How to Break the Stalemate in Haiti

This commentary was originally published in United States Institute of Peace on June 9, 2022.

Following last year’s streak of Haiti-related crises—a presidential assassination, earthquake, a migrant emergency at the Mexico-U.S. border and a dramatic consolidation of gang violence — international policymakers were left grappling with the possibility that Haiti was in the initial stages of a full-scale humanitarian crisis. The further deterioration of the Haitian polity in the early months of 2022 has only confirmed that the country has passed that grim milestone.

The immediate humanitarian and economic responses available to the international community and NGOs will only marginally address the underlying factors provoking the collapse of governance in Haiti. What is needed is a consensus roadmap for policymakers—both in Haiti and among key international actors—that responds to Haiti’s needs over the horizon.

Haiti’s challenges fit into three baskets, any one of which would be daunting on their own. Politically, the government is currently being run extra-constitutionally with a nonfunctioning parliament and no more than a few viable public institutions. Next, citizen security is nearly nonexistent, with half the country living under the control of criminal gangs with strong political connections. And lastly, the dire economic picture leaves little margin for error—for example, one in five children under the age of five in the impoverished commune of Cite Soleil in the capital of Port-au-Prince suffers from acute malnutrition.

These challenges exercise a kind of negative synergy on one other. Can there be a political process without security? What about sustainable economic rejuvenation without credible institutional norms to adjudicate resources? Nonetheless, amid the many reasons for pessimism in Haiti, there is a narrow path that could provide the means for the country to advance in a more positive direction. But where do you start?

Facilitating a Haitian National Dialogue

As the International Crisis Group’s Renata Segura put it, “It seems unlikely that Haiti will become a safer place if it does not address the political crisis first.” While there have been several new groups with initiatives surfacing over the past nine months, two key proposals for a political reset stand out from the rest: One from interim prime minister Ariel Henry to lead the country until an election can be held later this year or in early 2023, and one from the Montana Accord, a coalition of civil society organizations and political parties that proposes a two-year transition that allows the country time for an organized election.

Meetings between the two sides in February did not bear fruit, and Henry’s rejoinder of a “mediation commission” in March was rejected by members of the Montana Accord. The process currently stands at a cordial impasse, although there are recent signs of possible movement.

Arguably, neither of these options nor the groups behind them provide broad enough representation for Haitian society, but both bring something essential to the table. Henry’s proposal preserves what is left of the country’s governing structure and the Montana Accord offers a broader reach into society. In this regard, Haiti’s challenge is not unusual for conflict or post-conflict countries: how to conduct the broadest societal dialogue feasible at a time when national governance has broken down. But Haiti has never had a true national dialogue, going from dictatorship straight to elections in the 1990s, with few of the subsequent elections truly representative or productive.

A recent USIP study found that while national dialogues are not a panacea, a well-designed and supported dialogue can be “part of a broader continuum of mutually reinforcing local, subnational, and national efforts” and “forge agreements and drive toward peace.” But the study also found that “dialogues are far more likely to engender meaningful change when they are backed by a credible coalition that can work toward implementation of the dialogue through law or policy.” Is the combined backing of Henry and the Montana Accord enough to generate an agreement that leads to broad-based support for a conclusive national dialogue?

An affirmative answer could give already well-positioned Haitian groups the opportunity to convene several thousand delegates for several weeks of meetings and decisionmaking. Also helpful would be a group of prominent senior statespersons who could add weight to the gathering by their presence and support, representing organizations and countries willing to not just engage with the gathering, but to see its outcome implemented.

Support for a national dialogue process from key Haitian actors would also allow the international community, working respectfully and patiently with all elements of Haitian society and polity, to provide the logistical and security support, the funding for a Haitian-led secretariat, and the behind the scenes advising and troubleshooting needed for a successful resolution to the political crisis.

Transparency would be necessary to guard against accusations of backroom deals and international meddling. The gathering would also require patience, with as much as three weeks needed to sort through both the issues and the procedure, as well as an institutional arrangement for further gatherings and follow up.

The most durable product of such an event would be an interim government, empowered to govern while preparing the country for elections and the possibility of proposed constitutional changes. And while proposals for an interim governance structure from both the Montana Accord and Henry’s political constituency do not align, they at least exist. And, with some imagination and grit, they can emerge into a viable compact.

A Path Forward on Security and Economic Stability

However, facilitating consensus on an interim government may be the easy part. For a viable dialogue process and sustainable interim governance compact to emerge, Haiti’s street-level insecurity crisis and its disastrous economic and institutional impact must be addressed in parallel. Any broadly defined national political consensus must also include an achievable path forward on security, and, in tandem, a defined package of economic regeneration tools.

This is where the international community has a pivotal, two-fold role to ensure that intra-Haitian political agreements that undergird a transitional governing structure are met and to guarantee a pipeline of targeted resources over a period of several years.

Given the track record of solutions rushed through by international actors over the past three decades, it is worthwhile to get it right this time and get full Haitian inclusion and buy-in rather than externally manipulated solutions. In this regard, the emerging U.S. policy framework for Haiti, driven by the Global Fragility Act, offers a strategy for more thoughtful, long-term engagement with a window of support lasting up to a decade.

Of course, this is easier said than implemented. For example, so much of Haiti’s security issues stem from the strength of well-connected criminal gangs. These groups will have more power than any of the state forces for the near future, so they will likely have to be engaged as part of the political process. This is fraught with risk, as experiences in El Salvador, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere suggest.

Ultimately, the negative synergy between politics, security and the economy is most evident in places where the lack of government decisionmaking and authority has put on hold any economic development and left the distribution of assistance to be taken hostage by gangs. Even Haiti’s main port has not been spared by this problem. Without giving too much up in the long-term, any political process will need to cautiously involve gang leaders—with clear, predetermined parameters.

Humanitarian Aid Cannot Wait

Even with a successful political dialogue, given the depth of the crisis, there is a no substitute for a rapid infusion of humanitarian assistance to alleviate hunger and provide food security. This needs to be done in a way that bolsters, rather than undermines, what little agriculture and food processing Haiti currently has. Likewise, Haiti needs a medium-term employment program geared to building an urban infrastructure that will provide manufacturing jobs, coastal projects oriented to future tourism, and rural jobs that will shore up the country’s agricultural potential with roads, irrigation, and soil conservation.

The United States needs to be first among equals in any international coalition relating to Haiti. The normal model of a robust U.N. role is probably not on the table, so the United Nations will need to bring its resources and expertise as part of a broader coalition of other interested actors.

Such coalitions have been done before and, with the will to succeed, can bring what is needed to help Haiti regain its footing. Anchored by the Global Fragility Act, the United States can vastly increase the infusion of capital into Haiti once a plan is set in motion (a sum that will still be a mere fraction of what has been provided to Ukraine over the past few months). But make no mistake, the current stalemate among Haiti’s principal actors, let alone the ambivalence from Washington, is no longer viable.

Georges Fauriol is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Peter Hakim is President Emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue. Enrique ter Horst was special representative of the U.N. secretary general in Haiti from 1996-1998. Keith Mines is director of the Latin America program at the United States Institute of Peace.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Peter Hakim

President Emeritus, Inter-American Dialogue

Enrique ter Horst

Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General in Haiti, 1996-1998

Keith Mines

Director, Latin America Program, United States Institute of Peace (USIP)