The Trump State Department propped up a dictator. The Biden administration needs a fresh approach.
Monique Clesca is exactly the kind of Haitian to whom the U.S. Embassy should be listening. She’s a prominent pro-democracy civic leader, a veteran of a long career in the United Nations, an outspoken feminist, and a member of the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, a group with representatives from all sectors of society. But Clesca says that she’s never been contacted by the embassy. “I’ve never met ambassador [Michele] Sison,” she said, in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince.
Instead, the Biden State Department continues to push the Trump administration’s failed policy, which prizes “stability” over justice, and, if continued, promises more disaster. Some influential American voices support this approach, including the Washington Post editorial board, which, foolishly, has endorsed another U.S. invasion, calling for “a muscular intervention” that includes “boots on the ground.”
The mainstream U.S. media, after years of neglecting Haiti, finally started covering the country after the July 7 assassination of president Jovenel Moise. But most reports are missing the point. Exactly who among Moise’s political or economic rivals ordered his murder is not the most important angle. The American media—and State Department policymakers—continue to ignore the broad-based, pro-democracy movement in Haiti, which over the past three years carried out mass demonstrations all over the country, including a two-month-long general strike in 2019, and which demands to be part of the country’s future. The nonviolent pro-democracy campaign reached one crescendo on March 28, in huge nationwide marches to defend the 1987 Constitution—but the New York Times missed the story. (Only the Miami Herald covered it, in a report by the excellent Jacqueline Charles.) Similar mass movements in, say, Eastern Europe would have got massive coverage.
The Haitian pro-democracy movement rejects any U.S. armed intervention, and also opposes the State Department’s push to force Haiti to hold elections this year. Clesca explains that much of the gang violence that is tearing up the country is not random or anarchic, but actually a “political strategy” that was orchestrated by the late president Moise and other high officials.
“They directed the gangs and supplied them with weapons,” she explained. “Their plan was to use the gangs to create a climate of terror, to control the elections.” She argues that only after Haitians establish a reliable interim government that stops promoting the gangs will a free and fair vote be possible.
In addition to the violence, Haitians are enraged at the stupefying levels of corruption among Moise and other members of the small political class and economic elite. The popular anti-corruption campaign started in 2018 in response to the PetroCaribe scandal, when Haitians discovered that most of the at least $2 billion that the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela donated to their country had disappeared. A Haitian appeals court issued a 656-page report that implicated Moise and other political leaders, but the president sat on the findings. Haitians know also that billions in foreign aid were promised after the 2010 earthquake, but more than a decade later there’s little evidence of rebuilding in the capital, Port-au-Prince, aside from a couple of luxury hotels and a handful of new government buildings.
Velina Elysee Charlier is a business administrator in Port-au-Prince, and a prominent member of the anti-corruption group called Nou Pap Domi. (The name can be translated as We Are Not Sleeping, or We’re Woke.) Over the phone, she explained why the Petrocaribe scandal was so devastating to Haitians:
This money could have transformed Haiti. It was supposed to be allocated to agricultural banks to help small farmers, to build schools, to improve roads. It could have done a lot of good. Instead, some of it was wasted on foolish projects, on sports stadiums that were never completed, for example. And much of it simply vanished. Petrocaribe was supposed to be a fund to help poor people who needed it the most, but it was actually stolen by rich Haitians. They took food away from babies.
Charlier said the violence has increased to the point that pro-democracy Haitians right now are afraid to march in the streets, as they did in March. One of her activist allies, a brave young feminist named Antoinette (Netty) Duclaire, was murdered on June 29, along with the journalist Diego Charles. Charlier says these days she never travels alone through Port-au-Prince, and varies her routes. “When you become an activist you have to make peace with the idea that you can be killed,” she said.
Despite the danger, Charlier rejects calls for foreign military intervention. “I believe there are many policemen and women here who want to do their job, who are not corrupt, who have integrity and are competent,” she said. “Change the people at the top and we can improve the security situation.” Her organization also supports the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis.
Moise Jovenel responded to the three-year-long mass protest campaign only by violating the Constitution and seizing even more power. A 2019 parliamentary election was never held, so he started ruling by decree, and he stayed in office beyond February 7 this year, even though legal experts, including the Haitian Bar Association, said that under the Constitution his term should have ended then. He also deposed three Supreme Court judges, jailing one of them.
But even after the Biden administration came to power, the U.S. State Department continued to prop Moise up. Monique Clesca says simply, “The U.S. has been supporting a dictator.”
Fortunately, the newly-formed Haiti Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives has been challenging the failing U.S. policy. In a July 14 statement, the four caucus co-chairs said the United States should meet with civil society representatives and resist “the urge for hasty elections without suitable conditions to ensure their success.” One of those four, Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, has been particularly outspoken.
What’s tragic is that the mainstream U.S. media, by dwelling on violence and tragedy, has reinforced the inaccurate view of Haiti as a dismal country of incompetents and victims—instead of the proud nation that carried out the only successful revolt by enslaved people in history, which can run its own affairs without outside interference.
James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.
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