NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Pamela White, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Haiti from 2012 to 2015, about why she thinks the call for outside help is necessary.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Haiti has struggled for centuries to free itself from foreign interference. But now, in an extraordinary move, a group of its top officials has asked the prime minister to seek the help of an armed international force to combat multiple crises and deepening chaos. The chaos is fueled by ongoing political instability in the wake of the still-unsolved killing of a previous prime minister, and gangs have filled the void, taking over parts of the country and controlling access to vital resources, especially fuel.
Gangs began blockading the fuel terminal as a protest against the prime minister’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, and that’s led to nationwide fuel and water shortages and the closing of multiple health centers, all amid a new cholera outbreak. A call for outside help is a deeply sensitive issue in Haiti, but in recent testimony before the House Foreign Services Committee, it’s a step that our next guest says is unfortunate but necessary.
Pamela White served as the U.S. ambassador to Haiti from 2012 to 2015, and she is with us now to tell us more. Ambassador White, thank you so much for joining us.
PAMELA WHITE: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: Last month, you testified before the House Foreign Service Committee about the urgent need to help Haiti deal with spiraling violence and insecurity. And you said you didn’t care if it was, quote, “the U.S. Marines, U.N. troops or former New York policemen, but the killing has to stop.” That is an extraordinary statement, especially coming from someone like you who is sensitive to and deeply aware of how fraught that issue is in Haiti. So what is the current situation, and how did we get to this point?
WHITE: What really happened was there was the election of Jovenel Moise, and he was – he got – it was not a popular vote. I think he got something like, I don’t know, 28% of the vote in the end. It was a runoff, etc., all quite questionable. And he was put in power and didn’t really have much agency with the Haitian people and got less and less as time went on. And then last year in June, he was assassinated. The elected president was assassinated. To this day, we don’t know exactly who did it, and there’s question marks all over the place and fingers pointing every direction. And even when he was president, the unrest had started, and the gangs started taking power within the cities.
And then after he was assassinated and Henry, the current prime minister, was sworn in, two weeks after he was assassinated, the gangs realized that Henry had even less political backing, if you will, than Moise did. And of course, whenever there’s a, you know, a vacuum for power, often, especially in Haiti, bad gangs or groups fill in the gaps. And now that they, you know, the gangs are controlling the supply of water, they’re controlling the supply of fuel, which is not getting out, everything is shut down. The schools have shut down. The hospitals have shut down, mostly. The banks are now even shut down, which we’ve never, ever seen in the past. Transportation is almost nonexistent. So we’re in a total chaos situation right now.
MARTIN: What would a constructive intervention look like, and who has the authority to actually engage that? I mean, it would seem that that’s what international bodies like the U.N. peacekeepers, that’s what they’re for. So what would a constructive engagement look like?
WHITE: Yes, a U.N. force of some sort would seem to be the answer. But the U.N. forces in Haiti, they’re not liked. They brought cholera. They raped Haitian women, left behind hundreds of babies, et cetera. So the reputation of a U.N. force in Haiti is not a good one. But I think given that and understanding that, we still can’t say, well, so then there’s no solution whatsoever.
For me, at least in the interim, we have got to target humanitarian aid corridors, get enough armed personnel in Haiti so that they can open up the fuel, the water, the food, maybe a thousand boots on the ground that goes immediately to open up these humanitarian corridors. And that’s just the first step so at least no more people are starving and dying, which is where we’re at right now. But if we don’t get some relief immediately, this is what’s going to happen. Hundreds of thousands are going to either starve or die.
MARTIN: This is the difficult question, but it is the question that I think people listening to this conversation will ask. What is the U.S. interest here?
WHITE: The – I wrote this about it in my statement too. And you often will get the thing. Well, if you don’t do something about it, you’re going to find 25,000 more Haitians on the doorstep of the United States of America. And that very well may be true. I mean, they have nowhere to go, nowhere to turn. Who wants to live in a society where you can’t get food or water and cholera spreading? But that’s not really my reason.
My reason is that we have had a long friendship sometimes, certainly relationship with Haiti. Many of us, I mean, many, many people have, you know, deep partnerships with Haitians, friendships with Haitians, relations with Haitians. And this is what we do. It’s the right thing to do when we see a country that is in this type of crisis, when we see hundreds of thousands of children starving, dying of hunger, when we see a country ravaged by cholera, we do something with the United States of America.
MARTIN: So the question I think that Americans would have is, armed forces, are you prepared to allow them to kill people in order to reestablish order? Are you prepared to allow Americans to be potentially killed in order to restore order?
WHITE: I would never condone killing, more killing to stop the killing. Initially, the primary goal of the boots on the ground is not – the primary goal is not to stop the gangs. But our first action has to be to get food, water, health care to these, you know, millions of Haitians that are suffering because of the total.
MARTIN: What reaction did you get to your testimony?
WHITE: From my friends in Haiti, I would say 99.9 is hooray. Thank you. You’re being brave. This is what we want. This is what we need. There are an occasional what is the heck is she talking about? And the last thing we need is any kind of boots on the ground. But those reactions are few and far between.
MARTIN: Pamela White is a former ambassador to Haiti. We’re talking about her testimony to the House Foreign Services Committee last month, which precedes a request by top officials in Haiti for armed intervention to restore order, armed international intervention to restore order. Ambassador White, thank you so much for talking with us.
WHITE: Thank you so much.
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