Haitians celebrating the rich history of their county and culture in parade 2018. Photo credit. Bailey Torres

A tale of two islands: Should Biden intervene in Haiti following its recent crises? Part. 1

5 mins read

How Haiti went from being a Black-run revolutionary republic to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The U.S. considers Haiti and Cuba under its “sphere of influence,” historically having kept its grip on each. Now, both are experiencing waves of destabilization. In the case of Haiti, a recent 7.2 earthquake is contributing to the chaos. What is the role of the U.S., if any? 

This summer, President Biden must tackle two foreign policy challenges at once: the assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse on July 7, and July 11 demonstrations in Cuba. While information on President Moïse’s killing is still unfolding, President Biden was pressured by some Haitians to send U.S. troops. Then interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph told AP in a telephone interview, “We believe our [international] partners can assist [Haiti’s] national police in resolving the situation.”

| Watch: Mass deportations of Haitians is a Trump action that is now a Biden problem

It was questionable if Joseph had the authority to request troops. The day before his assassination, Moïse reportedly told Ariel Henry that he would be the prime minister. On July 20, Henry was formally appointed to the position.

The 71-year-old neurosurgeon is as unpopular among the Haitian majority as Moïse was, according to an NPR report. Haitians associate Henry with Moise’s authoritarian rule.

Love Henry or not, Haitians must depend on him in the aftermath of its latest catastrophe. On August 14, Haiti was rocked by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks. Recent figures from the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs place the death toll at 1,400 with 6,900 people injured and hundreds still missing. Unlike the 2010 earthquake, this one occurred further away from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Biden, along with Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, authorized immediate relief assistance.

U.S. invasions and recognition debate in Haiti

Rescue workers in 2010 earthquake. Haitians and MINUSTAH peacekeepers load an injured woman into a helicopter. Photo credit: United Nations Development Programme Flickr

Many foreign policy observers and historians attribute Haiti’s political and economic problems to its history with the U.S. and France. During slavery, enslaved Africans enriched Haiti’s French colonizers by cultivating lucrative cash crops such as sugar cane. On January 1, 1804, Haitians overthrew the French after 13 years of battle. Haiti was the second country after the U.S. to gain independence, and the first Black nation to do so.  

Initially, the U.S. rejected Haiti’s nationhood. “Southern Congressional leaders unleashed their fury in a tirade against the Haitian republic, spewing racist propaganda and insisting that Haitian independence must never be recognized,”  wrote Ohio State University associate history professor Dr. Leslie Alexander.  

France recognized Haiti in 1825 — for a price. Haiti paid France the equivalent of $20 billion in today’s dollars to compensate for its losses of land, assets, and free labor. The U.S.’s recognition of Haiti in 1862 also came at a cost, loaning Haiti money to pay its debt to France. Haiti paid France by 1922 and the U.S. by 1947.

Gunpoint “diplomacy” 

In 1914, President Wilson sent troops to occupy Haiti, preventing Germany from establishing a foothold in the Caribbean. From then until 1934, violent U.S. troops murdered Haitians protesting the occupation. In one incident, the U.S. military killed more than 2,000 Haitians. 

Although President Roosevelt withdrew the troops in 1934, the U.S. economically controlled Haiti until 1947. Haiti’s political instability increased.

From 1957 to 1986, the U.S. supported Haiti’s ruling Duvalier family regime. The family purportedly stole money from the country’s coffers and suppressed opposition with roving  “death squads,” or its brutal law enforcement. The U.S. ignored the dictators because  they proclaimed the prevention of a communist Haiti.

Military coups 

The Haitian people finally ousted the Duvaliers in 1986. However, it was not until 1990 that Haiti held its first free and fair elections. As a result, former Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected President.

In 1991, he was overthrown by the military for reducing its power, but was reinstated in 1994 under the protection of President Clinton. Although re-elected in 1999 to disputed results, violence forced Aristide to ultimately flee Haiti in 2004. More political upheaval occurred between 2006 and 2010. To worsen matters, in 2010, Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

Clinton aid or theft?

On January 13, 2010, the then UN Secretary-General and Bill Clinton, Secretary-General’s Special Envoy talk to the United Nations for Haiti to brief Member States informally on the situation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Photo credit: United Nations Development Programme

After years of working with organizations with missions to develop Haiti, former President Clinton and his wife, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, attempted to fund Haiti’s earthquake recovery through their nonprofit organizations. In response, the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund was established by former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. 

Instead of rebuilding Haiti, aid funds were rumored to have been stolen to enrich the Clintons, a claim President Clinton refuted during a Miami Herald interview last year.  “[The process] was totally transparent, and we kept up with who funded what, who got the money, and did an after-action audit on all of them,” he said. 

But $13.3 billion in promised donations from various sources was never amassed and applied to earthquake recovery.  One year later, Michel Martelly, a popular entertainer, was elected President of Haiti.

The more things changed in Haiti. . .

Between the presidential elections of Martelly and Moïse, demonstrations against nationwide poverty and alleged government corruption continued.  When Moïse, a former banana exporter, was elected President in 2016, civil unrest escalated and demands were made for his resignation. By 2019, he had become more powerful, ruling by decree.

The U.S. has not sent troops to Haiti following Moïse’s assassination, but has agreed to assist  the murder investigation. Haitians involved in the probe said they were receiving death threats. 

Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Haiti Support Project founder, recently expressed his solution to the latest political predicament — it should be devised by Haitians in concert with CARICOM and the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus. CARICOM, which stands for Caribbean Community, was formed in 1973 to promote economic and foreign policy cooperation among its 15-member English-speaking nations and five associate countries.

The Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement denouncing Moïse’s assassination and offering its assistance in Haiti’s murder investigation. The Caucus urged Haiti’s acting government to “preserve constitutional order and ensure a peaceful transition of power.

As it tries to recover from the major tremor on August 14, Haiti’s death toll has reached 2,000. While earthquake relief is on its way, its arrival is slow getting to the country’s hardest hit remote areas. As if the earthquake was not enough, Tropical Depression Grace drenched Haiti in a steady downpour of rain, causing dangerous landslides. Gangs have kidnapped two doctors, and reportedly control the distribution of earthquake relief. Prime Minister Henry described Haiti as being on its knees. 

As rescue workers still pick through rubble and the country remains tense due to violent political relations, Haiti’s reality is far different from the joyous and victorious island that won freedom and independence all those years ago.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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