Diaspora

Haiti Is on the Verge of Catastrophe. An American Diplomat Saw It Coming. – Washington Monthly

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Washington Monthly
February 7 is Judgment Day in Haiti, after which rising gang violence and political turmoil will further expose the Biden State Department policy toward the country as an ongoing disaster. America’s effort to impose a resolution to Haiti’s political crisis, while deporting thousands of refugees back to the troubled country, has already caused the resignation of the U.S. special envoy, Daniel Foote, who is speaking out vigorously online. Foote has been calling the American approach “stubborn arrogance” that is “strong-arming Haitians” to accept an unelected prime minister and a plan for quick elections that few in Haiti want. The erstwhile envoy, who resigned in September after images circulated of U.S. border guards on horseback riding down Haitian refugees, has even criticized some of his former colleagues by name.

February 7 is significant because on that date the term of the American-backed prime minister, Ariel Henry, legally expires. U.S. intelligence officials say they fear that the increasingly powerful gangs, which regularly paralyze the capital, Port-au-Prince, could violently challenge Henry, who is already deeply unpopular, once his last shred of legitimacy ends. 

What’s more, a broad-based coalition of Haitian civil society and political groups has just complicated the crisis even further by choosing an interim president and prime minister to replace Henry, and start a two-year transition to full democracy. On January 30, the coalition, called the Montana Group, defied the U.S. State Department and picked Fritz Alphonse Jean, an economist who was once head of the Bank of Haiti, and Steven Benoit, a former senator, to lead the country. Some 42 delegates representing 300 organizations voted for the two.

Widlore Mérancourt is the editor in chief of the respected publication Ayibo Haiti (which includes some articles in English). He told me from Port-au-Prince that the gangs have slowed their kidnappings and attacks since December, but that Haitians fear they will try to take advantage of the upcoming political vacuum. “The 7th of February is looming here,” he said. “People are expecting something big and something major to happen. We know that the gangs are heavily armed.”

Meanwhile, though, the U.S. State Department publicly continues to prop up Henry and insists that he should stay in office after Judgment Day, even telling Haitians they don’t understand their own constitution. The U.S. endorses Henry’s plan to quickly conduct national elections and install a new government. On January 21, Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, called for elections soon, saying the more quickly “Haitians are able to go to the polls and select a new democratic government, the better it will be for the Haitian people.”
The Biden policy infuriates Foote, who uses his new Twitter account to raise pointed objections. He notes, barely hiding his astonishment, that the unelected prime minister might actually be linked to the assassination last July 7 of President Jovenel Moïse. The New York Times reported that Henry was in telephone contact with an alleged mastermind of the murder plot, Joseph Felix Badio, the day Moïse was murdered in the bedroom of his home. Foote charged on Twitter that Henry has “impeded investigations” into the political killing for six months, and added that “the nonexistent assassination investigation is led by [the] key suspect.” 

Foote also repeats the theme of his blistering resignation letter, which is that American and other members of the Core Group, a collection of international diplomats, should stop imposing leaders on Haitians and trying to control the nation’s political life. (Besides the U.S., the Core Group includes the UN, Canada, France, and other wealthy nations and organizations.) “Dear Core Group,” he tweeted. “Haiti abhors your interference.” Mérancourt, who has a wide range of contacts, said, “Most Haitians I meet believe that the U.S. is running the show here.”
President Joe Biden himself has said little about Henry or the upcoming elections, though he decried the use of horses against Haitian refugees. In a September White House press conference, Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, pushed back forcefully against Foote’s charges that the diplomat’s concerns about migrants had been ignored, saying that “there have been multiple senior-level policy conversations on Haiti where all proposals, including those led by Special Envoy Foote, were fully considered in a rigorous policy process.”
Foote’s outspokenness has earned him praise from many Haitians online—but some of his former State Department colleagues are not happy with him. In a January 26 tweet, he said, “They literally told me that they’re concerned that I’m not being ‘nice.’ For which I apologize profusely. I need to get my priorities straight. I guess I should protect the personal feelings of a few rich, entitled bureaucrats, and 12 million Haitians can go to hell.”

The former diplomat is encouraged by a growing consensus in Haitian society that favors replacing Henry with a broad-based interim government to restore order and hold elections in two years. The first step was taken last August 30 by the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, now known as the Montana Group after the hotel where they met. More than 900 organizations, political parties, and individuals have signed the group’s transition plan. Influential members of the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. and Canada have also endorsed the group.

At first, the U.S. State Department ignored the Montana Group entirely. Eventually the U.S. and its Core Group allies had to start listening, but they continue to prop up Ariel Henry even though he has little popular support in Haiti. U.S. envoys insist that Henry must be part of the solution and continue to endorse his plan for quick elections. 

Haitians argue that an immediate free and fair vote is impossible, especially if the Henry government supervises it. Anyone who has observed Haitian elections over the past decade or so understands the suspicions. On October 25, 2015, I reported on a presidential election in Haiti, and witnessed open vote buying at one polling place. That evening, I accompanied the great Haitian photographer Daniel Morel to observe vote counting in the Christ Roi neighborhood, where opposition poll watchers told us that pro-government agents were rigging the returns. Our firsthand impressions were confirmed the following June, when a Haitian inquiry found that 180,000 voter cards were fakes and that more than 600,000 of the votes that were cast could not be accurately traced.  
The widespread gang violence makes fair elections even less likely right now. Mérancourt described life in Port-au-Prince these days: “In the mornings, I meet my editorial team, but other than that I try not to go out. I don’t go into restaurants. I don’t go into the street unless I absolutely have to. I visit friends on a random basis, but always during the day. The nights here are frightening.”

Meanwhile, the chronic economic crisis worsens. But even though more than 4 million of the nation’s 11 million people are suffering from hunger, thousands of refugees are being forced back to Haiti. The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 17,000 Haitians have been deported from the U.S. and other nations in Latin America. Haitian refugees have again started to flee north to the U.S. by sea, and some of them are drowning. On January 21, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a boat off the coast of Florida with 88 refugees on board; four days later, another boat capsized in the same general area. It reportedly was carrying 40 people. There was one survivor. 

Democratic Michigan Representative Andy Levin is a leading critic of the Biden administration’s Haiti policy. In a January 18 statement, he welcomed the growing consensus among Haitian society, and endorsed the broad-based Montana Accord as “a carefully crafted architecture for a transitional government.” He urged the State Department “to stop demanding that these groups recognize and negotiate with the de facto government, which has been implicated in corruption, human rights abuses—and possibly even in the assassination of former president Moïse.” 

The Biden State Department continues to treat Haitians as colonial subjects, instead of as a proud people whose ancestors carried out the only successful antislavery revolt in history. As Foote warned in his resignation letter, “What our Haitian friends want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course … I do not believe that Haiti can enjoy stability until her citizens have the dignity of truly choosing their own leaders fairly and acceptably.”

This past New Year’s Day, despite their poverty, Haitians across their nation once again observed a longtime tradition to remind them of their inspiring history. They ate a special pumpkin soup called “soup joumou.” Years ago, my great friend Milfort Bruno, who used to own a small craft shop across from the legendary Hôtel Oloffson, explained the significance. “In the time of slavery,” he said, “the French did not allow us to eat certain foods. Pumpkin, carrots—the French said these were too good for us, that we slaves should only eat simple bread soup. So every New Year’s, the first thing we do is prepare soup joumou. Even the very poorest Haitians will do without earlier in December so they can buy all the ingredients.” 
Follow James on Twitter @jamesnorth7. James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.
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