may only continue the violent cycle that Haiti has been trapped in for decades. If the goal is only to restore basic security in the short term, “then what you're going to get is very much what we got” in past interventions, warns Fatton, “that is to say you establish a modicum of security and a few years afterwards things fall apart.”
Haiti has been stuck in chaos for more than two years. After much waiting, there is now a possibility of an outside force intervening. While many may welcome this effort to restore security, there is no real confidence that this sort of intervention may work, and no long-term vision for how such an intervention can get Haiti back on the right track.