Biden is continuing the U.S. pattern of saying Haiti’s woes aren’t our problem

Migrants cross through the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on Sept. 16. Del Rio has seen an influx of migrants mostly from Haiti since early 2021. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

By Jonathan M. Katz, Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2021

The topic was a crisis in Haiti. The guest: Joe Biden. The situation in the Caribbean nation was grave, the Democrat admitted, but it was not the business of the United States — except for one area of concern: “It continues to ferment this whole notion of what we’d refer to, what most Americans would refer to, as illegal immigration — a great pressure to take and/or for people to escape to the United States.”

That interview, on the talk show “Charlie Rose,” took place 27 years ago, when Biden was in his second of four decades as a U.S. senator. As Americans’ attention swings back toward the Black Republic in 2021 — thanks to a presidential assassination, another deadly earthquake and, now, images of Haitian migrants being threatened by mounted Border Patrol agents along the Rio Grande — a snippet of that appearance has gone viral on social media. In a misbegotten attempt to explain Haiti’s supposed unimportance to the United States, Biden said, cringingly, “If Haiti just quietly sunk into the Caribbean or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interest.”

History tells a different story. U.S. interests have long been intertwined with Haiti — usually in ways that work to most Haitians’ detriment. As Daniel Foote, Biden’s former special envoy for Haiti, argued in a revealing resignation letter — submitted in protest of continuing deportations Wednesday — the United States’ track record in Haiti has been one of “hubris” and abuse. “What our Haitian friends really want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering,” Foote wrote.

Instead, Biden is continuing President Donald Trump’s policies of support for a corrupt, undemocratic government in Port-au-Prince while overseeing a campaign of aggression against immigrants seeking safety and opportunity in the United States. Even as the White House condemned the images of aggression by Customs and Border Protection officials on the southern border, federal officials announced Tuesday that they would double the pace of deportations to Haiti, and posted an ad looking for prison guards at Guantánamo Bay who speak Haitian Creole. (The White House and the Department of Homeland Security later said they had no plans to send Haitian migrants there from the U.S.-Mexico border.)

It may be that Biden is trying to chart a middle course — giving lip service to procedural concerns from immigrants’ advocates while offering aggression in what will inevitably be a vain effort to placate the nativist right. But taking a longer view, Biden’s latest actions are in line with the premises he laid out 27 years ago: that the United States’ sole interest in Haiti is to keep Haitians from coming here, and that there is no history that compels the United States to accept large numbers of Haitian refugees — including those fleeing conditions the United States itself helped foster. It’s a position that can be held only with a heavy dose of historical amnesia.

When then-Sen. Biden gave his interview to Charlie Rose in 1994, the United States was on the verge of invading Haiti. It had been three years since an authoritarian junta overthrew Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a coup d’etat; President Bill Clinton had since overseen the negotiation of a political settlement in which Aristide would be restored in exchange for granting amnesty to the putschists and implementing a program of U.S. business friendly “reforms” — especially slashing food tariffs to allow in a flood of cheap American rice. When the junta backed out of the deal, Clinton prepared for a show of overwhelming military force.

Asked by Rose whether it would be wise for the United States to invade Haiti, Biden’s answer in 1994 previewed his presidency in several ways. First, he established his commitment to what he called the “national interest” over party loyalty — making clear that the Democratic-controlled Senate was not ready to give Clinton a blank check. Then he announced his skepticism about the war, on grounds that resonate today in the aftermath of the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq: that the United States, after dispatching the authoritarian junta, would get bogged down trying to reestablish a government.

The one justification for U.S. involvement in Haiti that Biden would allow was the one noted above: that the island republic was a source of migrants to the United States. It was a hot-button issue, then as now. The news was full of stories of Haitians fleeing the junta by boat for the relative safety of the United States. Thousands had been captured by the Coast Guard at sea. Many were housed at Guantánamo Bay, where, a few years earlier, the detention camp had been built for that purpose.

Already, back in 1994, Biden — like most Americans — was looking at Haiti from under a thick blanket of amnesia, even where then-recent events were concerned. Neither Biden nor the other guest on the show, Republican Rep. Mike Castle, mentioned that the United States had played a central role in creating the crisis in Haiti that Clinton’s invasion was meant to solve. Not only had the U.S. military trained Haitian coup leader Raoul Cédras in psychological warfare, but some of the leading putschists who overthrew Aristide and created the migrant crisis had been on the CIA payroll, and remained on it for years after.

American responsibility for Haiti’s troubles runs even deeper than that. From the start, the United States has demonized and targeted Haiti for having ended slavery on its own terms in the bloody 1791-1803 Haitian Revolution. (As Frederick Douglass put it in 1893, “We have not yet forgiven Haiti for being Black.”) The country was then deeply immiserated by a U.S. invasion and occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934. That episode was immediately preceded by the heist of half of Haiti’s gold reserves by armed U.S. Marines, and ultimately carried out for the benefit of U.S. business and bankers. The State Department made high-minded promises of economic development and progress in Haiti throughout. But as Smedley Butler, a famed Marine general who earned his second Medal of Honor in Haiti, later remarked, its primary result was to make Haiti “a decent place for the National City Bank boys [now Citigroup] to collect revenue in.”

U.S. interference in Haiti continued unevenly throughout the ensuing Duvalier family dictatorship, from 1957 to 1986 — with Washington generally tolerating or supporting the dictators’ efforts to exploit Haiti’s poor for the benefit of global supply chains and suppress human rights, while taking a more hands’ off approach when it came to the regime’s rampant corruption.

Those patterns continued after Biden’s appearance on “Charlie Rose.” Clinton carried out his 1994 invasion. Aristide was restored. The junta escaped justice. Clinton’s negotiated economic “reforms” destroyed the Haitian economy. Aristide was overthrown again in yet another coup d’etat in 2004 — followed by another U.S. invasion, this time ordered by George W. Bush.

When a catastrophic earthquake destroyed most of Haiti’s capital in 2010, Barack Obama reacted with another military-led response — focused, as his vice president had made clear, on Washington’s one abiding concern when it comes to Haiti: preventing Haitians from migrating to the United States. The Department of Homeland Security readied a Coast Guard task force to prevent a feared mass migration. For hours each day, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane blasted a recording of the Haitian ambassador to Washington warning quake survivors that if they tried to sail to the United States, “they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”

There was no mass migration to the U.S. after the 2010 quake. But in the years that followed, as the United States continued interfering in Haitian elections, and little in the way of post-quake aid made it into survivors’ hands on the ground, some Haitians jumped at the chance to move to Brazil and Chile in hopes of earning money there. They encountered xenophobia and disappointment instead. It was mainly members of this already displaced group that have risked their lives, and those of their children, to travel upward of 7,000 miles, through impenetrable jungle and attacks by gangsters in Central America — turning the misguided fears of a migrant crisis that undermined the 2010 quake response into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They arrived in Texas only to learn that the same assumptions as always apply: While U.S. commerce and capital can move freely across Haiti’s borders, Haitian bodies must always be controlled.

The president, and Vice President Harris, came into office promising to reverse what they rightly called Trump’s “unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants.” Attacking and rounding up asylum seekers — and dumping them back into a crisis-wracked country that the U.S. government has otherwise deemed unable to accept any influx of deportees — not only belies that promise. It will ensure the pattern of destructive, narrowly self-serving U.S. policies in Haiti will continue. Biden only needs to look back over his own decades in Washington to see what the results of that approach has been.


Jonathan M. Katz is the author of the upcoming "Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire." He received the James Foley/Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for reporting from Haiti in 2010. You can sign up for his newsletter at


Posted Oct. 3, 2021