Haiti again appears to be on the cusp of foreign intervention.
Gangs have been blocking the country’s largest fuel terminal since mid-September 2022, strangling Haiti’s food and energy supplies. The World Food Program says Haiti is in urgent need of humanitarian aid.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s government began calling in foreign troops in early October to help get the upper hand against the gangs. The first international response was a UN resolution to ban the primary gang leader, former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Charizier.
More direct involvement may be on the horizon. The Biden administration has indicated that the US And Mexico plans to submit another proposal for UN Security Council consideration that would authorize a “non-UN international security assistance mission” to curb violence and facilitate the delivery of aid.
The situation in Haiti today is alarming, but as a scholar of 20th-century Haitian history, I am concerned that foreign intervention runs the risk of making a bad situation worse—as has happened there repeatedly for more than 100 years. I believe that any response must carefully consider how past aid and military interventions have shaped the dire situation facing Haitians today.
Foreign influence has long dominated Haitian internal affairs.
Initially enslaved in a brutal French sugar colony, Haitians won their freedom and independence in 1804 after 13 years of war and revolution.
But the kingdom of free blacks was viewed with suspicion by the surrounding slave-holding empires in North and South America. There were many attempts to weaken, control or contain the young country.
The most extensive of these efforts was the US occupation of Haiti.
In 1915, the US occupied Haiti and ruled it as a client state for 19 years. The pretext for the invasion was to quell political unrest in Haiti, but scholarship shows how the US was primarily interested in protecting and expanding its economic interests in the region.
Many white Americans justified the occupation because of their paternalistic views of black people. And many U.S. in Haiti. The Marines shared a Jim Crow mentality about race, which shaped the style of governance and exacerbated tensions between light-skinned and dark-skinned Haitians.
The US military claimed to be the modern force in Haiti, but the changes it made weakened the country’s institutions. He undermined Haitian political autonomy by establishing a puppet government that rubber-stamped laws drafted by US officials.
The US invested heavily in the capital Port-au-Prince while allowing the rest of the country to decline. When US troops left in 1934, power was concentrated in the central government, leaving Haiti’s provinces weak and the country with few counterweights to executive power.
This centralized system became a major responsibility when François Duvalier was elected president of Haiti in 1957.
A black nationalist, Duvalier found support by mobilizing racial animosity that had been exacerbated by the US occupation. He had little respect for democratic norms and leaned on violent paramilitary forces to crush his opponents.
Within a few years, Duvalier had established a kleptocratic dictatorship that ruled over a major collapse of Haiti’s economic and political life. After his death in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, took over as “President for Life”.
The younger Duvalier, who characterized himself as a modernist, enjoyed ever-increasing support from the international community, particularly the United States. But reforms remained superficial and Haiti’s government was still authoritarian.
In 1986, a popular uprising fueled by a grassroots, spiraling economic crisis and social discontent drove the Duvalier family into exile.
Struggle with democracy after dictatorship
Since then, Haitian political life has been a push-and-pull of democratic aspirations and authoritarian repression. In the wake of the dictatorship, Haiti reinvented itself as a constitutional democracy, but the political transition remains incomplete to date.
Duvalier’s loyalists and army allies violently disrupted the first election attempt in 1987. When the vote was finally held in 1990, the people elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a left-leaning populist and former Catholic priest, in a landslide. Historic levels of voter participation.
But once again, anti-democratic elements in the elite and military intervened, toppling Aristide after a few months in office and installing a violent military junta.
President Bill Clinton sent troops back to Haiti in 1994 to oust the junta and restore Aristide.
Aristide was overthrown again in 2004, triggering new waves of political violence. A US, French and Canadian coalition sent an “interim international force” of troops to help restore order and organize new elections.
They were soon replaced by the Brazilian-led blue-helmeted UN peacekeeping mission known as MINUSTAH. Initially planned as a six-month intervention, those forces remained in Haiti until 2017.
When Port-au-Prince was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010, Minustah forces were already on the ground. The international community launched a massive, poorly coordinated relief and recovery effort, but, like American business a century earlier, the primary beneficiary was the private sector in the US and other major donor countries.
MINUSTAH’s most lasting legacy was the cholera epidemic caused by poor sanitation practices at UN bases in rural Haiti.
The current crisis
MINUSTAH and the Obama State Department oversaw Haiti’s 2010 presidential elections and were instrumental in the victory of pop star-turned-politician President Michel Martelly, who quickly gained a reputation for corruption.
He was succeeded by his chosen successor, Jovenel Moise, who dissolved parliament in 2020. According to human rights agencies, he worked with local gangs to terrorize his opponents.
Moise was murdered in July 2021 – a murder that remains unsolved. Without Parliament, there is no constitutional line of succession.
The Haitian government has since moved on under the leadership of Henry, an unelected and unpopular official who has been associated with Moise’s alleged assassins.
Despite these concerns, Henry has enjoyed US support over his rivals. A coalition of Haitian civil society groups drafted a proposal for a new interim government to take power and hold elections.
But negotiations with Henry’s government went nowhere. Given the vacuum of legitimate power, Moise empowered gangs have begun to portray themselves as independent political actors. Charizier joined many local leaders in demanding Henry’s resignation or power sharing.
Critics are concerned that Henry, unrestrained by a democratic mandate or a functioning parliament, plans to use foreign troops to strengthen his political position.
And while past foreign interventions in Haiti have often been launched in the name of stability and democracy, they have not proven to be able to deliver either.