By Xiomara Jean-Louis
The United States and Haiti’s relationship has long been strained and uncomfortable. The United States invaded in 1914 to allegedly preempt the entrenchment of European interests in the region and to buttress its own. America did this by roadbuilding, commandeering public finances and debt repayments, and attempting to reinforce democratic institutions, but, in doing so, the United States massacred hundreds of Haitians, extorted their labor, and embezzled state funds.
The history doesn’t get much better from there. That occupation centralized power in Port-au-Prince and neglected state-building in the other provinces of the nation, which cemented authoritarian power when François Duvalier took office by force. The dictatorship remained until 1990 when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected—then supposedly deposed by C.I.A.-funded militants, leading to President Bill Clinton’s sending of troops as a “stabilizing force.” That was ill-fated, too, since Aristide returned in 2004 but was overthrown again and the United States, France, and Canada stepped in to try and salvage the situation for a second time. Since then, the United Nations (UN) has taken control through a series of nation-building missions like the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti, the former of which was faulted for starting the worst cholera epidemic that nation had seen.
Where does this history become relevant? Today, here, and now. Haiti remains steeped in historic violence, sociopolitical instability, and economic freefall after President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in 2021 and the following hurricane set fire to the embers of the national tinderbox. This has sparked a cascading migrant flow to the U.S. southwestern border that itself has drawn the ire from state officials and controversial immigration policy changes from the Biden administration. Haiti has long endured a reputation of instability, but this crisis’s severity has led to a desperate call-and-response from Haiti to the United States for another intervention, which has the world revisiting this history to discern the best way forward. The United States, for one, was among the first to answer the call by sending a proposal to the U.N. Security Council to acquiesce.
In the midst of these conversations, one issue has flown under the radar: U.S. defense policy. Haiti had no standing army until 2017—it was dissolved in 1995 after decades of malpractice, usurpations, and violence, then reformed as the Haitian Armed Forces (FAd’H) under President Moïse in 2017 with ostensibly the same issues—and the Haitian National Police (HNP) has been fettered by internal corruption and ineptitude, a fatal flaw given that it’s the nation’s premier and only law enforcement agency. With so few resources, Haiti has long depended on U.S. security assistance. That hasn’t showed much promise and U.S.-borne arms smuggling continues to outgun all the training the United States provides. A serious reconsideration of U.S.-Haiti defense policy, one that entails an appreciable degree of restraint, is necessary for this conflict to see any movement towards a resolution.
First, consider the U.S. training programs. After President Moïse’s assassination in mid-2021, the assailants included Colombians who directly benefited from U.S. military instruction, an instance not uncommon in nations in military partnerships with the United States. Now, the United States is funneling additional funds towards the HNP despite the HNP exhibiting diminishing returns and losing public trust through overt criminal activity, violence against civilians, and evoking outright fear among those they ought to protect.
Granted, it’s not entirely the United States or the HNP’s fault. The reestablishment of the Fad’H drew already scarce resources away from police station upkeep and law enforcement to other endeavors that clash—literally—and may undermine each other. That doesn’t necessarily absolve the United States for its responsibility as primary donor and trainer. The U.S. State Department could attach additional conditionalities to circumvent or reduce the likelihood that police recruits don’t cross borders to perpetrate crimes and so the HNP improves, but that requires a critical review of existing policy that seems unlikely as it defers to CARICOM on questions of intervention. Rather than wipe its hands of involvement after having contributed to Haiti’s squalor, the United States should shift from an interventionist view to a introspective one and reflect on how its policies create the conditions for harm outside its borders—intentionally or not.
Second, look to the torrent of weapons leaving the United States and washing up on Haitian shores. A U.N. report found that as many as 90,000 individuals and 100 private companies are participating in arms trafficking, seizing transport networks, and precipitating a calamitous rise in kidnappings, murders, and physical and sexual violence through connections between South Florida and Port-au-Prince. These circumstances alone ought to garner additional attention given that the government already considers arms trafficking between the United States and Mexico a threat because it facilitates drug trades and organized crime.
However, the increased gang violence and turmoil that the guns trade begets also warrants a greater refugee flow from Haiti to the United States which only justifies a greater response from Washington. The scale of the issue is telling of D.C.’s negligence, too, as gun trafficking is endemic to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as well, with high gun violence rates to match and trafficking rings found in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. While Biden has tried to regulate so-called “ghost guns,” there hasn’t been policy change targeting an outflow of American firearms to Haiti or other nations—especially where diplomatic partnerships have to be done, as with the Dominican Republic, where traffickers cross the border to Haiti.
While training and funding the HNP is a good first step at helping settle Haitian unrest, more must be done before the Haitian people can see results. The United States ought to reconsider the scope of its anti-trafficking campaign and move to tackle foreign agents taking advantage of lax state laws to threaten national security overseas. Washington ought to also reconsider the swiftness of its training campaigns and prepare to establish oversight of those who receive military aid, as well as encourage the international community to build regulatory institutions in Haiti so that actors no longer escape justice. It’s difficult to see how Haiti sees any sort of reprieve otherwise. With streets overrun with guns and parched of water, food, fuel, and to some degree, hope, there needs to be drastic change on the part of Haiti’s longest and largest defense coordinator to move forward.
Xiomara Jean-Louis is a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This essay received an Honorable Mention in the 2023 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.