‘The big elephant in Haiti’: As country sinks into anarchy, how much is U.S.’s fault?

Originally published in the Miami Herald by Andres Viglucci

When a sitting Haitian president was assassinated in 1915, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines to protect American interests and secure stability. The military occupation, which lasted 19 years, marked the start of more than a century of close and controversial U.S. entanglement in the volatile internal affairs of Haiti.

Though the particulars of the always-fraught relationship between Haiti and the United States have since shifted time and again, one thing has not: Very little of real political import happens in Haiti without the involvement of the U.S. government.

U.S. policy in Haiti has been inconsistent at best, observers and insiders say, swinging from maintaining order at gunpoint to decades of propping up repressive, reviled leaders through political pressure and monetary and military aid. In more recent years, U.S. policy has focused on trying, and mostly failing, to secure a measure of democracy, political stability and economic development for the Caribbean country. When things go wrong, as they often do in a poor nation long prone to political instability and shattered by a series of natural disasters in the past two decades, American administrations have shouldered the blame from Haitians and the outside world, accused at times of doing too much or, at others, not enough. That persistent dynamic has come into stark relief once more as Haiti stands at a dangerous new boiling point following the 2021 assassination of unpopular, U.S.-backed President Jovenel Moïse. The installation by the U.S. and its allies of an acting prime minister widely seen by Haitians as both incompetent and corrupt sparked a shooting rebellion by an alliance of heavily armed criminal gangs that has left the country on the verge of political, economic and civil collapse.

Once again, the specter of a U.S. military incursion hovers in the wings, even as the Biden administration and State Department officials maneuver furiously behind the scenes to stave off disaster while avoiding an overt intervention.

“Let’s put it bluntly: Haiti is a little country a few hundred miles from us,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. “You cannot understand Haitian politics without looking at the presence of the U.S. Whether it is positive or malicious, that depends on the period. But it’s inevitable. Haitians in general don’t like that. But they are stuck with it. The U.S. is the big elephant in Haiti.”

One indicator of the outsize importance to the U.S. of Haiti, a country of barely 12 million people that has little geopolitical significance: The U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince is by some measures one of the biggest American diplomatic installations in the world.

Fatton and critics from a wide range of viewpoints agree on one overriding perspective: Before and after the Moïse assassination, a series of U.S. blunders worsened Haitian political instability, further weakened already feeble government institutions and helped set the stage for the current anarchy by unwittingly empowering the gangs now holding much of the country and its cowed population hostage.

Few now see any good solutions in the offing or immediate cause for hope. But observers say the crisis in Haiti is one neither the American people nor their president can afford to ignore, given the risks of political chaos it poses in the United States’ backyard and the dire potential for a grave humanitarian crisis.

Read the full article here.