Haiti Policy: Stumbling toward 2023
This commentary was originally published in Global Americans on December 19, 2022.
The impression that the ongoing Haitian crisis is framed by a diplomatic reality no one wants to own may be somewhat overstated, but it does capture the rudderless international response to Haiti’s intensifying calamity. Diagnosis of the crisis has been easy—but what key actors in Haiti and its international partners can agree on what to do about has remained muddled.
Notions of another “intervention” should be addressed prudently after three full-scale international interventions over the past three decades. The policy paralysis has been amplified by the ill-defined—though well-intentioned—notion of the need to have a “Haitian-led solution” as a precursor to any full-scale international response.
After months of mounting chaos, Haiti’s interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, in October requested help in the form of an international intervention—but leaving undefined the terms of reference of what this might look like. Ultimately, the UN secretary general characterized a possible response as a “deployment of an international specialized armed force.” But the geopolitics of the UN Security Council, with neither Russia nor China interested in lending support to what is essentially a U.S. policy challenge, resulted in the United States trying to find “partner countries.” The fact that Washington has so far been unwilling to take the lead on such an operation has paralyzed a needed international response. In any event, for many, Henry’s appeal was seen as little more than a way to shore up his own tenuous hold on Haiti’s political and security reality.
With such inaction, Haiti’s neighbors are concerned. Dominican president Luis Abinader was in Washington in September to lobby for action. Haiti is also a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a relationship that has generated few dividends. To be fair, Haiti’s political and economic leadership has demonstrated little interest over the past decade in capitalizing on this regional network. Little of this offers much solace to struggling U.S. policymakers. The odds of a coherent U.S. Haiti response surfacing will need an agile cross-party consensus in Congress. This might build on a fragile common assessment that there is a U.S. strategic interest in short-circuiting what is a deepening crisis with regional implications.
Formulating Haiti Policy
The challenge for Washington operates at several levels. At the conceptual level lies what has been characterized as the “pixelization” of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean. At the Haiti policy level, the challenge has appeared that no one within the administration appeared to fully “own” policy toward Haiti. An even deeper challenge for U.S. policymakers has been gauging appropriate responses to the endless permutations of Haiti’s crisis.
The consensus-building efforts from Haitian civil society, notably through the Montana Accord, may have initially not proven tactically agile enough to provide a durable and convincing path out of the crisis to international actors as a “Haitian-led solution.” Nonetheless, Montana’s most notable feature turns out to be its durability (and arguably, good international outreach) in facing an interim prime minister that is now despised and distrusted by a wide spectrum of Haitians. While this has made efforts toward a “Haitian-led” solution harder to achieve, this realization may now also be resulting in the salutary effect of opening new lines of international policy actions.
What has emerged over the past 90 days is a fragmented and wobbly three-tiered international response:
- First, a push toward coordinated political and economic sanctions of individual Haitians regarded as being linked to Haiti’s gang violence, facilitating related financial flows, as well as benefiting from Haiti’s endemic public sector corruption. The United States and Canada have taken steps in this regard, now followed by similar steps from the European Union and the United Kingdom, and a UN resolution in this regard in November gives it an even broader international profile.
- Second, on a limited scale, continued specialized training and providing equipment to the Haitian National Police. An incident earlier in November where gangs attacked the police and stole several recently delivered Canadian armored vehicles gives a sense of the uneven match the Haitian National Police finds itself in. There are a number of countries in the region with significant experience (if uneven success) dealing with criminal gang and trafficking networks—Jamaica, Mexico, Colombia come to mind—that could be part of a broader network of expertise.
- A third tier is an ambiguous UN-authorized force (as originally proposed by a Resolution—but not voted on) that has mutated into a possible “non-UN” security mission made up of partner countries. Its mission would be to provide expanded police training and broader security support nationally, in addition to making it possible for an emergency package of social and economic development assistance to flow more securely, including addressing the cholera epidemic and other medical emergencies.
Stumbling toward 2023
This three-tiered approach is being sustained by considerable behind-the-scenes activity—and high-profile visits to Haiti, taking the political pulse of key political actors. By mid-December, a mission led by Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, appeared in part designed to encourage a working consensus among key Haitian stakeholders. Likewise, the visit of Daniel Erikson, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere and widely known as knowledgeable about Haiti seemed to preview more multilateral actions into early 2023.
Political and operational challenges remain. For starters, the third leg of this three-tiered response involves “partner countries” in a process that is so far stalled. Neither the United States, nor what was presumed to be the other candidate to lead a security intervention, Canada, have so far stepped forward. The greater quandary to overcome lies in that the United States (and Canada) has predicated its engagement in a security operation on a political agreement among key Haitian political actors. Such an agreement would outline a path forward toward national consensus and a timetable out of the crisis, but perhaps more critically would provide some domestic political cover for intervening in Haiti. In the wake of last year’s Afghan withdrawal, the White House’s political margins on this issue are narrow.
The Montana Accord remains firmly opposed to an international military and police “intervention.” Although public attitudes may not change, opportunities to finesse this issue could be emerging. The Montana Accord leaves open the possibility of “technical and logistical assistance,” a usefully nebulous framing of the issue. Likewise, Representative Sheila Cherfilus McCormick (D-FL), a rising voice in the Haitian American community and opponent of military intervention in Haiti, has suggested that there may be at least a bipartisan consensus that Haiti’s humanitarian and security crisis is critical—implying that a significant U.S. and international response has become necessary. This requires some policy creativity, in effect, constructing a robust security apparatus that can enable an effective technical security assistance program with joined elements addressing social-economic and governance issues.
While the growing universe of sanctions on individual Haitian political and economic actors highlights the seriously flawed political network that Washington has anchored its Haiti policy to, it may also be triggering wake-up calls from potentially affected communities. One example is the recent call from Haiti’s leading private sector actors, individual businesses, entrepreneurial associations, and several chambers of commerce, for action on multiple fronts (including helping forge a political, humanitarian, economic, and security roadmap towards a new Haiti) with the ultimate objective of creating a governance consensus.
The most promising opportunity to break through the political stalemate in Haiti may lie in these developments, a cumbersome process that involves an enlarged constituency beyond Henry and the Montana Accord and focuses on a handful of core operational ground-level issues. This now appears to include street-level violence or public security; dealing with the country’s immediate medical emergencies; baseline financial support to regenerate economic activity; and tackling political issues where there is some preexisting baseline consensus (for example reconstituting a credible election machinery, or expanding preexisting work related to constitutional reforms), all of which can build enough trust to be extended into the outlines of a transitional governance apparatus.
How all international actors actually engage remains torn between three overlapping methodologies: (1) the historically overloaded notion of security “interventions”; (2) a “mediation” methodology, more focused on on-the-ground support for a Haitian governing consensus, and urging neutral actors—Haitian or from elsewhere—to in effect referee a consensus process; and (3) using a form of “arbitration” process, initially more cumbersome but ultimately involving the key principle that engages all parties in the process into arbitration outcomes. The “Vertières Appeal” proposed by a Haitian democracy and media organization, Jurimédia, offered an arbitration model with the creative twist of initiating it as a public petition to all Haitians.
Paths toward addressing the situation cannot happen in a vacuum and require the support of reliable international partners. This can include an expanded network of friends of Haiti, ranging from CARICOM’s varied civil society actors to others beyond this hemisphere, for example, the broader universe of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF, per its French acronym) countries. Undoubtedly a coherent, sustained international response is urgently needed, particularly in driving toward an identifiable “roadmap” initialed by Haitians themselves. This should be the center of international efforts as Haiti policy stumbles into 2023.
Georges Fauriol is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.