Avoiding Disaster—A Narrowing Path Forward in Haiti
This commentary was originally published in Global Americans on August 16, 2022.
Unless there is a course adjustment soon, all signs point to a catastrophic political and humanitarian crisis in Haiti. The backdrop is years of political upheaval, a collapsing economy, and—just over the past 12 months—the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, a major earthquake, a migrant crisis (at the U.S.-Mexico border and in Haiti), and a burgeoning violent gang universe. Nonetheless, Haiti’s diverse political leadership and its key international partners appear to be sleepwalking toward disaster.
Most perplexing is the paralyzing decisionmaking dynamics in two arenas:
1) The stalemate in the search for a Haitian political consensus out of the crisis: recent direct exchanges between Haiti’s interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, and the nominal “president” (a well-regarded former Central Bank head, Fritz Jean) of a proposed governance alternative—drawn up by the Montana Accord—has brought no relief. Neither have sessions between Henry’s own political coalition, built around an increasingly frail September 11 Accord (facing internal dissension), and the Montana Accord leadership.
2) A curiously ambivalent if not superficial stance by key foreign actors and in multilateral forums—underscored by the current policy mantra deferring to notions of a “Haitian-led solution.” That has translated into the absence of a credible U.S. policy vision, and multilaterally with the recent half-hearted UN Security Council extension of an otherwise hollow UN Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH).
Rather than driving toward a hoped-for “Haitian-led solution,” some of these developments appear to have mostly sowed more mistrust—and not just among Haitians. Henry’s preferred notions of a consensus governance agreement appear so far limited to a bargain he wants to control. The international community’s inertia, as well as its perceived absence of a practical governing alternative to Henry in the wake of last July’s Moïse assassination, has given Henry little incentive to do otherwise. The rub for many Haitians has been that in the wake of the collapse of the state in most areas of national governance, civil society has in recent years stepped in with broad coalitions of political actors attempting to define paths out of a succession of crisis—but to little effect in discussions with foreign capitals.
The deepening political and constitutional crisis that characterized Moïse’s last 18 months in office gave rise to a broad civil society platform—the Commission for the Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis (from which the Montana Accord emerged in late August 2021)— broadened further by establishing ties with a political party coalition, the Protocole d’Entente Nationale (PEN).
Presenting itself as a viable governance alternative to Henry may have at first been seen as a stretch, but it outlined a refreshing, forward-looking, plausible transition plan. Nevertheless, the absence of concrete outcomes and a growing sense of impatience have given rise to calls for alternative consensus platforms, some that also include more visible diaspora participation (for example, the recently organized Haitian Civil Society Engagement to a Peaceful Transition Conference).
While U.S. diplomats have reached out to Haitian civil society, including through the Montana Accord, as well as interacted with Haiti’s growing U.S.-based diaspora, the picture that has emerged is one of inaction—and worse, a tone-deaf ear toward civil society appeals for Washington to energize its support of a “Haitian-led solution” as opposed to waiting for a miraculous result to emerge. This critique of U.S. policy underscores the absence of a longer-term policy framework, let alone one able to compete with other U.S. policy anxieties—for example, Ukraine, Taiwan, and the Middle East, among others, as well as U.S. domestic politics.
The reality is that the United States and other key international are engaged in Haiti, but in a piecemeal set of efforts that provide the appearance of a comprehensive commitment to Haiti’s many crises. A lot of this has correctly focused on the country’s exploding security crisis. Yet, these efforts are not sustainable without a credible Haitian political consensus in place. Hence, a policy disconnect persists between multilateral diplomacy and street-level reality.
For example, a July ministerial-level international partners meeting hosted by the government of Suriname reiterated its commitment to address Haiti’s many challenges as it “confronts grave insecurity, seeks to restore its democratic institutions, and revives the country’s economic development.” How they will achieve any of these goals remains unclear. And in mid-July, the UN Security Council renewed a one-year mandate for the BINUH with a long task list but little indication of how such efforts could be realized. Notable items of the list include addressing gang violence, protecting human rights, addressing illegal arms trafficking and illicit financial flows, and most notably, promoting the notion of a Haitian-led political process and ensuing elections “as soon as security conditions and logistical preparations permit.”
Although, in recent weeks, there has been an uptick in the ability of the Haitian National Police (HNP) to hunt down some of the more notorious gang networks, the capacity of the Haitian government to alter the broader terms of reference is limited. To change that calculus suggests addressing two preconditions before any notion of a sustainable approach to Haiti’s ongoing violence is achievable:
1. A “political” precondition in the sense that there is no sustainable path forward without a credible Haitian national dialogue process. This is not to underestimate the significance of international support in the form of a multilateral basket of aid funds, with Canadian and U.S. pledges, specialized SWAT team-type training for the HNP, a pending (and urgently needed) Canadian sale of armored police vehicles, and training from the French. But even cumulatively, these efforts will not reverse the tide.
2. A “conceptual” precondition in the sense that the geographical scope, lethality, and economic impact are such that the terminology referencing “gang violence” is increasingly insufficient. The dynamic is fluid, made up of conflicting coalitions of gangs terrorizing increasingly widespread fiefdoms, notably in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan region. Their amalgamated growth stems from several years of dysfunctional public governance (notably at the presidential level), the politicization of the Haitian National Police (HNP), and in recent years tactical interaction between some gangs and sympathizers from within the country’s political leadership. The HNP’s inability to achieve its national mission might energize a potentially divisive review (in Haiti and internationally) of efforts since 2011 to institutionally reestablish Haiti’s armed forces, which were disbanded in 1995.
A collapsing economy, widespread corruption, and generalized public cynicism about “government” have created an extremely fertile ground for the growth of gangs. A community of unemployed, young, restive, mostly male constituencies with almost no viable alternative can also become the basis for political mobilization down the road. A manipulative, media-savvy populist, and the potential for authoritarian political outcomes, are scenarios that should alarm everyone. Although Haiti is not El Salvador and does not yet fit Douglas Farah’s concept of a “criminalized state,” Salvadoran efforts in negotiating with MS-13 gang leaders not only failed but became the springboard for state-sponsored violence against all opponents of the regime—and the emergence of a millennial authoritarian like President Nayib Bukele.
From these two baseline preconditions one can draw out four overlapping baskets of internationally supported initiatives:
First, the continuation of the ongoing tactical support to the HNP. Even limited successes have a positive psychological effect on the HNP itself and provide a more positive sense at the community level that all is not lost.
Second, diplomatic, economic, and security-related support to energize and sustain a Haitian transitional governing structure, and in doing so, also lay out the technical, staffing, and security-related needs for elections to be held at some point in this uncertain timeline.
Third, what ultimately will amount to a more credible execution of the “building back better” concept that emerged after the 2010 earthquake, ensuring this time that it meaningfully improves the country’s debilitated public infrastructure, delivers an effective community jobs program, and reenergizes Haiti’s productive capacity. A key lesson from the 2010 experience is that such an effort requires a baseline engagement from Haitian institutions and capabilities at all levels.
And fourth, with some creativity, lay the foundations for an apparatus able to tackle Haiti’s lack of accountability and transparency in most aspects of public governance. This basket goes beyond strengthening existing judicial and rule of law institutional arrangements to address what amounts to a regime of impunity and widespread human rights violations. Such efforts might initially be best envisioned in the context of a regional Caribbean initiative, perhaps drawing on Haiti’s membership in CARICOM and the latter’s rule of law traditions. Although emerging from differing circumstances, there are also lessons to be earned from Guatemala’s unsettling experience with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
For American policymakers, the emergence of the Global Fragility Act (GFA) as an operational framework for Haiti is very timely. The GFA’s main virtue is its 10-year timeline and an urgent need for a U.S. policy shift synchronized with GFA. That policy shift will also have to include speeding up the process of nominating and confirming a high-caliber U.S. ambassador to Haiti. And in a potentially more toxic vein, U.S. policymakers (including Congress) will also have to come to grips with the implications of a uniquely American issue—guns—and the fact that a significant portion of the proliferation of guns in Haiti originates in the United States.
As an indication of the chasm that exists in the international community’s attitude toward Haiti, the August 8 statement from the OAS general secretariat leaves no doubts about the need for a profound course correction: “The last 20 years of the international community’s presence in Haiti has amounted to one of the worst and clearest failures implemented and executed within the framework of any international cooperation.” Harsh, but an essentially honest summary.
Georges Fauriol is 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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