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The U.S. Should Let Haitians Decide Their Own Future


Haiti’s simmering political crisis reached a boil late last month when local armed groups, led in part by ex-cop Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, declared war on Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government. In just a few weeks, these disparate gangs have forced Henry to step down and enter impromptu exile in Puerto Rico as unrest wracks his country.

But fear not—as Haiti descends into political chaos, Washington’s brightest minds have developed a two-pronged plan to fix it. It’s a classic of the genre.

The Biden administration’s plan revolves around a Kenyan-led police intervention to restore order, which the United Nations Security Council approved last year. On the political side, the U.S. is leading talks in Jamaica to install a transitional council that would take Henry’s place until new elections can be held.

But there’s a catch. Anyone who wants a seat on the council must agree to an international intervention, leaving all Haitians opposed to such a move out of the conversation. Worse, Kenyan courts have serious reservations about sending their police to fix a crisis abroad; following Henry’s resignation, authorities in Nairobi have said they will consider deploying security forces only once a new government is in place and a fact-finding mission can be conducted. This is perhaps why the U.S. has haltingly begun to entertain the idea of sending American troops as part of an international coalition to restore order.

If all of this seems a bit illogical, that’s because it is. In a world wracked by crises, the U.S. has little to gain by imposing a half-baked plan on a country that has long opposed American intervention in its internal politics.

And, as POLITICO revealed this week, “half-baked” may be a bit generous. A 33-page planning document that the White House has been circulating in Congress gives no real detail about how the UN force would be funded, how Kenyan forces would work with local police to beat back the armed groups, and whether foreign troops will engage directly in the fighting. Indeed, it doesn’t even give a clear timeline for success, saying only that the mission will start with a nine-month mandate that can be renewed as needed. Little wonder, then, that congressional Republicans are blocking funds for the vaguely defined effort.

The best path forward is far simpler. As was the case in Afghanistan, the U.S. can best serve Haiti by taking a step back and allowing Haitians to decide their own future. As Jake Johnston—a Haiti expert at the Center for Economic and Policy Research—recently told me, the tortured history of U.S.-Haitian relations leaves no other choice. “You can’t impose the government from an external source or power,” Johnston said. “It’s not going to work in the long run, however much we might want it to.”

Conversations about Haiti tend to focus on images of chaos and poverty, but few Americans ask where that chaos comes from. In reality, much of Haiti’s current woes stem from shoddy, short-sighted U.S. policy. Over the past century, consecutive American governments have posed as the island nation’s savior only to undermine its hopes for democracy at every turn.

Haiti’s financial woes date back originally to its founding in 1804, when Jean-Jacques Dessalines squared off against Napoleonic France and, beyond all odds, won independence for his countrymen. The upstart nation got the cold shoulder from its neighbors, many of whom feared that the successful slave revolt in Haiti would inspire copycats across the Western hemisphere.

Haiti would only reach a modus vivendi with Western powers when it agreed, under threat of a new invasion, to pay France a kingly sum to recognize Haitian independence. The ransom strangled Port-au-Prince for over 100 years, forcing Haitian leaders to fork over most of their annual tax revenue just to service the debt.

While President Woodrow Wilson preached sovereignty for all nations, he sent U.S. troops to occupy Haiti in 1915. Wilson’s reasons were twofold: Policymakers feared that chaos in Haiti could threaten U.S. security, and American banks held a great deal of Haitian debt. In short order, U.S. occupation forces rewrote the country’s constitution (including new provisions that legalized foreign ownership of Haitian land and established a national army) and set out to control its political scene, an arrangement that would hold until America’s withdrawal in 1934.

The U.S. continued an uneasy but often close relationship with Haitian authorities in the ensuing years. Washington lent support to a notorious father-son dictatorship from 1957 until 1986, when military leaders forced dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier into exile. A shaky transition gave way to the country’s first ever democratic elections in 1990, won by a leftist Catholic priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

American officials were opposed to Aristide’s redistributionist, left-wing agenda and often accused him of being an authoritarian in democratic clothing. His tenure only lasted a few months before a new coup, backed by intelligence agents who had worked closely with the CIA, forced him into exile. The priest managed to claw his way back and win election again in 2000, only to be deposed in a second coup in 2004, with the alleged backing of U.S. officials anxious to see Aristide leave power.

Things have only gotten worse since. A UN force occupied the country from 2004 to 2017 in a mission that helped stabilize the security situation but also led to a massive outbreak of cholera. When elections took place just months after the 2010 earthquake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton allegedly intervened to help elect Michel Martelly—an erratic former pop singer who pushed the country toward authoritarianism. (American officials also went to great lengths to oppose Aristide’s return to Haiti despite his continued popularity, as WikiLeaks cables revealed.)

The past few years have been no different. When Martelly was pushed out, the U.S. backed his successor Jovenel Moïse to the hilt, including when he dissolved parliament and began ruling by decree. Following Moïse’s 2021 assassination, American officials threw their support behind Henry as Haiti’s rightful ruler, even though he had only been named prime minister two days before the killing and had never been sworn into office. With U.S. backing, Henry followed in the authoritarian footsteps of his predecessors and gradually lost control of the country.

This history leads to an inescapable conclusion: When Washington puts its finger on the scales of Haitian politics, chaos ensues. This brings us back to the current crisis.

In short, years of corruption and poor governance have empowered armed groups to act like neighborhood mafias, providing some services to local communities while shaking down shop owners for protection money and warding off police attention. These disparate gangs have at times worked with the government, as in 2018 when they helped break up a popular protest movement.

Popular hatred for Henry’s regime led the local armed groups to attempt to overthrow the government last year, but their effort faded within weeks following disagreements over a path forward for the country. This year’s effort has been much more successful, though significant doubts remain about whether the gangs will manage to hold the line this time around. If they do, any military intervention from abroad will likely lead to a protracted civil war.

The latest flare-up in violence is certainly concerning for Haitians, who now face a breakdown of social order that has only worsened food insecurity in the cash-strapped country. Gang violence has pushed at least 300,000 people from their homes over the past year, and some form of humanitarian aid remains necessary to prevent total collapse.

But we have to accept the fact that U.S. intervention—military or political—isn’t going to make the situation better. Haitians are the only ones capable of solving their own crises. It’s time that foreign powers give them the space to try.

Continue Reading at The American Conservative.

The American Conservative

The American Conservative is a bimonthly print and daily digital magazine of measured, principled conservatism. We believe in ideas over ideology and principles over party.

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