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The best thing the US can do for Haiti is get out of its way

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A protester burns tires during a demonstration calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Port-au-Prince on February 7, 2024. Henry has agreed to resign and make way for a transitional authority, the president of Guyana and a US official said on March 11, 2024 after a regional meeting on a gang uprising that has plunged Haiti into violent chaos. Haiti has a chance at returning to a more stable, democratic path, but only if the Biden administration will let it, the writer says. – Picture: Richard Pierrin / AFP

By Brian Concannon

Haiti’s deepening crisis — armed groups launching an assault on the government, and the de facto prime minister on indefinite layover in the San Juan, Puerto Rico, airport — is a predictable consequence of 14 years of US support for undemocratic regimes connected to Haiti’s PHTK party as it has dismantled Haiti’s democracy.

Haiti has a chance at reversing this descent and returning to a more stable, democratic path, but only if the Biden administration will let it.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry was stranded in San Juan Tuesday on his way back from Kenya, where he had signed an agreement for Kenyan police to come bolster his repressive, corrupt and unpopular regime. The armed groups, including many that had collaborated with Henry’s regime, took advantage of his absence to attack government infrastructure, and free 5,000 prisoners, many of them members of armed groups. Henry had planned to fly to the neighbouring Dominican Republic and take a helicopter ride back to Haiti’s National Palace under the cover of darkness. But Dominican authorities refused entry to the prime minister’s chartered plane, which re-routed to San Juan.

No amount of submission to US demands by Prime Minister Henry and his predecessors can justify the absolute horror that our support has allowed them to inflict on the Haitian people.

Prime Minister Henry has not yet resigned, and the State Department denied reports that it demanded his resignation. But Henry has clearly lost the support of the United States, which for two years had allowed him to resist Haitians demands for fair elections. Absent Washington’s support, Henry has little chance of regaining power.

This dire situation is not only predictable, it has also been predicted. Haitian-American officials, Haitian civil society, members of the US Congress, and other experts have been warning for years that the US propping up Henry will lead to increasing tragedy for Haitians. The United States, which installed Henry in power in the first place, ignored these pleas and stood resolutely by its friend. With US support, Henry’s unconstitutional term as prime minister exceeded any other prime minister’s term under Haiti’s 1987 Constitution. Levels of gang violence, kidnapping, hunger, and misery also reached unprecedented levels.

The United States is still insisting on getting Kenyan troops to Haiti. The State Department has persistently — if thus far unsuccessfully — tried to deploy non-American boots onto Haitian ground since Henry requested them in October 2022. The mission’s deployment initially stalled because it was widely rejected as a bad idea that will primarily serve to prop up the repressive regime that generated the crisis. Haitian civil society repeatedly insisted that the first step towards security must be a transitional government with the legitimacy to organise elections and determine how the international community can best help Haiti.

Concerns that the intervention would serve only to reinforce an unpopular regime led the countries that the Biden administration first tapped to lead the mission, including Canada, Haiti’s Caribbean neighbours, and Brazil, to pass. The UN itself concluded that the mission would require too much “robust use of force” to be appropriate for a peacekeeping mission. So, the Security Council took the unusual step of authorising the mission, but on the condition that it not actually be a UN mission that the organisation would have to take responsibility for.

The Biden administration, likely concerned about election-year cell phone videos of troops shooting indiscriminately in crowded neighbourhoods — as the last foreign intervention did — declined to send US troops for the mission (but is considering deploying a small Marine contingent to Haiti in early March).

Last August Kenya — which did not even have diplomatic relations with Haiti but did need the hundreds of millions of dollars that the United States offered — agreed to lead the mission. The exploratory delegation Kenya sent to evaluate conditions in Haiti quickly realised how deadly the planned mission would be for Haitians and Kenyans alike, and proposed to limit its scope to protecting public infrastructure.

The United States was not open to renegotiating the deal, and Kenya withdrew its proposed limits. But Kenya’s High Court temporarily blocked the deployment as unconstitutional. Ariel Henry’s visit to Kenya was for the signature of an accord that Kenya’s President William Ruto hoped would overcome the court’s objections.

Kenyan lawyers insist that the agreement itself is illegal, and are continuing their challenge. In the meantime, Kenyan officers who had volunteered for the mission are changing their minds. Another obstacle appeared on March 7, when the White House conceded that the mission cannot be deployed without congressional approval of funding.

The State Department’s insistence that the Kenyan deployment must nevertheless happen raises fears that the United States will also continue its policy of installing and propping up undemocratic regimes in Haiti.

Finance Minister Patrick Boisvert, who Henry tapped as interim prime minister when he left for Kenya, increased concerns of authoritarian governance on March 6 when he declared a three-day curfew and state of emergency throughout the Port-au-Prince region in an edict that did not even mention the legal basis for his authority. The next day Boisvert raised more fears by extending the emergency measures for a month and adding in a ban on all protests.

The State Department’s rescinding its support for Henry might have been promising had the gangs not already made his ouster inevitable. State’s claim that it now supports “an empowered and inclusive governance structure” that will “pave the way for free and fair elections” might have been promising if it had not added the condition that the new government must “move with urgency to help the country prepare for a multinational security support mission”.

A legitimate, broadly supported, sovereign transitional Haitian government might request foreign police assistance. But a government allowed to form only if it accepts a US-imposed occupation force originally designed to prop up a hated, repressive government is not sovereign. It may not be legitimate or broadly supported either.

The United States tasked CARICOM, the federation of Haiti’s Caribbean neighbours, to forge a civil society consensus. CARICOM has enjoyed credibility in Haiti in the past, but over the past few months it has faced criticism for trying to strong-arm civil society into an agreement that maintained Henry’s power. Not surprisingly, CARICOM-led talks on March 6 and 7 failed.

When allowed, Haitians have a history of coming together to make their way out of a crisis. Haiti became a country in 1804 by defeating Napoleon, with almost no outside help. In 1986, when the US finally withdrew its support from Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haitians eventually wrested power from the military and held fair elections. In 2006, they voted their way out of the crisis created by the US kidnapping of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years before.

In August 2021, shortly after the killing of Haiti’s last president, Jovenel Moïse, a broad-based group presented the Montana Accord that would have created a transitional government leading to elections in two years. The US vetoed the accord, citing, among other reasons, that the two-year time frame was too long. That was 30 months ago, and there are no elections in sight.

No amount of submission to US demands by Prime Minister Henry and his predecessors can justify the absolute horror that our support has allowed them to inflict on the Haitian people. It is time for the United States to let Haitians come together and make their way out of the current crisis.

Civil society sees an opportunity for democracy in the crisis, and people all over Haiti have been meeting, discussing, and negotiating to develop platforms for a broad-based, legitimate transitional government that can hold fair elections. It is expected that soon — maybe within weeks — one of these platforms will rise to the top, and civil society will coalesce around it. The United States needs to let that process happen without interference or conditions.

Brian Concannon is founder and executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. He lived and worked in Haiti from 1995 to 2004, first with the United Nations, and after 1996 with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Port-au-Prince. Concannon held a Brandeis International Fellowship in Human Rights, Intervention, and International Law from 2001-2003, and was a 2005-06 Wasserstein Public Interest Law Fellow at Harvard Law School.

This article was first published on Common Dreams