Sat. Jul 13th, 2024
Thousands of inmates escaped a prison in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Saturday after armed gangs stormed the facility. (Source: Screenshot - The Guardian)

By Ernesto Sagás, Colorado State University

Haiti is fast becoming a failed state.

Armed gangs control most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and have forced the shutdown of the capital’s international airport and gasoline refinery. Most businesses are closed or are being extorted by the gangs.

Ordinary Haitians fear for their safety without the umbrella of law and order that only the government can provide. But there is not much government left: Elections have not been held since 2016; the last president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in 2021; and the current prime minister and acting president, Ariel Henry, is stuck in Puerto Rico, unable to fly back to Haiti.

It is increasingly becoming clear that Haiti has neither the means nor the ability to pull itself out of this quagmire on its own, raising the prospect of – and calls for – foreign intervention. So far, to that end, Kenya has offered 1,000 armed policemen; other countries may chip in. The United States and Europe have pledged millions of dollars in aid.

But can a multinational security mission provide Haiti with a way out of its current crisis? My experience studying authoritarianism and democratization in Latin America and the Caribbean tells me that international intervention will only take care of Haiti’s immediate security crisis – but it does not guarantee any long-term solutions to Haiti’s challenges. Moreover, history shows that in the case of Haiti, a multinational security mission may create problems of its own.

Occupational hazards

This is not the first time that talk has turned to sending foreign troops to Haiti. Since their hard-fought independence from France in 1804, the Haitian people have seen their country’s sovereignty disrupted many times.

From 1915 to 1934, U.S. Marines occupied Haiti to impose order in the riot-struck republic, create a professional military force and secure U.S. strategic interests in the process.

The lengthy military occupation was a humiliating affair for the world’s first Black republic, which had to endure being ruled by white foreigners.

In the aftermath of the U.S. occupation, the new Haitian military became the main force in the country’s politics, either ruling directly or as the power behind the throne.

In 1994, U.S. troops once again landed in Haiti, this time to return to power the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been ousted by the military just seven months into his term.

This second U.S. occupation led to the dissolution of the Haitian military, setting the stage for the current security crisis. Since then, Haiti has lacked a national security force capable of imposing order without being challenged by insurgents, paramilitaries and gangs.

The United Nations eventually took over and sent several missions to stabilize the country starting in 1994. But the U.N. mission eventually left in 2019 once its mandate expired. U.N. troops were accused of sexually exploiting poor women and being responsible for a major cholera outbreak that killed thousands of Haitians.

Routes of transition

This sorry history with foreign intervention means that Haiti faces a conundrum now: The country desperately needs outside help to rein in the gangs and provide order, but at what cost?

With the U.S., U.N. and the Ariel Henry administration seemingly in agreement over the need for outside assistance, it seems like foreign intervention is increasingly likely.

Henry has promised to step down as soon as a transitional administration is set up. Any multinational security mission mandate is likely to be pretty straightforward: provide a modicum of security to assist the transitional administration.

But disarming the gangs is a major challenge. They will likely either resist, leading to a potential bloodbath, or, more likely, hide and wait until foreign troops leave Haiti and then reemerge.

That was one of the major failures of previous security missions in Haiti. U.N. peacekeepers kept the peace, but the flow of arms coming into the country from the United States continued unabated. Once the peacekeepers left, the violence resumed. Any international mission sent to Haiti will have to tackle this problem head on, or it will ultimately fail.

Gangs hold so much power over vast swaths of the country that any mediated solution to the Haitian crisis will likely have to include them. Moreover, there is a working relationship between the Haitian political elites and the gangs, with the former arming the latter and using them to pursue their short-term goals. Ignoring the political power of the gangs is, I believe, engaging in wishful thinking about the nature of the Haitian political system.

A tank painted white with UN written on it drives down the street.
Haitians have bitter memories of U.N. troops in their country.
Thony Belizaire/AFP via Getty Images

And what about Haiti’s other challenges, such as holding free elections, organizing a functioning, legitimate government and improving the lives of its citizens?

None of these goals can realistically be achieved until peace is restored. Only in the conditions of stability and order can a transitional caretaker government start planning the arduous task of holding free, fair and competitive elections.

It may be years before Haiti can organize such elections or restore trust in democracy among the populace. If this process is rushed, Haiti runs the risk of ending up with an illegitimate administration – as Henry’s is seen to be – heightening the chances of the resumption of violence.

This has been the case over the past two decades: Haiti’s elections and authorities have became less legitimate, to the point where the country was unable to hold free elections after 2016.

The challenge ahead

If a multinational security mission is in Haiti’s immediate future, then the chances of it having lasting success will hang on whether the international community can provide enough support to the country after foreign troops leave.

A new police force will have to be recruited and trained, institutions such as the judiciary have to be reinforced, and the new administration will need time to earn the trust of the people. This is a difficult task considering Haiti’s political polarization.

To overcome these challenges, the international community will have to pump funds into Haiti. While history has shown that this risks exacerbating governmental corruption, I believe it is a small price to pay for the maintenance of peace.

Without sustained funding from the international community, Haiti will again become a forgotten crisis. For example, in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, US$4.5 billion dollars were promised in aid, but only a little over half of it was delivered.

The fear is that now an international community distracted by crises elsewhere, such as wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, may soon lose interest in Haiti’s plight.The Conversation

Ernesto Sagás, Professor of Ethnic Studies, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.