Haiti at the Crossroads: How Should the US Respond?

Haiti’s salvation may lie in the path the U.S. has most resisted — supporting Haitian civil society in charting a course out of chaos.

Archbishop Max Leroy Mesidor of the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince arrives at St. Peter’s Church to celebrate Sunday Mass in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Oct. 24. Haiti’s already fragile government faces a serious new crisis after one of the island-nation’s increasingly brazen criminal gangs kidnapped a large U.S. and Canadian missionary group. (Photo: RICARDO ARDUENGO)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The kidnapping of 17 U.S. and Canadian Christian missionaries fixed the world’s attention on brutal truths Haitians have suffered for many years: The rule of law has collapsed while gangs rule over the capital and large swathes of the country. No one is safe — not even the Catholic Church.

Civil society leaders, charitable organizations and Church leaders now say a “Haitian solution,” arising from Haitian civil society and backed by the U.S. and international community, is the country’s exit out of chaos toward real peace and prosperity. 

Haiti has suffered critical natural disasters in the past 10 years, including two devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2021 that killed thousands of people and leveled buildings all over the country, as well as three devastating hurricanes. 

But the Oct. 17 kidnapping of 17 Christian missionaries in Haiti by the 400 Mawozo gang is the latest example of the political disasters that have afflicted the majority-Catholic island-nation, where Haiti’s democratic institutions and laws were hollowed out by the rampant corruption and repression of U.S.-backed political leaders. 

Haiti’s political disasters came to a head with the brazen July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in the presidential palace by a squad of gunmen, and gangs now jockey with each other for territory, expanding their range of extortion, kidnapping for ransom, murder and, lately, rape. The past few months of turf wars in Port-au-Prince have displaced 19,000 Haitians and affected 1.5 million people.

“The gangs control almost two-thirds of the country,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told the Register. Miami is home to a large Haitian diaspora community, and the archbishop has strong ties with the Haitian bishops. “There’s no president, no parliament and no real popular support,” he said.

President Moïse’s rule by decree since 2019 meant that when the Haitian leader was assassinated, Haiti’s democracy was so badly degraded, the country only had 10 elected senators — too few to call a quorum — and even Prime Minister Ariel Henry had not yet been formally sworn in to office. 

But the Henry government’s impotence was on full display the same weekend the Christian missionaries were kidnapped. Gunman chased off the prime minister and his security detail from a commemorative ceremony for Haiti’s first ruler after its 1804 independence, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The ceremony continued, however, with Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a powerful gang leader and self-styled revolutionary, who emerged dressed in white (Haiti’s national color of mourning) and laid the wreath at Dessalines monument himself.

“It shows you who really is running the country,” Archbishop Wenski said.

The Miami archbishop said the criminal threat from gangs has forced Haitian bishops to evacuate their theology seminary and relocate faculty and students to the relatively safer philosophy seminary. But gang control of Port-au-Prince, the central hub of the country where all roads meet, is cutting off the Church’s and nongovernmental organizations’ ability to get vital resources and key personnel to various parts of the country. It is bringing rebuilding efforts after natural disasters to a halt.

“If the gangs are controlling the streets, then you can’t get materials delivered, and workers can’t go to the work sites,” Archbishop Wenski said.


No to U.S. Direct Intervention 

Archbishop Wenski said Haiti’s challenges are “quite daunting,” with “no really easy solution.” But one thing was clear.

“The solution should be a Haitian solution,” he said. 

Direct U.S. intervention, the archbishop indicated, would not be trusted and should not be under consideration. 

“The first principle is ‘do no harm,’ and Americans have done a lot of harm in Haiti,” he said.

Archbishop Wenski said U.S. government actions under President Bill Clinton financially ruined Haitian rice farmers for the benefit of U.S. agriculture interests. The Obama administration, he added, “put the finger on the scales” in the 2011 election to propel Michel Martelly to power. The U.S. government continued through the successive Trump and Biden administrations to help “create this mess,” Archbishop Wenski explained, referring to the U.S. government throwing its support behind Haitian leaders who eroded democratic norms, enabled corruption and resorted to political violence with impunity. With U.S. backing, President Moïse ruled by decree since 2019 and refused to leave power in the face of popular protests until his assassination.  

Archbishop Wenski also pointed to the Biden administration’s decision to respond vigorously to the border crisis only after 15,000 Haitians arrived in September in Del Rio, Texas. The administration acted to prevent them from making asylum claims and deported 7,000 Haitians “into the country in a total meltdown.” 

“We have to encourage our government to make wise decisions in Haiti that can help them assume the risks of putting together a new government,” the archbishop said. 

“At the same time, you can’t in good conscience deport them to a place that’s a humanitarian disaster.” 

Archbishop Wenski said the U.S. should pay attention to the social teachings of the Church laid out by Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All). He said the U.S. needs to replace its “us and them” mentality that is afflicting domestic and international relations.

“We have to see ourselves as a ‘we’ because we’re all children of the same Father,” he said.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a moral theologian and the president of Donnelly College, told the Register that providing humanitarian assistance to Haiti will require security as part of a “multipronged approach.”

Msgr. Swetland, a former U.S. naval officer, said the U.S. approach should be more like the “Good Samaritan” than “just-war theory.” 

“Our brothers and sisters are in grave need, and we cannot just ignore their plight,” he said. However, the U.S. should not attempt this alone, but as part of a multinational approach. The U.S. failures with nation-building in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam show “it’s probably not good that we did try to do these things alone or via military invasion.” 

But Msgr. Swetland underscored that direct outside intervention in Haiti by the United Nations or the Organization of American States has also been complicated. He pointed to the United Nations security mission where soldiers assigned to that mission unleashed a devastating cholera outbreak in 2010 and engaged in regular sexual predation on Haitian women and girls.  

“That being said, the circumstances on the ground need real humanitarian and security intervention,” he said. Rather than a U.S.-military solution, the monsignor indicated that the U.S. could assist Haitians in restoring local policing and social services by helping finance and connect communities with “NGOs and other groups that were more formed to deliver effective aid.” 


Haitian-Centric Approach

A Haitian-centric approach to Haiti’s problems requires nongovernmental organizations to adopt the same mindset. 

“Long-term solutions take an investment of time and resources,” Lisa Hyatt, executive director of the nonprofit organization Overture International, told the Register. Hyatt said her organization stopped bringing in outside groups to Haiti in 2018 as the safety situation deteriorated, and one of the organizations they support was briefly overrun by a gang in 2019 due to political instability.  

Overture International works in social development at the community level, particularly with educational institutions in the country’s south, such as the Espwa child development center in the Sud department. 

Hyatt said transforming Haiti needs to happen one community at a time and include providing “opportunities to build and grow educational resources, skills development, employment and entrepreneurship.” Too many outside groups in Haiti, she said, take a short-sighted approach that is not Haitian-centric and doesn’t recognize how their actions — such as bringing in and out of the country their own personnel to carry out projects from construction to social work — deprives these communities of needed lasting human infrastructure and local economies of valuable U.S. dollars needed to sustain permanent jobs. 

Hyatt said when an American crew comes in to build and paint houses, they are literally depriving six Haitians of good-paying jobs that can put food on their table for two weeks. 

“We hire all Haitians to do our work,” she said. “We don’t rely on American teams to do the work. It’s the way we believe it should be.”

The only outside resource Overture International brings, she said, is knowledge and training, such as managerial practices and how to establish social services. But Hyatt said the social workers are Haitian and stay in those communities. 

Hyatt said what they have seen is communities are best insulated from gangs when they have fully-functioning economies and families are not reduced to utter dependency.

“Our mission is to help Haitians build independence and sustainability, which we believe will ultimately result in fewer gangs, less violence and more stability,” she said.

Charting a Way Forward

At the international level, the U.N. Security Council agreed on Oct. 15 to extend the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) to July 15, 2022, in order “to support engagement between Haitian national authorities, civil society and other stakeholders; to strengthen the rule of law; and to promote respect for human rights.”

But the challenge facing the U.N. and the U.S. is how to engage constructively when the “national authorities” can neither exercise authority nor summon popular support. 

In fact, Prime Minister Henry has been accused of interfering in the investigation of the president’s assassination by sacking two justice officials looking into the prime minister’s potential complicity with the assassination. He has also fired the nation’s electoral commission and delayed elections to the following year. 

Sasha Filippova, senior staff attorney for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, however, said that while Haiti is “facing a multitude of challenges and crises,” the U.S. and international community have exacerbated these in the past by backing successive governments in Haiti whose corruption and repressive tactics led to the hollowing out of Haiti’s institutions and the current security, humanitarian and political challenges. Today, at least 4.4 million Haitians don’t have enough food, hospitals are forced to consider shutdowns due to scarcity of fuel and insecurity, and kidnappings have soared to the highest per capita rate in the world.

Filippova said the assassination of President Moïse shows how the lawlessness now affects everyone in Haitian society. 

“It’s not exceptional,” she said. “It’s a symptom of what has been a broader problem.”

Filippova said the U.S. and international community can change that trajectory by supporting Haiti’s civil society, which continues to be “vibrant” even as they are “actively working on solutions in spite of the incredibly difficult circumstances.” The U.S. can further help Haiti through supporting the rule of law, she said, and offering humanitarian aid and assistance in bringing criminals to justice if requested to do so. “But its first task must be to stand in solidarity with Haitian people and to stop trying to impose external solutions.”

More than “600 signatures from a variety of civil society actors,” she said, have been signed to an Aug. 30 accord that lays out a blueprint for a transition to restored national governance by constitutional norms. The accord, which has wide buy-in from Catholic groups, also gives a voice to the Haitian diaspora that still maintain their citizenship, providing a way for the diaspora’s entrepreneurs and professionals to positively join forces with in-country Haitian civil society to reform the government.


Solidarity for the Long Haul

So far, Filippova said, the U.N. and U.S. have given more attention to the Henry government’s reform proposals than the Aug. 30 accord — a situation U.S. Special Envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote, in his Sept. 22 resignation letter protesting the Biden administration’s actions toward Haitians, called part of the “hubris” that led to “catastrophic results” for Haiti. 

“You have to have political power returned to the Haitian people,” Filippova said, “and you have to especially take it away from outside actors seeking to distort what Haitians want.”

Archbishop Wenski echoed that view.

“Foreign governments interested in Haiti, instead of propping up this government that has no popular support,” he said, “should encourage the opposition parties and civil society to figure out a way to make transitional government of the country to legitimate elections that have popular support.”

The archbishop said Catholics need to demonstrate “effective solidarity” with the Haitian people in their dire hour. He pointed out Haiti’s government is present in only a third of the country, but the Catholic Church is present everywhere.

“The Catholic Church is an essential part of Haitian society,” he said. But Haiti needs effective solidarity for the long haul.

“The Church here is in a position to help,” Archbishop Wenski said. “But it’s not going to be easy to get it done.”

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