Why the US should tread carefully as it weighs supporting armed intervention in Haiti again

Haiti seems to have fallen back on the precipice of foreign intervention.

Gangs have been strangling Haiti’s food and energy supplies since mid-September 2022, blocking the country’s largest fuel terminal. The World Food Program says there is an urgent need for humanitarian aid in Haiti.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government called in early October for foreign troops to take on more forces against the gangs. The first international response was a UN resolution to impose sanctions on the primary gang leader, former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherisier.

A more direct intervention may be on the horizon. The Biden administration has indicated that the United States and Mexico plan to submit another resolution for consideration by the UN Security Council that would authorize a “non-UN international security assistance mission” to curb violence and facilitate the delivery of aid.

The situation in Haiti today is dire, but as a scholar of 20th-century Haitian history, I worry that foreign intervention risks making a bad situation worse, as it has repeated there for more than 100 years. I believe any response must carefully consider how past aid and military interventions have shaped the dire situation facing Haitians today.

US occupation

Foreign influences have long exercised power over Haiti’s internal affairs.

Initially enslaved by a brutal French sugar colony, the Haitians won their freedom and independence in 1804 after 13 years of war and revolution.

But a state of free black people was viewed with suspicion by slaveholding empires around North and South America. There were many attempts to weaken, control or control the young country.

The most extensive of these efforts was the US invasion of Haiti.

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In 1915, the United States occupied Haiti and ruled it as a client state for 19 years. The pretext for the invasion was to calm political turmoil in Haiti, but scholarship has shown how the United States was primarily interested in protecting and expanding its economic interests in the region.

Many white Americans justified the occupation because of their paternalistic views of blacks. And many US Marines in Haiti shared a Jim Crow mentality about race, which shaped governing styles and exacerbated tensions between light-skinned and dark-skinned Haitians.

The US military was touted as a modernizing force in Haiti, but the changes it made weakened the country’s institutions. It undermined Haitian political autonomy by installing a rubber-stamp puppet government drafted by US officials.

The US invested heavily in the capital, Port-au-Prince, while the rest of the country declined. When U.S. troops left in 1934, power was concentrated in the central government, Haiti’s provinces were weak, and the country offered few countermeasures to executive authority.

Members of the armed forces walk down a city street in the early 20th century.
US Marines traveled to Philadelphia before sailing to Port-Au-Prince in 1915.
Bettmann/Getty Images

Duvaliers

This centralized system became a major liability when François Duvalier was elected president of Haiti in 1957.

A black nationalist, Duvalier found support by mobilizing racial antagonisms exacerbated by the US occupation. He had little respect for democratic norms and turned to a violent paramilitary force to crush his opponents.

Within a few years, Duvalier established a kleptocratic dictatorship that oversaw a major decline in Haiti’s economic and political life. After his death in 1971, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier took over as “President for Life”.

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Portraying himself as a modernizer, the younger Duvalier enjoyed increasing support from the international community, particularly the United States. But the reforms were superficial and the Haitian government was still a dictatorship.

In 1986, a popular uprising fueled by grassroots organizing, spiraling economic crises and social discontent exiled the Duvalier family.

A young man in a suit stands sternly with a military officer by his side.
Dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as ‘Baby Doc’, ruled Haiti after his father’s death in 1971.
Alain Mingham/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Struggling with democracy after dictatorship

Since then, Haitian political life has been a push and pull of democratic aspirations and authoritarian repression. In the aftermath of the dictatorship, Haiti rebuilt itself as a constitutional democracy, but the political transition remains incomplete to this day.

Duvalier loyalists and military allies violently disrupted the first attempt at an election in 1987. When the vote finally took place in 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a left-leaning populist and former Catholic priest, scored a landslide victory. Historic levels of voter turnout.

But once again, anti-democratic elements within the elite and the military intervened and overthrew Aristide a few months later and installed a violent military junta.

President Bill Clinton sent troops back to Haiti in 1994 to oust the junta and reinstall Aristide.

Aristide was ousted again in 2004, unleashing a new wave of political violence. A US, French and Canadian coalition sent an “interim international force” to help restore order and organize new elections.

They soon became known as MINUSTAH, the blue-helmeted UN peacekeeping mission led by Brazil. Originally planned as a six-month intervention, the force remained in Haiti until 2017.

When Port-au-Prince was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010, MINUSTAH troops were already on the ground. The international community launched a massive, poorly coordinated relief and recovery effort, but like the American occupation a century earlier, the primary beneficiary was the private sector in the United States and other major donor countries.

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MINUSTAH’s most lasting legacy was a cholera epidemic caused by poor sanitation practices at a UN camp in rural Haiti.

Posters of former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide
A supporter of former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide displays his posters in 2014.
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

The current crisis

MINUSTAH and the Obama State Department oversaw Haiti’s 2010 presidential election and were instrumental in securing the victory of President Michel Martelley, a pop star-turned-politician who quickly gained a reputation for corruption.

He was succeeded by his chosen successor, Jovenel Moïse, who dissolved parliament in 2020. According to human rights agencies, he worked with local gangs to terrorize his opponents.

Moise was murdered in July 2021 – a murder that remains unsolved. Without a parliament there is no constitutional line of succession.

The Haitian government has since moved on under the leadership of Henry, an unelected and unpopular official linked to Moise’s alleged assassins.

A funeral for a Caribbean leader
Officials attend a memorial service for Haitian leader Jovanel Moise, who was assassinated in July 2021.
Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP via Getty Images

Despite these concerns, Henry enjoyed the support of the United States over his rivals. A coalition of Haitian civil society groups drafted a proposal to put a new interim government in power and organize elections.

But negotiations with Henry’s government have gone nowhere. Given the vacuum of legal authority, gangs empowered by Moïse have begun to assert themselves as independent political actors. Chérizier has joined many local leaders calling for Henry to resign or share power.

Critics worry that Henry, unconstrained by a democratic mandate or a functioning parliament, plans to use foreign troops to strengthen his political position.

Although past foreign interventions in Haiti have often been launched in the name of stability and democracy, they have not proven capable of delivering.

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