It’s been just another day at the office in Port-au-Prince.
President Jovenel Moise was assassinated. The murder might have been organized by Haitian expatriates. It could have been an inside job. Perhaps it was criminal gangs. Or, suggest the conspiracy-minded, the CIA was back to its old tricks.
Amid two constitutions, desiccated institutions, and multiple factions, at least four men claimed to be Moise’s successor. The lower house of the legislature is empty, with elections long overdue. Only a third of the members of the upper house remain in office. The head of the country’s supreme court died of COVID-19.
Haiti’s imbroglio trumps any drama in Washington, D.C., even during the Trump years. Unfortunately, Haiti has suffered through similarly unnerving events throughout its history.
Originally a French colony which implemented a particularly brutal and deadly form of slavery, the country of Haiti emerged from an extended slave revolution. Over the years, decades, and centuries there have been dictators, populists, crooks, coups, elections, murders, revolts, demonstrations, and poverty, always terrible, overwhelming, grinding poverty. Throughout the country’s history, outsiders—including France, Dominican Republic, the U.S., and United Nations—have added to Haiti’s misery.
So what is the solution to Haiti’s latest offense against good governance? Foreign occupation, of course! The Washington Post pushed “swift and muscular international intervention.”
Sure, “sending U.N. troops is worrying,” admitted the Post a little later. “But does anyone have a better idea?”
Now there’s a convincing argument for forcibly occupying another nation!
Bombing other nations is worrying—it might kill innocent civilians. But does anyone have a better idea?
Sanctioning other nations is worrying—it might starve innocent civilians. But does anyone have a better idea?
Invading other nations is worrying—it might get the U.S. entangled in an endless war. But does anyone have a better idea?
Using nuclear weapons is worrying—it might destroy the planet. But does anyone have a better idea?
The first problem with the U.N. option is: been there, done that. Washington took over in 1915 and stayed two decades. America went back in 1994, after threatening war if the ruling junta did not vacate. Whatever values the U.S. intended to impart apparently didn’t take in either case.
The United Nations arrived in 2004 and left only four years ago. The mission was intended to impose law and order. Which obviously didn’t work, since that is precisely what is lacking today. To call the UN’s record “mixed” is an understatement, given the deaths of some 10,000 Haitians from a cholera epidemic caused by the international force’s negligence, as well as multiple rapes by foreign troops.
However, this experience didn’t deter the Post. Indeed, the unfortunate history of outside interference goes unmentioned by those who set forth their agenda on behalf of humanity. And the newspaper expects U.N. troops to perform miracles.
They would first have to be peacemakers,
to get a grip on the gang violence that has impeded delivery of food, medical supplies and other assistance. With gun battles raging in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and cutting off main roads to provincial towns, relief groups have often been stymied in their distribution efforts. Meanwhile, thousands of people, terrified by the gang warfare and an epidemic of kidnappings for ransom, have fled their homes to the countryside, where basic health services and food supplies are inadequate.
This pessimistic assessment is widely shared. Government officials worry about “urban terrorists” who might be used to attack infrastructure and “create chaos.” Robenson Geffrard, a reporter with the Nouvelliste, feared the “shadow of violence” over Port-au-Prince. Economist Tyler Cowen argued that “These days the risk of kidnapping is so high that a visit is unthinkable.” Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations called Haiti “a Hobbesian state of nature—Somalia in the Caribbean.”
Thus, peace would have to be made before it could be kept. Would the U.S. or U.N. patrol the streets? Send soldiers door-to-door to make arrests? Set up courts to try miscreants? Establish official U.S. or U.N. prisons? And enforce authority throughout the country? Americans would be particularly vulnerable targets.
Of course, that’s not all. Admitted the Post:
in addition to an absence of basic security, Haiti is faced with a power vacuum in which at least four men have staked a claim to its government; no constitutional road map exists for installing an interim president; and the national police and army, which have proved powerless or complicit in the rising gang violence, report to no one. No agreed-upon blueprint has emerged in Haiti to extricate the nation from its mayhem.
Heck, it sounds like a nascent paradise that should be easy for the U.N. to fix! The international organization could just ask everyone to let their better angels take over, accept the occupiers’ good intentions, yield authority to others unknown, trust their fate to an international process which has consistently failed, and enjoy the bounty sure to flow.
What could possibly go wrong? Boot concluded that “the world still needs and wants America for lack of any better alternative.” Alas, Washington’s recent Mideast misadventures not just failed to improve the situation. They made it worse, prolonging and even intensifying conflict without compensating benefits.
Boot worried that “Life in a lot of places will become more nasty, brutish and short if we permanently lose the will to act as a liberal hegemon.” That sounds like a lot of places after America sent troops.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the sectarian struggle triggered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Tens of thousands of civilians died in Afghanistan, a conflict Washington could not win despite the presence of some 140,000 U.S. and allied troops. Thousands of civilians died in Libya in the various iterations of civil war over the past decade.
At least there is no active combat in Haiti. However, with an American or U.N. occupation local forces would vie for advantage. Already “the international community” has raised local hackles by playing favorites among those vying to succeed Moises. Violence likely would result. Certainly, the stage would be set for clashes once any foreign troops eventually left.
Although some leading Haitians favor U.S. intervention, there is no groundswell of popular support for foreigners to take over the country. Outside intervention is usually manipulated to benefit selfish interests. MIT’s Malick Ghachem argued: “Time and again, foreign powers have placed economic and political pressures on the Haitian state that have exacerbated domestic political conflicts, often by favoring the interests of the country’s export-oriented commercial elite with ties to North America and Europe. (Jovenel Moise himself emerged from this same elite.)”
Previous interventions left significant scars. Ghachem pointed to “The 1915 U.S. military occupation of Haiti—justified as an effort to stabilize the country following the last assassination of a Haitian president (Vilbrun Sam), while advancing the interests of American businessmen looking to establish plantations there.” Valerie Jean-Charles of Woy Magazine said following that occupation were “years of weakening of Haitian institutions and senseless killings of many Haitians.” As for the recently ended U.N. mission, Haitian writer Monique Clesca said its “nickname is ‘cholera’ or ‘Minustah’ [the operation’s French acronym] babies.”
Understandably, many Haitians strongly oppose any foreign occupation. Clesca declared: “We do not want U.S. troops, U.S. boots, U.S. uniforms, none of that.” She believed “the international community” to be “complicit” in Haiti’s events, contending that “Because in Haiti, Haitians have been traumatized by the occupation of the country during 34 years by the United States, we do not want U.S. intervention or troops or anything.”
Although President Joe Biden sent officials, a “technical team” in administration parlance, to the island to assess the problems and brief him on their return, he doesn’t seem inclined to deploy American troops to patrol Port-au-Prince and the rest of the country. “The idea of sending American forces into Haiti is not on the agenda at this moment,” he said last week.
However, Haitian officials have not given up. “This is not a closed door. The evolution of the situation will determine the outcome,” argued elections minister Mathias Pierre. True, but it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a foreign occupation, at least one dependent on America, would be appropriate. Military intervention requires an affirmative case. Contra the Washington Post, not knowing what else to do does not count as a reason, let alone a serious one.
All nations have difficulties. Haiti’s troubles have been extraordinary. Especially striking is the government’s veritable disintegration: with too many presidential claimants and too few legislators, what can be done? No wonder the Post warned: “Without international intervention, the country’s ordeal will deepen.”
However, outsiders have consistently failed to put the country right. People of good will should do all they can to assist. Especially helpful would be aid from individuals and organizations outside of politics. In the case of Haiti over-politicized states at home and abroad have been the greatest enemy of the Haitian people. Making politics work for, rather than against them is necessary to have any chance of success.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.