HomeWorld NewsAnalysis | The history of foreign intervention in Haiti is ugly

Analysis | The history of foreign intervention in Haiti is ugly

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The chaos in Haiti is getting worse. Almost three years after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in his home July 7, 2021, the country is locked in political turmoil, with no elected leaders and no nationwide elections held for almost a decade. Armed gangs control much of Port-au-Prince, where they’ve attacked the airport and opened up prisons while pressing for the ouster of the interim leader, Prime Minister Ariel Henry. The State Department on Wednesday urged U.S. citizens to leave Haiti as soon as possible.

For well over a year, Henry’s government has been calling for an international security force to step in. But while the United Nations passed a resolution that approved the force and set up its structure five months ago, so far no force has materialized. The latest round of disorder in Haiti came after Henry traveled to Kenya and signed a deal that he hoped would bring 1,000 Kenyan police officers to the country — a bid to bolster a faltering plan that was exploited by the armed gangs that seek his ouster.

There has been a notable lack of enthusiasm among global partners, with the United Nations saying it would only provide oversight to a mission to Haiti, and not lead it, and the United States refusing to commit personnel. Many ordinary Haitians are also wary of foreign intervention, all too aware of its painful history in the country.

“Deeply patriotic, Haitians revile the prospect of yet another foreign occupation following a string of failures by the international community in their country,” former diplomat James B. Foley, U.S. ambassador to Haiti from 2003 to 2005, wrote for Politico Magazine in 2022 after Henry’s government first called for intervention.

Henry has long been unpopular within Haiti. This week, he finally lost the backing of the United States, which is now calling on the prime minister to step aside and hold elections. But it is unclear how any election can take place without security being restored, with or without foreign powers.

Haitian leader, unable to return to country, faces pressure to resign

International intervention in Haiti goes far back. Haiti was once Saint-Domingue, the “Pearl of the Antilles” in the French empire, its highly lucrative plantation economy built on the backs of imported West African slaves. After a slave revolt in 1791 led to the Haitian Revolution, Haiti would go on to face not only an invasion from returning French forces, but also attempts by imperial rival Britain on its path to independence.

In the 20th century, it was the United States’ turn. A 1915 invasion turned into an occupation that lasted until 1934. The intervention came after a period of political turmoil in the country and the appeals of U.S. banks that held debts to President Woodrow Wilson, but it was marred by numerous abuses — including the creation of the corvée system that saw the U.S. occupation use peasants in unpaid forced labor.

When the U.S.-educated François Duvalier came to power in 1957, he did so in large part by portraying himself as an opponent to American imperialism. Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, would rule until he died in 1971, when he was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, or Baby Doc. The men’s combined reign of almost three decades was known for corruption, repression and violence.

In 1994, the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in Operation “Restore Democracy” which aimed to restore Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power after a military coup. The U.S. troops joined a U.N. peacekeeping force that had entered the country in 1993. These foreign troops would remain until 2000.

When Aristide was forced from power again in February 2004, the United States helped him escape and sent troops along with Canada, France and Chile. The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH, served in the country from 2004 to 2017 before being replaced by a smaller follow-up mission that concluded in 2019..

Whatever the intentions, there was little evidence that these interventions had helped Haitians. “In all, the U.S. military and its proxies have been in Haiti for at least 41 of the last 108 years, always in the name of securing peace, political stability, and human rights—and never actually succeeding in doing so,” Jonathan M. Katz wrote for Foreign Policy Magazine last year.

In plenty of cases, interventions made life worse, with accusations of sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers and reports of a massacre by Brazilian soldiers working for the United Nations in 2005.

A huge outbreak of cholera, once rare in Haiti, after a 2010 earthquake was linked to U.N. peacekeepers deployed from Nepal, where the disease is common. The outbreak killed at least 10,000 in Haiti, but the United Nations has provided little compensation. “They brought cholera to Haiti and they need to compensate us,” victim Lucmane Tabuto told my colleagues in 2022. “It’s an injustice. It’s an unspeakable abuse.”

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Can this time be different? Both the United States and the United Nations have stepped back from leadership roles, both a reflection of how poorly previous interventions in Haiti have gone and also the wide range of other global issues in other parts of the world at the moment. But few countries are willing or capable of taking their place.

U.S. pressure on Canada to lead a peacekeeping force did not work, with Canadian officials openly pessimistic about the project. “We have to admit there’s been a history of what I would call large-scale military interventions that have not worked,” Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the Globe and Mail a year ago.

When the U.N. Security Council approved a peacekeeping force in October, Kenya was instead named as the leader of the newly formed Multinational Security Support (MSS) and pledged to send 1,000 police officers, with $200 million in backing from the United States and the hope that other nations would supplement the manpower.

On one level, the presence of African police officers may avoid some of the colonial overtones of past interventions, but some major problems remain: Few Kenyan officers are likely to speak French or Creole, for example, and Kenyan police have been accused of widespread abuses at home.

There has been a considerable backlash in Kenya to the plan, with opposition politicians suggesting that police officers are direly needed at home. In January, a court ruled that the proposed deployment was unconstitutional, in part because Kenya and Haiti did not have bilateral agreements in place. Henry’s trip to Nairobi over the past week was partially designed around signing ceremonies for these agreements, though it is unclear how this will address the court’s broader criticisms.

The chaos seen in Haiti since Henry left the country has only amplified the need for security there, with a new estimate this week that two-thirds of the country are directly exposed to political violence. It has also created a more volatile situation that will be even more difficult to contain. The most prominent gang leader, Jimmy “Barbeque” Chérizier, this week criticized foreign nations for supporting the unpopular prime minister and warned of greater conflict unless he resigned.

“Either Haiti becomes a paradise or a hell for all of us,” Chérizier told reporters Tuesday.

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