Haiti is in crisis, and there are calls to dispatch US troops to the island to restore order—notwithstanding Washington’s historic role in propping up corrupt authoritarians in Port-au-Prince.
It’s a measure of the great misfortune of the Haitian people that I could have written the paragraph just above in 2004, or 1994—or 1915. Yet once again, the Washington foreign-policy blob is angling for invasion, insisting that this time, things will turn out different. This time, we are told, violating Haitian sovereignty will yield a flourishing democracy, rather than repeat the familiar pattern of imperial meddling dressed up as humanitarianism.
In a recent hawkish editorial, The Washington Post gestures at the bitter fruits of past interventions: A 13-year-long UN mission, launched after US Marines removed former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide at gunpoint in 2004, brought a cholera epidemic to Haiti; a series of sexual abuses, some involving children as young as 7, were perpetrated by UN “peacekeepers” who had little fear of being held accountable by the Haitian criminal-justice system; “Washington’s puppeteering,” as the Post puts it, helped bring about the current crisis.
Even so, the paper argues that the United States should heed “Haiti’s own plea” for troops to stabilize the situation. The terrible results all the other times American boots were on the ground count for little, when “weighed against the cratering prospects of a failed state whose main export is asylum-seekers.” This time, the editorial board urges, the United States can take the opportunity to push for democracy.
One problem with all of this is that “Haiti’s own plea” for intervention was made not by “Haiti,” but by an unelected government that’s seen by many Haitians as little more than a tool of US foreign policy. It’s hard to be certain about how many Haitians share this view—because President Ariel Henry isn’t willing to hold an election. He came to power with the enthusiastic support of American diplomats following the murder last year of President Jovenel Moïse by assassins who seemed to have a lot of connections to a Miami-based security company.
I know putting it this way makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t like that any more than you do, but the fact is that there is a lot we don’t know about the assassination that allowed US-backed Henry to seize power. One of the problems here is that Henry himself has refused to cooperate with the investigation.
These more recent developments are of a piece with a history of mistreatment of Haiti by major powers that goes back to the days when “Saint-Domingue” was a French colony. The majority of slaves brought there from Africa died shortly after their arrival, either of yellow fever or the brutal conditions of the work. This was baked into the colony’s business model: Crops grown there were profitable enough to allow replacements to be constantly imported. A long and bloody revolution finally brought about independence and the abolition of slavery in 1804, though the United States didn’t recognize the new government over fears that endorsing a slave revolution in Haiti would give American slaves ideas.
The hostility of the great powers to the new republic of freed slaves had consequences that reverberate to this day. To wit, Haiti’s slaves had to quite literally pay for their freedom. An indemnity deal struck between the country and France in 1825 required the Haitians to pay massive reparations to their former owners for all the “property” lost in the revolution.
Even when the United States invaded and occupied Haiti in 1915, the debt wasn’t canceled. Instead, a new deal was struck seven years into that occupation, transferring the remains of the debt to the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank). It took up a major share of Haiti’s GDP every year until it was finally paid off—in 1947. Anyone who tries to tell a story about the origins of Haiti’s crushing poverty, crime, and inequality that doesn’t feature this history is peddling fairy tales.
Ten years after the debt was finally paid off, Haiti was saddled with the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and then his son “Baby Doc.” American officials sometimes expressed discomfort with the absurdly corrupt, authoritarian, and violent Duvalier regime, but they nevertheless propped it up with arms and various forms of material support for standard Cold War anti-communist reasons.
After “Baby Doc” was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986, the first democratically elected president of Haiti was Jean-Bertrand Aristide. One of his campaign promises says everything—he talked about raising the Haitian people from “misery to poverty.” He was overthrown in a 1991 coup. It’s a matter of public record that some of the coup-plotters had been on the CIA payroll for several years beforehand, though the agency itself may not have had direct involvement or prior knowledge of what was coming; the United States actually restored Aristide a few years later. In 2004, he was overthrown again. This time, US Marines “escorted” him out of the country during a new round of chaos and violence on the island. Aristide himself insists that he was kidnapped. His political party, Lavalas, was repeatedly excluded from subsequent elections.
Is 2004 ancient history? How about 2017—the year the last group of foreign troops left the island? How about the assassination of Moïse and his replacement by Henry in 2021?
Can we go all the way back to President Barack Obama’s first term, when the US State Department, acting at the behest of companies that subcontract to Haitian sweatshops, lobbied the Haitian government against raising the country’s minimum wage to the princely sum of about $5 a day? That was revealed by WikiLeaks’s exposure of State Department cables in 2011. As far as I can tell, no one has ever bothered to deny it.
Exactly nothing in any of this history should give us any reason to believe that bipartisan hawks are particularly sympathetic to the cause of raising Haitians from misery to poverty or concerned with democratic niceties in the country’s politics. If this new intervention materializes, there may even be a new election sooner or later for the sake of appearances, but no one should expect it to mean much—or for Washington to stop wanting Haiti to be a compliant source of sweatshop labor. If you call for American intervention in 2022 and follow that call with a pious expression of hope that Washington will use its influence to promote democracy on the island this time, you’ve paired real support for an intervention that might actually happen with empty words.
I don’t know if that new intervention will happen. As I write this, a resolution calling for a US-led “rapid response force” to be sent to Haiti is stalled at the United Nations. I also don’t know what will happen in Haiti if there isn’t a new intervention. I’d love to believe that Henry will be overthrown and the Haitian people will succeed in establishing a stable democracy, but the country’s own oligarchs would be a powerful impediment to that outcome even if they couldn’t count on American backing, and the situation is chaotic and unpredictable.
One thing I do know, though, is that if the Haitian people ever do make their way out of the hole they are in right now, it won’t be because of yet another intervention by the foreign powers that dug that hole in the first place.