Foreign Policy

U.S. Intervention in Haiti Would Be a Catastrophe—Once more

The blood had barely dried on the floor of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s bedroom before calls for U.S. involvement began. The Washington Post editorial board raced out a statement calling for a “swift and muscular international intervention.” Political commentator David Frum, who helped sell the Iraq War as a speechwriter for then-U.S. President George W. Bush, quickly added his voice to the chorus, warning “what happens in Haiti does not stay in Haiti.” Within hours of the president’s assassination, the idea had solidified into a formal request by one of the battling factions of the eviscerated Haitian government for U.S. forces to be deployed.

This would be a terrible idea for many reasons. It seems, for the moment, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is not eager to comply: On Saturday, an anonymous senior administration official told the Associated Press “the U.S. has no plans to provide military assistance at this time”—although FBI and Homeland Security officials are expected to help with the investigation. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday the request remains “under review.” As it abandons one failed project in nation-building in Afghanistan, the White House is likely not eager to look like it is embarking on another project in the Caribbean.

But most of the people debating the issue are asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether the United States should get involved in Haiti following the first presidential assassination there in more than a century. The United States is already deeply involved. The questions are how that involvement helped, at a minimum, to set the stage for the crisis now enveloping a nation of 11.5 million people and what to do with that reality from here on out.

The first U.S. invasion of Haiti was more than a century ago—occasioned, in fact, by the last assassination of a sitting Haitian president. It came at a time when the United States was ramping up its own global ambitions. At the turn of the 20th century, U.S. forces were busy invading most of Central America and Mexico and outright annexing thousands of Pacific islands, including Hawaii and the Philippines, for the purpose of expanding trade and U.S. political influence around the world. In the 1910s, U.S. elites began setting their sights on Haiti—the second oldest independent nation in the Americas and the first to abolish slavery globally.

Ever since Haiti won its independence from France in a slave revolution that culminated in 1804, the mere idea of a republic run by self-liberated Black people has sent shivers through the white world. The United States ignored its own Monroe Doctrine against European interference in the hemisphere as France imposed, at gunpoint, a crippling indemnity on the Haitian government in 1825. These reparations from formerly enslaved people and their descendants to their former masters bankrupted Haitian governments, obligating them to take out massive loans from French, German, and U.S. banks.

In December 1914, on the pretense of ensuring repayment of those loans (particularly those owed to Citibank in New York), a team of U.S. Marines came ashore in Port-au-Prince, charged into the central bank of Haiti, and took half the nation’s gold reserves to a vault on Wall Street. The Haitian president resigned in disgrace. His replacement, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, incurred public wrath by being willing to deal with Americans anyway, perhaps handing them control of Haiti’s customs houses, sparking a rebellion in the north. When Sam executed suspected plotters against him in the capital, Port-au-Prince, their outraged relatives chased him into the French legation and hacked him to death.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson used the assassination his policies had helped foment as the pretext for an all-out invasion. His aides insisted military control was necessary to ensure peace, stability, and prosperity for the Haitian people. The U.S. Marines invaded, crushed two waves of insurgency, and then occupied Haiti for nearly two decades with a mixture of paternalism and brutality. (“Occupation” was the formal term U.S. officials used to describe what they were doing in Haiti—a euphemism to avoid being accused of outright “European-style” colonization.)

The occupation brought Haitians neither promised peace nor prosperity. But it accomplished the Americans’ primary goals: keeping out European influence, helping establish profitable U.S. export corporations, filling the coffers of Citibank and other U.S. banks, and establishing a client state to protect a vital sea lane to the newly constructed Panama Canal. Along the way, the Marines replaced Haiti’s army with a client militarized police force and reimposed forced, unpaid labor, performed at gunpoint, to build a road system to ensure military and commercial control.

It also set the stage for everything that has happened in Haiti since. Although then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt (who himself served as a Navy official during the occupation) formally withdrew the Marines in 1934, the United States remained an ever-present and dominating force in the Black republic. Notably, the lowest ebb of U.S. interference in Haiti came during the 1957 to 1971 dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who portrayed himself as a necessary ally against communism, especially in neighboring Cuba—convincing U.S. officials not to strenuously criticize and, at times, outright support his brutality against the Haitian people.

His son and successor, Jean-Claude Duvalier (better known as “Baby Doc”), enjoyed the U.S. government’s support, especially the Reagan administration’s, until he was overthrown in a popular nationwide rebellion in 1986. After Baby Doc fled into exile aboard a U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations tried unsuccessfully to manage a revolving door of military governments. When the first free post-dictatorship election in 1990 saw the rise of a leftist redistributionist president in Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Aristide was toppled in a coup orchestrated by Haitian officers, some of whom were on the CIA’s payroll.

Aristide was restored in a 1994 U.S. military invasion ordered by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton (in exchange for the exiled president embracing pro-U.S. economic policies), only to be overthrown again in a second 2004 coup whose instigators were supported by elements of the George W. Bush administration and Sen. John McCain’s International Republican Institute. As Aristide flew into exile aboard a U.S.-chartered plane, George W. Bush ordered yet another U.S. invasion, undertaken with the Canadians’ and French’s help. Soon after, invading forces handed off military control to a U.N. peacekeeping force that controlled Haiti militarily until 2017. Its successor mission left just two years ago.

Throughout that time, Haiti’s governments were consistently weakened by the United States and its allies, who funneled assistance to their own aid groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGO). The NGOs took over most of Haiti’s governance functions in an ad hoc and fundamentally ineffective fashion. This weakening was often intentional: A 2004 post-coup U.S. Agency for International Development annual report boasted about having ended programs previously aimed at “strengthening the country’s police, judiciary, and elections machinery” under Aristide, instead channeling the money to private organizations and U.S.-based aid groups.

That history, along with the United States’ long record of fomenting coups and plotting assassinations of foreign leaders elsewhere, has led some to wonder if some element of the U.S. government had a hand in Moïse’s death. Those questions were heightened over the weekend by a Miami Herald report that 17 Colombian nationals and two Haitian-born U.S. citizens rounded up following the assassination claim to have been recruited by a Florida-based security firm whose owner reportedly “claimed to have connections to or to have worked directly for U.S. agencies.”

But proof beyond that is lacking. Very little is known about the assassination itself—including whether and to what extent the Colombians or their self-professed Haitian American translators were even involved in the actual murder. Questions include the exact time of Moïse’s execution, who pulled the trigger, who ordered the killing, and who ultimately stands to benefit from it. Moïse had few allies and plenty of enemies among the Haitian people. He had broken faith with several members of Haiti’s tiny, wealthy elite who have shown a propensity for using contract violence to get their way in the past. In other words, there are plenty of suspects closer to home than Washington.

Furthermore, Moïse was widely seen as a U.S. ally who owed his presidency to yet another round of U.S. election interference. In 2010, in the aftermath of Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake, a bipartisan coalition of Obama administration officials and Republican senators insisted Haiti press on with a presidential election the country was in no way prepared for. When the first round of results showed a less-pliable candidate in the lead, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Port-au-Prince to demand the results be thrown out and right-wing populist Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly—a pop singer who boasted close ties to anti-Aristide forces and Washington as well as promised to facilitate foreign investment schemes—be put back in the race.

Five years later, in 2015, Martelly tapped Moïse to be his successor. Haitians were so unfamiliar with the skinny businessman that his posters featured the nickname “banana man”—a reference to a plantain exporting project he had operated in Haiti’s rural north—to differentiate him from another candidate with a similar name. It seemed Martelly intended Moïse to be a Dmitry Medvedev-like placeholder: to keep his seat warm and his inner circle out of prison amid corruption allegations until the former pop star could run again five years later. (Under Haiti’s current constitution, presidents can’t serve consecutive terms.) Moïse won, it seems, through a combination of fraud, the promotional efforts of the incumbent president, and extremely low voter turnout.

Once in office, Moïse shocked many by overseeing a more violently repressive regime than his mentor. When an inspector general’s report accused him, among others, of having personally embezzled much of the $2.2 billion in Venezuelan petroleum credits earmarked for Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction, anti-corruption protests broke out nationwide. Moïse and his leadership circle unleashed terror, allowing violent gangs, police, and elements of the remobilized Haitian army to carry out vicious massacres aimed at intimidating the population into submission.

As a study by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic summarized earlier this year, “the brutal killings, rapes, and torture of civilians” under Moïse’s administration appeared “to follow a widespread and systematic pattern that further state and organizational policies to control and repress communities at the forefront of government opposition.”

In the meantime, Moïse refused to hold elections, letting parliament effectively disband and refusing to allow a successor to be elected in time for the end of his constitutional term—which was supposed to have ended in February. At the time of his murder, there were only 10 elected officials in the Haitian government. The head of the country’s Supreme Court, who—under the constitution—should have been next in the line of succession, had died shortly before Moïse’s assassination from COVID-19. That evisceration of the government is what led directly and, in many ways, predictably to the power vacuum that has now emerged.

The Trump administration, which was in power for almost all of Moïse’s terms, enabled his dictatorial tendencies through continued affirmative support, even as former U.S. President Donald Trump himself disparaged the Black republic as a “shithole.” Biden continued the administration’s policy, endorsing Moïse’s tendentious argument that his term should be extended by another year because the election that brought him to power—an election overseen by his political sponsor—was delayed due to pervasive fraud allegations.

It is hard to see how, given that record of fulsome support, the U.S. government would want Moïse gone or resort to murder to get him out of power. But looking back over Haiti’s “American century,” the deeper contours of the crisis become clearer. Just as Wilson’s Marines did not have to directly kill a president to spark the United States’ first Haitian occupation in 1915, no part of the U.S. government had to be directly involved in Moïse’s assassination for Haiti’s current crisis to be born out of U.S. domination in 2021. Furthering that domination with even more direct interference, especially in the form of yet another U.S. military invasion, will only keep the cycle going. Whatever the answer is to Haiti’s acute crisis, it will have to come from within Haiti: not the English-speaking business elite with their cozy ties to U.S. leaders nor the corrupt class of politicians the United States has spent decades elevating. It must come from the Haitian majority: the popular classes who are the first and last victims of the ongoing struggle and who will inevitably have to pick up the pieces afterward.

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