The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti last week destabilized a country that was already in peril. In the midst of the chaos, the new interim government reached out to the United States for help, requesting US troops to help secure key infrastructure and prepare the country for new elections. The United States must heed these calls and come to Haiti’s aid. The Biden administration’s response so far has been dangerously inadequate; a new approach is needed now before it is too late.
Haiti needs help. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with nearly 60 percent of the population living in poverty. Conditions were exacerbated by the devastating 2010 earthquake, which killed at least 220,000, and Hurricane Matthew six years later. Armed gangs control roughly 60 percent of the country’s territory.
Haiti also faces an acute political crisis — competing constitutions outline different processes for presidential succession; two men currently claim to be the legitimate prime minister; almost all of Parliament remains vacant; and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Moïse’s possible successor, died from COVID-19 just two weeks ago.
The economic, political, and security problems plaguing Haiti are not new, and as a result, the United States has a long history of intervening in the country. Following the assassination of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, in 1915, the United States occupied the country militarily for the next 19 years. In 1991, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted from power in a military coup. A US military intervention in 1994 reinstated him. When Aristide was forced into exile by another military coup in 2004, the United Nations Security Council authorized the deployment of peacekeepers to the country, where they remained until 2019. The Obama administration deployed 20,000 US troops to provide security after the 2010 earthquake.
Many people inside and outside of Haiti have been critical of previous international involvement and oppose US involvement now. While some efforts were successful, others were heavy-handed, paternalistic, and indifferent to the wishes of Haitians. The 2010 UN mission led to a cholera epidemic that killed over 10,000 people, and peacekeepers engaged in rape and sexual assault.
Yet the failings of previous interventions are not a reason to stay out. Indeed, it is why the United States needs to remain engaged. It bears partial responsibility for Haiti’s predicament today and must share in the responsibility of helping to rebuild the country.
If the United States does not intervene, other countries will. Haiti maintains strong relations with Taiwan and is one of just 15 countries that maintains diplomatic relations with it rather than with China. Throughout Latin America, China has been engaging in “vaccine diplomacy,” providing much-needed vaccines in exchange for political influence. It has already been pressuring Haiti, which is in a particularly vulnerable position, having not yet received any COVID-19 vaccines. Russia, too, has been providing vaccines to Latin American countries, and its crucial role in helping Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro cling to power demonstrates that it will go to great lengths to undermine US interests in the region.
Even those who oppose US intervention can agree that it is better for the neighboring democracy to take the lead rather than an authoritarian government primarily interested in extending its geopolitical influence in its rival’s region.
The Biden administration, however, has indicated so far that it is going to do little. It has shown no desire to deploy troops, only offering the assistance of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security in the investigation of the assassination in what amounts to a token gesture.
The United States hopes to begin delivering vaccines to Haiti sometime in the next week, but the number of doses will probably be small, and the White House noted that delivery will depend on the conditions of the Port-au-Prince airport, highlighting the problems related to infrastructure and security that require foreign assistance to solve. The paltry $5 million it is providing to the Haitian police to combat gangs will do little to address the security vacuum. There is no hope for an effective vaccination program in the short term or democratic elections in the long term without some minimum level of security.
Fresh off announcing the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Biden administration understandably does not want to get involved in another foreign conflict, something for which the American public has shown little appetite. In this case, though, the administration must do what is right, even if it isn’t popular. The United States needs to provide Haiti with much-needed security, assistance in launching a significant vaccine rollout, increased economic development aid, and, eventually, support for democratic elections. It has a responsibility to help Haiti in this crucial moment.
Andrew G. Reiter is associate professor of politics and international relations at Mount Holyoke College.