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How to help Haiti get back on its feet

The US should support local Haitian efforts in establishing a transition commission and should stop propping up the current government. It must allow the Haitian civil society to take the wheel.

People displaced by gang violence rest in a school turned into a long-term shelter in Port-au-Prince on Sept. 16.Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

When it comes to addressing the ever-worsening situation around Haitian migrants, there are a couple of policy levers that Haitian and Black immigrant rights advocates are calling on the Biden administration to use.

The most urgent short-term measure is for the US government to stop expelling would-be asylum seekers to Haiti, a country so beleaguered politically and economically by a series of multifaceted crises that it cannot possibly absorb the repatriation of thousands of its citizens.

Less discussed is a possible long-term solution for the US-Haiti relationship, a decades-long affair that’s been controversial and complex, in no small part because of the strong perception of American meddling in Haitian presidential politics. Now the United States has an opportunity to play an important role as the country seeks to stabilize itself: to support local Haitian efforts in establishing a transition commission and to stop propping up the current government. In other words, the United States must enable the Haitian civil society to take the wheel.

That doesn’t mean that a local Haitian commission would assume power. Nor are the members of the commission in opposition to current political leaders. Instead, the commission “represents a broad swath of Haitians working together to establish democratic norms. They are facilitating a legitimate and democratic process to allow Haitians to choose their own leaders in this moment when fair and free elections are not possible,” wrote Pierre Espérance, the executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network, in a Newsweek opinion piece.


If that sounds like a simple thing to do, that’s because it is. To be sure, US government officials, in general, have supported the idea of strengthening Haitian civil society organizations. That’s encouraging talk, but what Haiti needs now is for the United States to walk the walk.


In reality, the Biden administration generally supports Haiti’s current unelected leader, Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Henry assumed power two weeks after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, in July. Elections were originally planned for this fall, but they have been postponed pending a review of Haiti’s constitution. Yet the process to conduct that review is unclear and has been complicated by critics who have called it too partisan.

Meanwhile, the US special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned last month over Biden’s refusal to halt expulsions to Haiti. It was a highly unusual move because Foote was vocal about his reasons. “I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the dangers posed by armed gangs in control of daily life,” Foote wrote in his resignation letter.

But Foote also harshly criticized the United States and other allies’ current role in Haitian politics, calling it “international puppeteering.”

“Last week, the US and other embassies in Port-au-Prince issued another public statement of support . . . for the unelected, de facto Prime Minister Dr. Ariel Henry as interim leader of Haiti,” Foote wrote. “The hubris that makes us believe we should pick the winner — again — is impressive. This cycle of international political interventions in Haiti has consistently produced catastrophic results.”


Instead of heeding Foote’s urgent call to correct course, the Biden administration refuses to stop repatriating Haitian migrants back to the island. According to advocates, the United States has expelled more than 10,000 Haitians in less than a month. The quick expulsions have been made possible by Biden’s continued use of Title 42, a Trump-era border policy put in place as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s worth noting that Trump’s former senior adviser Stephen Miller — long identified as the architect of Trump’s most inhumane immigration moves — was behind the triggering of Title 42 to prevent migrants at the border from seeking asylum. (A limited number of Haitians were allowed in the United States in recent weeks to seek asylum.)

Without a stable country that could safely welcome the deportees, desperate Haitians will keep coming back to the United States. Last week, a bipartisan group of 16 US senators — including Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren — implored the Biden administration, in a letter, to rescind Title 42. “Haiti is attempting to recover from a ‘triple tragedy of natural disasters, gang violence, and the COVID-19 pandemic,’ according to Henrietta Fore, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF),” the senators wrote.

Indeed, no one can dispute that Haiti is still reeling from a constellation of tragedies. What Haiti needs now is to chart a course toward stability, and the transition commission created from Haitian grass-roots groups and civil society organizations offers a credible process to that end. These Haitian civil society actors deserve the Biden administration’s full support.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.