Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How to End Haiti’s Terminal Despair 

What Haiti needs is state building, not another round of misbegotten aid.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
People help police arrest those accused of assassinating the Haitian president.
People in the crowd run to help police in the Jalousie township as armed men, accused of being involved in assassinating Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, are arrested in Port-au-Prince on July 8. Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP via Getty Images

To call Haiti a fragile state before last week’s assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse would be generous. A cycle of delayed elections, public frustration, and fraying political legitimacy coupled with raging insecurity, rapidly increasing worries about food, and an ongoing and unchecked pandemic amounts to a whole lot more than fragile.

But the small Caribbean nation found a way to plunge further into chaos after a group of what appeared to be highly trained and heavily armed gunmen stormed the presidential residence in Port-Au-Prince and shot Moïse to death. Haitian First Lady Martine Moïse was shot multiple times and was airlifted to a Florida hospital, where she remains in critical condition. Some two dozen people suspected of involvement in the assassination have been arrested, three of them Haitian-born with U.S. ties. 

To call Haiti a fragile state before last week’s assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse would be generous. A cycle of delayed elections, public frustration, and fraying political legitimacy coupled with raging insecurity, rapidly increasing worries about food, and an ongoing and unchecked pandemic amounts to a whole lot more than fragile.

But the small Caribbean nation found a way to plunge further into chaos after a group of what appeared to be highly trained and heavily armed gunmen stormed the presidential residence in Port-Au-Prince and shot Moïse to death. Haitian First Lady Martine Moïse was shot multiple times and was airlifted to a Florida hospital, where she remains in critical condition. Some two dozen people suspected of involvement in the assassination have been arrested, three of them Haitian-born with U.S. ties. 

Like the rest of the world, the United States was caught off guard by the brazen attack. The Trump administration had showed little interest in Haiti, except to support Moïse’s heavy-handed tactics, which included creating a new intelligence agency, expanding the definition of terrorism to go after his political opponents, and unilaterally replacing Supreme Court judges. The Biden administration supported Moïse’s dubious claim that, because his five-year term started a year later than expected, he somehow should be entitled to stay in office an extra year. However, with pressing concerns like COVID-19, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and China and Russia’s rising challenge, Haiti was not exactly a priority—and there was little reason to think Haiti’s perpetual political paralysis, turmoil, and misery would spiral into a presidential assassination.

But if Haiti has almost always seemed like a slow-motion train wreck, the United States and the international community bear some responsibility for the sorry state Haiti finds itself in—and might hold the key to finally putting Haiti on the right track.

Haiti’s history was always turbulent. There was a centurieslong struggle for self-determination, beginning with the first big slave rebellion against France to win independence, followed by decades of debt, poverty, corruption, and terminal despair. The neighborhood didn’t help: The United States invaded in 1915 after a mob killed the Haitian president and started a series of coups to take control of the country’s politics and finances—and it stayed for almost 20 years. A generation later, Haiti fell into the clutches of former Haitian Presidents François Duvalier and then Jean-Claude Duvalier, a father-son pair of dictators known as “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc.” Enjoying the support of most U.S. administrations, they ruled from the 1950s to the 1980s with brutal force and plunged the country further into debt. 

The one thing the world never taught Haiti was to govern—and make decisions for itself. 

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide—ousted twice from power—was restored in 1994 after a coup supported by 20,000 U.S. troops, leaving for good in 2004 after a second coup supported by the United States and France. 

Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton imposed an economic blockade against Haiti during Aristide’s reign, which had a crippling effect on the economy and the state’s vigor. Washington ultimately stopped funneling assistance through the government in favor of sending aid through international nonprofits—a move that further undermined the Haitian state’s capability to govern. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world, with more than half the population living below the poverty line of about $2 a day, according to the World Bank. Just under half are suffering from acute hunger thanks to droughts and rising food prices. Not a single resident has been vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Ironically, there has never been a shortage of money flowing to Haiti. The international community has sent billions of dollars of aid, providing vital services and supplies to help Haiti recover from successive calamities only to have to start from scratch again. Yet international aid has only compounded Haiti’s troubles. The one thing the world never taught Haiti was to govern—and make decisions for itself. 

Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, which left 316,000 people dead and 1.5 million people displaced, quickly took Haitians from poor to destitute. At the time, the United States and aid groups in Haiti pledged to rebuild Haiti into a better functioning, more economically stable nation able to withstand future setbacks without relying on international aid. Unfortunately, the reconstruction plan never went beyond rebuilding the country’s damaged infrastructure to helping Haiti develop strong governance. The international community, particularly the United States, has further undermined the political dysfunction by failing to put Haiti at the center of rebuilding plans. By January 2020, 10 years after the earthquake, the U.S. Agency for International Development had spent $2.3 billion in Haiti. But, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, less than 3 percent of that money went directly to Haitian organizations or firms. Most of it ended up with U.S. companies—usually located in and around Washington—with hardly any of it passing through Haitian hands. And what little arrived was delivered with little accountability. 

Last year, out of $180 million in U.S. assistance to Haiti, less than 5 percent went toward democracy, human rights, and good governance, according to Mercy Corps, which runs development and stabilization programs in the country. Even though the assistance was a laudable effort to help public works, infrastructure, education, and other stabilization projects, the lack of investment in self-determination and governance contributed to a seriously debilitated Haitian state rife with unchecked corruption, violence, and political paralysis.

With two coups, ongoing political turmoil, and a series of natural disasters, Haiti’s government has never been particularly strong in delivering services to its people. Haitians have gravitated toward charismatic figures instead of competent managers untouched by corruption. Moïse, an unknown plantain exporter, came out of the blue. He was handpicked from obscurity to succeed (and shield from potential corruption charges) then-Haitian President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly—a Trump-like charismatic musician. The so-called “banana man,” as he was dubbed on the campaign trail, pledged to fight corruption and create jobs. But after taking office, he was feared to be a new dictator in the making as he oversaw a proliferation of gang violence and created a constitutional crisis. 

As Jonathan Katz, a former AP correspondent in Haiti, wrote, Martelly’s cipher went further than his mentor ever had in “canceling all elections, overstaying the end of his constitutional term, and overseeing a wave of oppression, kidnapping, and the assassination of critics and journalists that left millions of Haitians in privation and fear.”

Now, in the wake of Moïse’s murder, Haiti is once again facing political uncertainty that will only compound the fragile security and humanitarian situation. Since Moïse did not hold a single election, local or legislative, during his presidency, there are less than a dozen elected officials in the country, according to the Miami Herald. The constitution states the head of Haiti’s Supreme Court succeeds the president, but he died of COVID-19 last week. Acting Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph declared a state of siege and himself the new leader—even though he was to be replaced by a new prime minister appointed by Moïse days before the assassination. Before his death, Moïse agreed to elections in September, but it is far from clear if the country can hold the vote in the wake of his murder. 

Money is no substitute for leadership.

Haiti is once again at an inflection point. The country needs reassurance from the United States and regional institutions like the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States that it will not be forgotten. Another intervention to hold elections, like the Washington Post called for last week, would only deepen the dependency that has made Haitian politics so corrupt, chaotic, and violent. (It would also be in stark contrast to U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise to curtail U.S. military adventures overseas.) What Haiti needs is patient diplomacy to bring together the different factions to move toward elections and select a president with a popular mandate.

Following a request from Haiti’s de facto government, a team of U.S. officials from various government agencies traveled to Port-au-Prince this weekend to assess the security situation, meet with the country’s leadership, and, according to a White House statement, “encourage open and constructive dialogue to reach a political accord.”

The United States said it “stands with Haiti in becoming a safer, more democratic country.” That starts with realizing money is no substitute for leadership. After decades of managing Haitian decision-making from the outside, the success of any sort of foreign-policy intervention in the wake of the country’s latest calamity will depend on whether and how much it puts Haitian civil society at the center. A true rebuilding effort needs to strengthen the country’s fragile government and weak institutions. Future aid to successive Haitian governments should be conditioned on its leaders cleaning up corruption and reforming the nation’s institutions. 

What’s needed is not nation building but state building—enhancing the ability of state institutions to govern and manage their own politics. Ultimately, to escape the cycle of despair, Haiti must learn to do for itself what the world has so far, and not very well, tried to do for it.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

Tag: Haiti

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