Rush to deploy multinational force sets conditions on Haiti

Haitian police officers deploy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 9, 2024.

By Rafael Bernal, The Hill, March 15, 2024

The looming international military intervention threatens to perpetuate a security boom-and-bust cycle in Haiti, as gang power consolidates its grasp on the country’s power base.

The State Department is treating an international military or police presence in Haiti as all but a given as the country is poised to adopt a transitional council to rebuild top government structures in the wake of acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s resignation.

To be eligible for membership in the transitional council — announced Monday in Kingston, Jamaica — Haitian leaders must follow a set of conditions, including support for an international security mission.

That condition has rubbed some Haitian advocates the wrong way, as it imposes a critical policy posture on anyone who wants to participate in the country’s immediate political future.

The transitional council is the product of talks among the United States, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Canada, France, Brazil and Mexico. Members of Haitian civil society participated via Zoom, but the extent to which Haitians led the discussion is a matter of debate.

“Nearly 40 representatives of diverse sectors of Haitian society participated via Zoom in Monday’s discussions in Kingston. This broad cross-section of Haitian society drove the talks over months of conversations on Haiti’s political path forward both on their own and with the facilitation of the CARICOM Eminent Persons Group,” a State Department spokesperson told The Hill in an email Thursday.

But Haiti advocates say the precondition to support a multinational security force by definition excludes civil society and political groups who opposed Henry and his open-arms acceptance of foreign security assistance.

“Imposing that condition on it increases the probability of the mission happening, because what they’ve done is they’ve effectively sidelined people who’ve been critiquing the mission for two years,” said Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

Though Henry never officially became president or prime minister — he came to power in the turmoil following President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in 2021 — he is the longest-tenured head of government in Haiti since the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986.

For 32 months, Henry’s grip on power relied heavily on U.S. support, and he enthusiastically sought and received United Nations support for an international force — and lobbied Kenya to deploy it.

Kenya was selected for the mission by the international community, and Kenyan President William Ruto was supportive, but the effort got mired in Kenya’s court system amid legal challenges.

The effort to recruit Kenya ultimately led to Henry’s political demise, as gang violence at the Port-au-Prince airport prevented his plane from landing in the country after a mission to East Africa.

That violence drew international attention and spurred U.S. action, with multiple reports focusing on the colorful characters leading the gangs.

But the interconnectedness of gangs, business and political groups has been somewhat overlooked, as has the growth of gang activity under Henry.

That oversight could ultimately favor the gangs.

“They’re putting parties that have a chance of winning fair elections in a really tough spot. You’re faced with: either you go along with this mission, which most of them have denounced for two years, and not only are you making the mission more likely, you’re also losing credibility with Haitian voters,” Concannon said.

“The other choice is to sit out and allow groups that don’t have a chance of winning fair elections — many of them with connections to gangs — to write the rules for the next election, which is also a bad choice.”

The Biden administration, with seven months to go until the presidential election, was in a comfort zone with Henry, who for much of his tenure at least succeeded in keeping Haiti out of the international spotlight.

And while Haitian migration, much of it due to worsening violence and living conditions, fed into President Biden’s biggest political vulnerability, those migrants have arguably been the biggest success story for the administration’s policy to process Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, known collectively as CHNV.

Since the program’s implementation, the number of Haitians encountered by Border Patrol agents between official ports of entry has dropped from several thousand a month to a few dozen, with the exception of December, when the Border Patrol reported 1,500 encounters with Haitians.

But the Biden administration is in a rush to return some semblance of stability to the island country, fearing an incident that could further fuel Republican attacks during election season.

“The goals of the [Multinational Security Support Mission in Haiti] deployment and a reinforced Haitian National Police are to create the security conditions necessary to hold free and fair elections and to allow humanitarian assistance to get to the people who need it, both of which will help put Haiti back on a path to economic opportunity and growth,” wrote the State Department spokesperson.

The Senate on Thursday confirmed the Biden administration’s first ambassador to Haiti in more than two years, setting up career diplomat Dennis Hankins for the job.

Democrats also looked to flip the issue on Republicans, blaming them for holding up funds for the police mission.

“I support the Biden administration’s efforts to help restore order and facilitate the delivery of aid to the people of Haiti through the U.N.-authorized Multinational Security Support mission, but only so much is possible until Republicans lift their hold on the additional $40 million in funding necessary to deploy for the mission. They should do so immediately,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a key Biden ally on border and immigration policy.

Yet amid the rush to deploy forces, it’s unclear what on-the-ground Haitians want.

They are being forced to choose between supporting a new foreign intervention and rising internal violence.

With the exception of the Duvalier dictatorship, when anticommunist repression kept U.S. pressures at bay, the choice has never been Haitian. Foreign military intervention has been the norm throughout the country’s history.

Though more recent interventions have come with the acquiescence of the Haitian government — unlike the 1915-34 U.S. occupation — even U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping missions have introduced police abuse, including sexual abuse, and diseases including cholera.

Jérôme Wendy Norestyl, a journalist at AyiboPost, a Haitian news site, pointed to an investigation he conducted last October where Haitians weighed the pros and cons of foreign policing.

“It’s not the first time. We’ve had many foreign interventions in our history, but nothing is different: It’s up to us to figure out what we want for the country,” Montrevil Chaperon, a farmer, told Norestyl.

Agricultural entrepreneur Douyon Jean Roberson told Norestyl the proposal to ship in Kenyan troops was business as usual.

“We’ve always been under the cover of a foreign force, under occupation. This intervention should not be a surprise for us,” he said.

And a poll conducted in August by local business group AGERCA found that 63 percent of respondents agreed there’s a need for a foreign force to assist the Haitian National Police to restore peace.

The poll, though widely cited, might not reflect the sentiments of all Haitians: 70 percent of respondents reported having completed secondary education or higher in a country where 41 percent of children aren’t enrolled in school, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

But Haitians aren’t holding high hopes for that the same medicine will yield different results.

“We can’t expect much from a multinational force,” farmer Aletude Olistin told Norestyl.

“It could provide some relief, but the situation will remain unchanged.”

 

Posted March 23, 2024