By Scarlett Kennedy
The Biden Administration is flirting with disaster in the Caribbean. As the violence in Haiti escalates, top policymakers have advocated for an American-backed military intervention on the troubled island. Foreign interventions have devastated Haiti time and again, and there is no reason to think this time may be any different. In fact, it may be worse.
Acting Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry has requested foreign armed forces to help restore order, while calls for foreign military intervention are intensifying among political elites worldwide. In October, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres called for “armed action” to establish a humanitarian corridor and support the Haitian police. A United Nations Security Council Resolution, drafted by the United States, urges “the immediate deployment of a multinational rapid action force.”
Many supporters of foreign military intervention in Haiti claim to acknowledge the dangers of intervention but maintain that it is the “least bad option.” On the contrary, it is the worst option there is. Intervening in Haiti would not be a solution to the problem but instead a continuation of a policy that sets Haiti back repeatedly at the cost of the lives of American soldiers and taxpayer money.
A Long and Painful Memory of Foreign Intervention
Haiti is no stranger to foreign intervention. In fact, there is scarcely a period in which Haiti was not subject to substantially damaging foreign interference.
In 1915, after the assassination of Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, U.S. Marines were dispatched to Haiti to enforce stability. This initial intervention would begin a nineteen-year occupation of the nation, during which one of the worst civilian massacres in Haitian memory would take place when in 1929 U.S. forces fired upon a demonstration of 1,500 Haitians, killing twelve and wounding twenty-three. The United States also shaped the Haitian military during its occupation, which today is widely known for its violations of human rights and undemocratic coups, and implemented a mercantilist trade model that devastated Haiti’s economy.
The occupation ended in 1934, but the United States maintained some level of control of Haiti’s finances until 1947. When François Duvalier took office in 1957, he ruled Haiti with considerable financial and military support from the United States. As the United States extended substantial support to Duvalier, Thomas Mann, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the time, privately regarded Duvalier as “the worst dictator in the Hemisphere.” His son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, enjoyed the same support from the United States after he succeeded his father. By 1986, the United States had spent around $900 million propping up the Duvalier dynasty. While the United States disapproved of Duvalier’s regime, it supported it in the interest of stability, failing to realize that such violence and corruption would destabilize Haiti over the long term.
In 2004, the United Nations established the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in another effort to bring stability to the country at a time when it was facing political violence. During the MINUSTAH mission, 116 reports were made of sexual abuse by the UN peacekeepers against Haitian women and girls, with the actual number of incidents likely being much higher. In one especially infamous case, authorities discovered 134 peacekeepers had been running a child sex-trafficking ring in Port-au-Prince for years. Instead of facing any real punishment, they were simply sent home from the mission. In addition to sexual abuse, many Haitians suffered violence and other human rights violations at the hands of the peacekeepers.
MINUSTAH was renewed multiple times over several years, and in 2010, it increased the number of troops to assist in Haiti’s recovery from a devastating earthquake. That same year, a cholera epidemic emerged. The sanitation company contracted by the UN had been dumping their waste into a river commonly used for drinking water, causing the cholera outbreak that ripped across the nation and killed 10,000 Haitians.
The Current Crisis
The current crisis was sparked by the assassination of President Jovenal Moïse, an unpopular leader with authoritarian tendencies who ruled with full U.S. support until a gunman killed him in July 2021. Two years earlier, a crowd of Haitians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Haiti to demand that the Trump administration cease its backing of Moïse due to a major corruption scandal. Before his assassination, Moïse had failed to hold elections, dissolved Parliament, and overseen assassinations of dissenting civilians.
Henry—who Moïse appointed as prime minister two days before his assassination—has assumed power. The U.S. Embassy in Haiti played a significant role in Henry’s current position by tweeting quickly after the assassination calling on Henry to assume the presidency and form a government.
Since Henry assumed office, the situation has further devolved into chaos. Most Haitians viewed Moïse as an illegitimate leader propped up by a foreign government, and Henry is hated even more than their predecessor. The resulting power vacuum has left Haiti consumed with violence and gang rule. Cholera has broken out again, and violence is making safe water and health services inaccessible to many.
What Could Come of Intervention?
Henry has made an official request for foreign armed troops to intervene. Henry is not popular with Haitians and does not speak for the Haitian people, who would interpret intervention as yet another incident of the U.S. supporting an illegitimate leader.
Sending troops into such a chaotic, unwanted, and inflamed environment would be extremely dangerous. Such an aggressive move could worsen the violence. In October, over ninety “civil society, faith-based, humanitarian, peacebuilding, and diaspora organizations with strong ties to the Haitian grassroots” signed a letter to the Biden administration urging the White House to reject military intervention in Haiti, citing concerns that intervention would undermine institutions and the rule of law while worsening the violence. The head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Haiti warned, “Our immediate reaction, as a medical organization, is that this means more bullets, more injuries, and more patients.”
There is reason to believe the resulting danger wouldn’t be limited to foreign troops. Consider Afghans who cooperated with U.S. troops during the occupation of Afghanistan. Upon U.S. withdrawal, any Afghan who had collaborated with the United States were left behind with a target on their back. Far from rebuilding democracy and government, any remaining institutions would be viewed as a sign of foreign imperialism and become a target for Haitians opposing the foreign occupation.
In Haiti’s first democratic elections in 1991, 50.8 percent of the Haitian electorate showed up to vote. In 2016, only 18 percent of the Haitian voters participated in the elections that placed Moïse in power, partly because they believed the United States would ultimately choose a winner. Foreign intervention would do little to aid Haiti’s democratization but rather further the idea that Haitians do not have a hand in their own government. Such an adventure would be dangerous, counterproductive, and certainly not a good use of taxpayer resources.
The Opportunity for a Different Approach
Intervention would not only be expensive and unpopular among Haitians but it also would be viewed as a foreign attempt to consolidate Henry’s presidency, which is widely unpopular across the nation. It would additionally strengthen the negative perception commonly held in Latin America that the United States is an interventionist power to be wary of. There is little reason to believe such an intervention would do anything but worsen Haiti’s circumstances over the long term. This idea has been put into practice many times, each time with disastrous results that only initiated future interventions.
In the short term, the United States should rethink its support of Henry, who derives his legitimacy not from the Haitian population but from foreign powers. The unconditional support he receives from the United States leaves Henry little motive to negotiate with Haitian civil society in future election proceedings and steps for how the nation can move forward. In the long run, the United States should take a serious look at the Montana Accord, a transition plan backed by 418 Haitian civil society organizations, 105 popular social movements, 85 political parties, and 313 individuals from various industries. Given the broad consensus the Montana Accord has garnered, it is imperative that any plan for Haiti engages this group. Members of the group that created the accord have denounced Henry’s request for military intervention.
The Biden administration must cease calling for foreign intervention in Haiti, which runs counter to the interests of both the United States and Haiti. Those who claim to acknowledge the flaws in intervention and still assert that it is the best option have not genuinely reckoned with the havoc such action has wreaked upon Haiti throughout history.
Scarlett Kennedy is a Political Science and Peace, War, and Defense major at UNC Chapel Hill and a Marcellus Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society.