Haitian advocates call for US policy reset as crisis deepens

Originally published in The Hill by Rafael Bernal

Haiti advocates in the United States are calling on the Biden administration to rethink its approach toward the country amid gang warfare threatening to topple the U.S.-backed government.

Haitian acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry is in Puerto Rico, unable to return to his country under threat of “civil war” by an alliance of gangs.

Henry had left Haiti on a mission to secure a Kenya-led police force to supplement the Caribbean nation’s own police in a U.S.-backed attempt to prop up his government.

“The U.S. and the international community is using Kenya as a Black face to go do the same thing they always do,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a Haitian diaspora nonprofit organization.

“The Kenyans don’t speak Haitian Creole, they don’t speak French, they don’t understand Haitian culture. Just because they are Black doesn’t mean that they can just go to Haiti and do what needs to be done.” 

The gang-led violence, political instability and threat of foreign intervention are par for the course for Haiti, a country that’s dealt with either international blockades or active intervention for much of its history.

Henry, whose 30-month stint makes him the longest-tenured prime minister since the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, came to power by essentially taking over the Haitian Tèt Kale Party, or PHTK, in the aftermath of former President Jovenel Moïse’s 2021 assassination.

Under Henry, criminal gangs have become increasingly brazen and violent, overpowering the poorly paid and equipped National Police.

“The Haitian Government has never been able to provide adequate government services. And if you go back to the Duvalier dictatorship, they kept gangs down by repression, by shooting people on sight,” said Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

Concannon added that gangs have grown and become more powerful over the past four decades, prompted by a series of governments unable to provide basic services.

“[That process] has been much faster under some governments — the PHTK is by far the fastest, and that’s because they’ve been dismantling the government in a way that’s created such a power vacuum,” said Concannon.

Haitian advocates have for years called on the Biden administration to withdraw its support for Henry, but that support had remained steadfast until the current governance crisis unraveled.

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller on Wednesday told reporters that the United States was working with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) on finding a path to free and fair elections.

“And as the situation on the ground grows increasingly dire, we and CARICOM have continued to call on stakeholders, including the prime minister, to make concessions in the interest of the Haitian people,” said Miller.

“So we are not calling on him or pushing for him to resign, but we are urging him to expedite the transition to an empowered and inclusive governance structure that will move with urgency to help the country prepare for a multinational security support mission to address the security situation and pave the way for free and fair elections.”

Advocates and researchers now worry the United States will fall into its historical pattern of negotiating with power structures in Haiti while ignoring civil society.

“What we’ve seen often in the past is you get a transitional government and even when it looks like it can exert some independence, it is punished by foreign powers and constrained [in] what it can actually do and results in this pattern of another flawed election that is unlikely to result in anything resembling long-term stability,” said Jake Johnston, a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. 

“That’s not inevitable, right? That doesn’t have to be the outcome. That’s the outcome because of the actions of certain actors in Haiti and also the international community.”

Over the past four decades, the gangs have joined the country’s economic and political elites among Haiti’s power brokers.

“In Haiti, there always has been this ongoing negotiation among all four of those four main power structures: the government, the U.S., Haitian elites, and the gangs. And they’ve been constantly negotiating their relationships,” said Concannon.

“So between the elites and the gangs, for example, there are elites who run gangs. There are elites who pay protection money to gangs, who hire the gangs, sometimes to attack their opponents. There’s a long history of collaboration between the gangs and the economic elites. It’s constantly negotiated. And it’s the same thing with the the Haitian governments, and it’s also with the international community.”

If historical trends hold, foreign powers with interests in Haiti, including the United States and Canada, will seek to push those power brokers toward a new government, prioritizing stability.

The Biden administration is committed to finding that stability by introducing a foreign police force to Haiti.

“But we have always been clear that there needs to be a transition to free and fair elections in Haiti, and we have been clear that we need to see the deployment of a multinational security support mission to address the dire security situation on the ground. So we are continuing to work through both of those things,” said Miller.

“We are making progress on deploying the [multinational security support mission]; we want to see that happen as soon as possible.”

Haiti’s history with foreign intervention — from U.S. military occupation between 1915 and 1934, to the more recent 2004-2017 U.N. peacekeeping mission — has left many Haitians with little appetite for new deployments.

“The viability of importing security is never going to be a sustainable solution. You look at the cost of this proposed Kenya mission: $600 million for a year. The Haitian National Police’s budget is $200 million a year, and they’re not even able to pay salaries right now,” said Johnston. 

“So, could that money be better used to strengthen local capacity to build up local institutions and actually have a durable Haitian solution to this? You know, I think so. But that, of course, again, requires doing things very differently than they’ve been done in the past.”

The last U.N.-brokered mission, for instance, is infamous for playing a role in introducing cholera to a country that had previously been free of the disease.

Because of that history, Haitians are suspicious of the interlocutors who engage with the international community, and of the international community’s ultimate interests in engaging Haiti.

“[Foreign actors] need to be talking to civil society. They need to be talking to people who are wanting and asking for change,” said Jozef.

“They cannot be talking to the PHTK or the oligarchs. It needs to be people within different parts of the society [to] come to the table and discuss the needs they have for Haiti. I think one of the mistakes that always happens is they will talk to just one group of people and it will be based on what is in the best interest of the international community, but not necessarily in the best interest of Haiti.”

Haiti observers say the Biden administration will be tempted to talk to traditional power brokers to replace Henry with a similar figure.

“His real power was the United States government. That’s who named him. That’s who supported him. And that’s who kept him in power. And without that support, he’s no longer able to exercise power. The U.S. can easily find someone else that will fill those shoes,” said Concannon.

But Henry’s failure came despite the backing of the Biden administration, highlighting how U.S. support is not the be-all and end-all of Haitian politics.

“They backed Henry really out of this notion of stability, but their backing of Henry has caused the instability that they’re now responding to. That’s an important dynamic to understand,” said Concannon.

“And in a lot of ways, I think the U.S. sort of backed themselves into a corner, right? They pushed this situation so far that now there might actually be a lot less leverage that they can utilize to control what comes next.”

And though Haitian civil society says it is ready to try a new approach, the urgency to act fast is very real.

“People are … completely displaced, [while] those who are still at home are being confined within the walls of their homes where they don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” said Jozef.

“Right now, it’s very bleak. I don’t know if [Henry] returns based on what we are hearing from people like [gang leader Jimmy Chérizier] and others that are willing to continue to fight against him being in the country. So if he returns we might have a bloodbath in Haiti right now. But if he doesn’t return, then what is the next step? That’s the big question. Right, whether he returns or not, what is the next step?”