Adrift: US-Haiti policy – Global Americans

Photo: Joseph Odelyn / Associated Press via the Globe and Mail
Headlines relating to Haiti over the past 100 days have generated an expanding volume of assessments, critiques, and calls for more to be done in response to a frightening pace of bad news:  the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse in July; the earthquake in August; in September a Haitian migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border; followed by the resignation of the U.S. special envoy for Haiti, after only two months on the job; startling statistics suggesting a surge in kidnappings (119 cases in the first half of October alone), exemplified for the international community by this month’s abduction of a busload of US/Canadian missionaries.
But what may be most alarming is that the dysfunction that framed Haiti prior to these events, remains unresolved – and arguably is sliding toward complete ungovernability. There is no coherent and sustainable pathway in place to address any of this — whether among Haitian leadership or international actors:
So, what now? The painful reality suggests the nearly impossible — a push forward on the above issues simultaneously. This is unlikely. For a sustainable path to emerge first implies developing a working consensus in five areas:
1) Addressing the insecurity.
2) Confirming an electoral timetable and a credible machinery to go with it.
3) Agreeing on a constitutional reform process, and its sequencing vis-a-vis national elections.
4) Providing significant resources to reenergize Haiti’s economy, including post-earthquake reconstruction, and COVID-19-related national infrastructure assets—and probably a collateral regional agreement, or at least understanding, on how to treat future flows of Haitian migrants.
5) And critically, securing a political compact able to sustain the interim government that will preside over this agenda of crisis.
Among Haitian actors, one discerns a general agreement about the salience of these five issues, but an absence of a working formula on the particulars of each issue, let alone its sequencing and timing. In fact, there are two competing consensus formulas: one led by Henry and composed primarily of a somewhat disparate universe of political actors, many with links to Moïse’s PHTK party, and the broader Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, created by the Forum of Civil Society Organizations early in 2021, which in turn generated the Montana Agreement in late August.
The latter’s main virtue is its broad scope of national representation: over 180 organizations drawn from religious groups, women’s and farmer’s constituencies, bar associations, labor unions, political parties, and human rights groups. Possibly its core flaw lies in the challenge to translate its ideals for transparent governance, fair, safe and credible elections into, first, a viable and sustainable transitional governing compact, and secondly, ensuring the day-to-day legitimacy of a proposed two-year period of a transitional council—in effect, pushing the calendar out into 2023. A proposal to appoint an interim president creates an up-front point of friction with Henry and others, including among international actors, and also fuels the concerns regarding his legitimacy to govern.
The less ambitious timetable framing Henry’s consensus—a fairly quick sequence of events, with a reconstituted constitutional reform process leading to a referendum by early 2022, followed by elections later in the year—is appealing primarily in shortening the open-ended political and operational uncertainties of the Montana Agreement. This also rings true among some international actors who will in practice become the underwriters of these arrangements. One rub lies in the character of the constitutional reform process, which was mutilated by Moïse’s many procedural shortcuts, yet paradoxically actively encouraged by UN leadership in Haiti, and until late June somewhat absentmindedly supported by both the Trump and the first six months of the Biden presidency. Henry has pushed forward with an initial corrective action—the reconstitution of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), a laborious process under the best of circumstances—but this has run into political and procedural headwinds. A critical component of this process lies in its sequencing vis-à-vis national elections, with the dominant views being that it should precede those elections—but the clash is over the length and depth of a national consultation process (a process rushed by Moïse).
This wobbly political environment faces additional distractions from a cacophony of other political actors opportunistically seeking visibility. This includes the head of a rump Senate (Joseph Lambert), who claims some constitutional legitimacy as being the more credible alternative to govern Haiti in this interim. Likewise, the background noise also being increasingly filled by some jockeying in the expectation of national elections in 2022. But the most immediate anxieties lie in Haiti’s dramatically worsening violence, a trend exacerbated during the Moïse presidency.
Often seen as having acquired a greater operational latitude locally due to the increasing dysfunction in public governance, gangs are well-financed and politically connected in part through the collusion of public officials and police elements. Built into this is an organized network anchored to drug dealing and weapons trafficking, a lucrative market that stretches out regionally, particularly to Jamaica and beyond—including the US. What has also emerged is a form of presumptive gang coalitions, and a more formidable scale of engagement into entire neighborhoods with deadly violence and ransom kidnapping—the Port-au-Prince region is now a mosaic of essentially no-go districts.
They operate with impunity despite what is at least on paper a 15,000-20,000 strong Haitian National Police (PNH) force, trained at great expense by the US and other countries following the 2004 international intervention and the 2010 earthquake. It is ridden with corruption across its ranks, enabled in part by the threats gang members can exert on individual members of the police. The problem goes deeper to the extent that law enforcement in general is impaired by a dysfunctional or barely functioning police investigative capacity and a related judicial system to adjudicate cases.
The cumulative effect of all these developments for the international community is growing concern about Haiti’s worsened security, political and economic outlook. But this has yet to translate into a firm consensus among actors most affected by events in Haiti (U.S., Canada, EU, UN, Dominican Republic, Mexico, CARICOM) on what to do about it. Most troubling is a dangerous divide among international actors and with Haitian civil society leadership regarding the legitimacy of the Ariel Henry-led interim government (with the US and UN so far showing more enthusiasm than their international counterparts). This has operational implications affecting any path forward and requires an urgent and definitive resolution.
The absence of US leadership is noticeable and is the missing catalyst. Despite a ramp up of senior US officials’ visits to Haiti, and pronouncements of concerns (along calls for action from Congressional voices), US policy continues to be adrift and dangerously indecisive. In fact, no one within leadership seems to “own” Haiti policy, exemplified by the theatrical resignation of the Special Envoy (Amb. Daniel Foote). It underscored an ill-defined mandate colliding with roles played by the US Ambassador (Michele Sison, herself now in transition out of her post) and other policy actors across the Federal bureaucracy dealing with Haiti. Arguably, because of this, there is now an even stronger case for the role of a special advisor—in previous incarnations, also sometimes called the “Special Coordinator for Haiti.” Amb. Sison’s rotation out of her post has led to an interim appointment of an experienced diplomat to lead the embassy, Kenneth Merton, former ambassador to Haiti, and later Special Coordinator (2015-17). His appointment was received with mixed reviews among Haitian political circles. His Special Coordinator tenure overlapped with the controversial 2015-2016 cycle of elections that brought Moïse into office; the US, notably Merton, is perceived by Haitian civil society as having played a heavy hand.
To go back to the earlier question, so, what now? Initial calls after the July presidential assassination for the deploying of a US security force presence (“boots on the ground”) and the imprecise notion of what its actual mission would be, have with more recent developments in Haiti been broadened to the grander notion for a long-term U.N. mission scaled to address the full agenda of Haiti’s challenges. Both of these policy responses have been tested in Haiti over the past 30 years with mixed outcomes. In fact, the degree to which Haitian national governance has collapsed in recent years is a reminder of the deep flaws in these proposals, and the apparent absence of effective lessons-learned process inherent in them. Effectively dealing with Haiti’s mounting problems requires a more targeted and thoughtful set of responses.
The challenges Haiti faces are immense and cannot be easily addressed without active international policy coordination, leadership by US diplomacy, and close and sustained interaction with key Haitian actors. If the above headaches were not enough, looking forward toward national elections raises the potential—if the disruptions of the 2010-2011 and 2015-2016 electoral cycles are accurate indicators—for more upheaval, some of it dragging in international actors, including the US. Those troubled elections brought to office unexpectedly two inexperienced, somewhat populist leaders (Michel Martelly and Jovenel Moïse). Akin to the process that has developed in El Salvador with Nayib Bukele, imagine the emergence of a Haitian political leader with a much better grasp of national governance than Martelly and Moïse—who combines an effective populist appeal with classic autocratic behavior, combined with an appealing public media personality. In El Salvador Bukele is openly threatening democratic institutions. What would happen in Haiti?
Georges Fauriol is a Fellow with the Caribbean Policy Consortium and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).
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Filed Under: Democracy & Elections, Security & Rule of Law, The Caribbean Corner, U.S.-Latin America Relations
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