Adrift: U.S.-Haiti Policy
November 2, 2021
This commentary was originally published in Global Americans on October 22, 2021.
Headlines relating to Haiti over the past 100 days have generated an expanding volume of assessments, critiques, and calls for more to be done in response to a frightening pace of bad news: the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July; the earthquake in August; in September a Haitian migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border; followed by the resignation of the U.S. special envoy for Haiti, after only two months on the job; and startling statistics suggesting a surge in kidnappings (119 cases in the first half of October alone), exemplified for the international community by this month’s abduction of a busload of U.S. and Canadian missionaries.
But what may be most alarming is that the dysfunction that framed Haiti prior to these events remains unresolved—and arguably is sliding toward complete ungovernability. There is no coherent and sustainable pathway in place to address any of this—whether among Haitian leadership or international actors:
- The dispute earlier this year regarding the late President Moïse’s length of term of office has now mutated into uncertainties regarding the very legitimacy of the interim government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Possibly politically motivated rumors regarding Henry’s complicity, or at least connection to a shadowy universe of characters allegedly associated with Moïse’s assassination, have not helped matters.
- The constitutional referendum set in motion by Moïse is not only in limbo but remains the subject of competing visions about its timing, let alone need.
- The delayed parliamentary elections, which allowed Moïse to govern by decree after early 2020, are now pushed back into 2022, along with presidential elections—in fact, competes with calls from civil society actors that suggest a calendar possibly stretching into 2023.
- As highlighted by the kidnapping statistics, the overall street-level insecurity nationally is high, and in the Port-au-Prince region, is borderline out of control. In a revealing scene last Sunday, Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, gang leader and nominally “wanted” by authorities, filled in the traditional wreath-laying role commemorating the assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (Oct. 17, 1806), protected by a phalanx of armed gangs, while Haiti’s presumed interim head of state, Ariel Henry, had earlier been forced to withdraw under what press reports describe as “a hail of gang gunfire.”
- The layers of national crises (in the context of a global pandemic) have further undermined Haiti’s fragile economic viability and nearly nonexistent social safety net (it is telling that Haiti had to return Covid-19 vaccines supplied by the United States earlier this summer before their effectiveness expired).
So, what now? The painful reality suggests the nearly impossible—a push forward on the above issues simultaneously. This is unlikely. For a sustainable path to emerge first implies developing a working consensus in five areas:
- Addressing the insecurity.
- Confirming an electoral timetable and a credible machinery to go with it.
- Agreeing on a constitutional reform process and its sequencing vis-à-vis national elections.
- Providing significant resources to reenergize Haiti’s economy, including post-earthquake reconstruction, and Covid-19-related national infrastructure assets—and probably a collateral regional agreement, or at least understanding, on how to treat future flows of Haitian migrants.
- And critically, securing a political compact able to sustain the interim government that will preside over this agenda of crisis.
Among Haitian actors, one discerns a general agreement about the salience of these five issues but an absence of a working formula on the particulars of each issue, let alone its sequencing and timing. In fact, there are two competing consensus formulas: one led by Henry and composed primarily of a somewhat disparate universe of political actors, many with links to Moïse’s Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK), and the broader Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, created by the Forum of Civil Society Organizations early in 2021, which in turn generated the Montana Agreement in late August.
The latter’s main virtue is its broad scope of national representation: over 180 organizations drawn from religious groups, women’s and farmers’ constituencies, bar associations, labor unions, political parties, and human rights groups. Possibly its core flaw lies in the challenge to translate its ideals for transparent governance and fair, safe, and credible elections into, first, a viable and sustainable transitional governing compact, and secondly, ensuring the day-to-day legitimacy of a proposed two-year period of a transitional council—in effect, pushing the calendar out into 2023. A proposal to appoint an interim president creates an up-front point of friction with Henry and others, including among international actors, and also fuels the concerns regarding his legitimacy to govern.
The less ambitious timetable framing Henry’s consensus—a fairly quick sequence of events, with a reconstituted constitutional reform process leading to a referendum by early 2022, followed by elections later in the year—is appealing primarily in shortening the open-ended political and operational uncertainties of the Montana Agreement. This also rings true among some international actors who will in practice become the underwriters of these arrangements. One rub lies in the character of the constitutional reform process, which was mutilated by Moïse’s many procedural shortcuts, yet paradoxically actively encouraged by UN leadership in Haiti, and until late June somewhat absentmindedly supported by both the Trump and the first six months of the Biden presidency. Henry has pushed forward with an initial corrective action—the reconstitution of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), a laborious process under the best of circumstances—but this has run into political and procedural headwinds. A critical component of this process lies in its sequencing vis-à-vis national elections, with the dominant views being that it should precede those elections—but the clash is over the length and depth of a national consultation process (a process rushed by Moïse).
This wobbly political environment faces additional distractions from a cacophony of other political actors opportunistically seeking visibility. This includes the head of a rump Senate (Joseph Lambert), who claims some constitutional legitimacy as being the more credible alternative to govern Haiti in this interim. Likewise, the background noise is also being increasingly filled by some jockeying in the expectation of national elections in 2022. But the most immediate anxieties lie in Haiti’s dramatically worsening violence, a trend exacerbated during the Moïse presidency.
Often seen as having acquired a greater operational latitude locally due to the increasing dysfunction in public governance, gangs are well financed and politically connected in part through the collusion of public officials and police elements. Built into this is an organized network anchored to drug dealing and weapons trafficking, a lucrative market that stretches out regionally, particularly to Jamaica and beyond—including the United States. What has also emerged is a form of presumptive gang coalitions and a more formidable scale of engagement into entire neighborhoods with deadly violence and ransom kidnapping—the Port-au-Prince region is now a mosaic of essentially no-go districts.
They operate with impunity despite what is at least on paper a 15,000–20,000 strong Haitian National Police (PNH) force, trained at great expense by the United States and other countries following the 2004 international intervention and the 2010 earthquake. It is ridden with corruption across its ranks, enabled in part by the threats gang members can exert on individual members of the police. The problem goes deeper to the extent that law enforcement in general is impaired by a dysfunctional or barely functioning police investigative capacity and a related judicial system to adjudicate cases.
The cumulative effect of all these developments for the international community is growing concern about Haiti’s worsened security, political, and economic outlook. But this has yet to translate into a firm consensus among actors most affected by events in Haiti (the United States, Canada, European Union, United Nations, Dominican Republic, Mexico, CARICOM) on what to do about it. Most troubling is a dangerous divide among international actors and with Haitian civil society leadership regarding the legitimacy of the Ariel Henry–led interim government (with the United States and United Nations so far showing more enthusiasm than their international counterparts). This has operational implications affecting any path forward and requires an urgent and definitive resolution.
The absence of U.S. leadership is noticeable and is the missing catalyst. Despite a ramp-up of senior U.S. officials’ visits to Haiti and pronouncements of concerns (alongside calls for action from congressional voices), U.S. policy continues to be adrift and dangerously indecisive. In fact, no one within leadership seems to “own” Haiti policy, exemplified by the theatrical resignation of the special envoy (Amb. Daniel Foote). It underscored an ill-defined mandate colliding with roles played by the U.S. ambassador (Michele Sison, herself now in transition out of her post) and other policy actors across the federal bureaucracy dealing with Haiti. Arguably, because of this, there is now an even stronger case for the role of a special adviser—in previous incarnations, also sometimes called the “special coordinator for Haiti.” Amb. Sison’s rotation out of her post has led to an interim appointment of an experienced diplomat to lead the embassy: Kenneth Merton, former ambassador to Haiti, and later special coordinator (2015–17). His appointment was received with mixed reviews among Haitian political circles. His special coordinator tenure overlapped with the controversial 2015–2016 cycle of elections that brought Moïse into office; the United States, notably Merton, is perceived by Haitian civil society as having played a heavy hand.
To go back to the earlier question, so, what now? Initial calls after the July presidential assassination for the deploying of a U.S. security force presence (“boots on the ground”) and the imprecise notion of what its actual mission would be, have with more recent developments in Haiti been broadened to the grander notion for a long-term UN mission scaled to address the full agenda of Haiti’s challenges. Both of these policy responses have been tested in Haiti over the past 30 years with mixed outcomes. In fact, the degree to which Haitian national governance has collapsed in recent years is a reminder of the deep flaws in these proposals and the apparent absence of an effective lessons-learned process inherent in them. Effectively dealing with Haiti’s mounting problems requires a more targeted and thoughtful set of responses.
- First and foremost, there is an urgent need to encourage what amounts to a merging of paths envisioned by the Montana consensus and proposed by interim prime minister Henry. The latter’s shaky basis of governance suggests that this has to happen soon, very soon. For this to occur, the United States and other international actors have to synchronize their posture regarding a path forward out of the crisis. To the degree that the Forum of Civil Society Organizations is more nationally representative and better anchored at the local level than Henry’s alternative, the outline of the Montana Agreement should take precedence. But this needs to be combined with a shorter, more realistic timetable able to address the intrinsic problems of what will be a shaky process—a shorter timeline is arguably the only appeal in Henry’s consensus proposal. Without this happening quickly, matters will disintegrate further.
- While the urge for a security force presence may be appealing, without a clearly defined mission and timetable, this is a fool’s errand. It is also a potentially treacherous strategy for the Biden White House domestically—one that it would likely prefer avoiding. Instead of a UN-type heavy, longer-term presence—which even if there are short-term benefits on the ground will also engender political resistance in Haiti, let alone an unhelpful psychological suggestion to many Haitians that they cannot fend for themselves—a more careful analysis of short- to mid-term security needs to point to other paths. This could include:
- Any planning toward an electoral calendar (including a constitutional referendum) will have to include a related security apparatus and on-the-ground assets, including specialized deployments from the international community. To ensure candidate and voter safety, this will have to include the lead-in to elections and a commensurate period afterwards. Contingency planning for this needs to be in place to be activated quickly.
- Structure training initiatives focused on forming the nucleus of specialized units able to take the fight directly to the organized gangs’ operational environment. The reservoir of experienced law enforcement officers among the Haitian diaspora in the United States and Canada probably provides some very qualified resources in this regard.
- There are other actions the United States can engage more actively, for example addressing the perplexing maritime bridge between Jamaica and Haiti that fuels Haiti’s instability. The deployment of U.S. assets would not only send a signal to Haitian gangs that their operations face a direct threat but also alert others in the Caribbean Basin that the United States is serious about it.
- These and related actions would also energize the search for those behind Moïse’s assassination. There are competing explanations of what happened but all in part point to a link to Haiti’s drug trafficking universe. Without clarity on this issue, an atmosphere of distrust will continue to permeate among Haiti’s political class, let alone the public.
- The above can be achieved only in tandem with a multilateral response to Haiti’s crises that is finally decisive and is built on a more visible U.S. diplomatic profile. While encumbered by other concerns elsewhere in the world, the potential for failure in Haiti has strategic implications for U.S. credibility, and in the region for starters. The only way that a sustainable path can emerge addressing the five areas noted earlier—(1) addressing insecurity; (2) confirming a credible electoral timetable; (3) agreeing on a constitutional reform process and its sequencing; (4) providing resources to reenergize the economy, post-earthquake reconstruction, and Covid-19-related assets, along with a regional agreement and understanding on treating Haitian migration flows; (5) securing a political compact able to sustain the interim/transitional government—requires U.S. multilateral leadership. In this regard, it will therefore be beneficial for the administration to reconsider naming a Haiti special envoy, at a minimum to help synchronize the multifaced aspect of U.S. policy demands.
The challenges Haiti faces are immense and cannot be easily addressed without active international policy coordination, leadership by U.S. diplomacy, and close and sustained interaction with key Haitian actors. If the above headaches were not enough, looking forward toward national elections raises the potential—if the disruptions of the 2010–2011 and 2015–2016 electoral cycles are accurate indicators—for more upheaval, some of it dragging in international actors, including the United States. Those troubled elections brought to office unexpectedly two inexperienced, somewhat populist leaders (Michel Martelly and Jovenel Moïse). Akin to the process that has developed in El Salvador with Nayib Bukele, imagine the emergence of a Haitian political leader with a much better grasp of national governance than Martelly and Moïse—who combines an effective populist appeal with classic autocratic behavior, combined with an appealing public media personality. In El Salvador Bukele is openly threatening democratic institutions. What would happen in Haiti?
Georges Fauriol is a fellow with the Caribbean Policy Consortium and a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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