Just a couple of days after Jovenel Moïse, the president of Haiti, was shot dead in the middle of the night at his home by a group of assailants, some government officials in the island nation were asking the United States to send military assistance.
Moïse’s assassination left the country bracing for more political turmoil and violence, and a troubling leadership vacuum. Since 2018, Haitians have been protesting, on and off, the increasingly violent and oppressive status quo that has been a result of Moïse’s creeping authoritarianism. In the immediate aftermath of Moïse’s killing last week, there have been questions about who should be in charge because the line of succession is unclear.
And yet, as chaotic as the situation on the ground may seem on the streets of Port-au-Prince, what Haiti may need the least of right now is intervention from the Biden administration.
“We don’t want US troops, US boots, US uniforms . . . none of that,” Monique Clesca, a Haitian activist and former United Nations official, told CNN. Clesca has been vocal in warning about the dangers of more American meddling in Haitian affairs. “Haitians have been traumatized by the occupation of the country during 34 years by the United States. . . . And the international community is complicit in what is going on in Haiti because it has not heard our cries, has not provided a certain amount of solidarity to the point that sometimes I have asked, ‘Do Haitian lives matter to anyone?’ ”
Clesca is spot on. There are resounding calls from Haiti’s civil society groups to reject any foreign intervention. It’s long overdue to start listening to what Haitians want. If the country is going to have a chance at building a true democracy, it must be through a Haitian-led path.
Almost since the day Haiti became the first independent Black-led republic and the first nation in the world to abolish slavery, during the Haitian revolution at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s, its citizens have been hobbled by foreign invasion and occupation. The best intentions have not been enough. For example, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, United Nations peacekeepers brought cholera to the country — an epidemic that lasted a decade and left more than 10,000 Haitians dead.
Or take what happened in 2004. According to Brian Concannon, founder of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and executive director of Project Blueprint, a nonprofit working at the intersection of human rights and US foreign policy, the United States politicized foreign aid to Haiti, which by then had been experiencing nine years of democracy, and used it to undermine the government. “That worked … And it’s why, when you talk about ‘intractable problems,’ it’s because the US does stuff like that.” Nor has throwing vast amounts of money — or troops — at Haiti mitigated the damage. Since the earthquake devastated the island, more than $13 billion in foreign aid has flown into Haiti.
As others have noted, a profound paradigm change is needed around Haiti, starting from the paternalistic language used, almost reflexively, to describe the country’s historical challenges — “protracted,” “intractable.” Instead, a more nuanced perspective is needed, one that incorporates the role the United States has played.
Theories about who assassinated Moïse and why continue to swirl. A team of US officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security arrived Sunday in Haiti to assess needs. “That’s really where our energies are best applied right now — in helping them get their arms around investigating this incident and figuring out who’s culpable … and how best to hold them accountable,” John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, told Fox News.
It’s not exactly encouraging — a US presence sends the wrong message. “It’s as if I’m lying on the ground and someone’s got their foot on my throat and they ask me, ‘Are you hungry?’ ” Concannon said. “My response is, ‘Get your foot off my throat and then we can talk about it.’ ”
Any immediate foreign assistance going to Haiti will inevitably be politicized and corrupted. At the same time, the humanitarian challenges in Haiti are real. For instance, Haiti has not administered a single COVID-19 vaccine. But first thing’s first — for now, the United States should just let Haiti breathe.