After nearly seven weeks of nationwide protests and amid a “catastrophic” humanitarian crisis, de facto prime minister Ariel Henry has officially requested the help of international military forces. If it were to happen, it would be only the latest in a long line of foreign military interventions in Haiti — interventions that, in many ways, helped to contribute to the current situation.
Crises have always been the ostensible impetus for military interventions in Haiti. In 1915, following a period of political instability and the assassination of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, US Marines landed in Haiti. They stayed for 19 years, instituting forced labor, choosing political leaders, drastically reshaping the nation, and killing those that resisted, like the peasantry.
Demonstrations against Henry’s rule, which had been building for some time already, were given new life after the early September announcement that the government was ending fuel subsidies, sending the already high cost of living up even further. At the same time, armed groups affiliated with Jimmy Chérizier, a former police officer and leader of the G9 Family and Allies, blockaded the Varreux Terminal in downtown Port-au-Prince, where the vast majority of the country’s fuel imports arrive. Since mid-September, there has been no distribution of fuel or other goods from Varreux, contributing to massive shortages. The cost of a gallon of gasoline has skyrocketed to $30 or $40, and in many parts of rural Haiti, it is even higher.
The lack of fuel has caused hospitals to close or ration care, banks, and supermarkets to limit their hours, and even the police to lessen their operations to unblock the terminal. In many of the popular neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, clean drinking water is impossible to find — local shops that purify water cannot operate given, again, the lack of fuel. On top of all this, cholera — which killed tens of thousands of people after its 2010 introduction by United Nations troops and personnel (the last such foreign military intervention) — has reemerged, with Haiti registering its first case in nearly three years.
Violence and insecurity have reached unprecedented levels, with residents in many parts of not only the capital but across the country, unable to even leave their homes. Schools are closed. In addition to the G9 blockade of the fuel terminal, an ostensible rival conglomeration of armed groups known as G-Pep has seized territory in the south and north of Port-au-Prince, effectively choking the capital off from the rest of the country. Days after the Canadian ambassador suggested opening negotiations with the G9 on a humanitarian truce to allow fuel deliveries, a member of the G-Pep attacked and seized another port. Both groups are believed to have strong ties to members of Haiti’s political and economic elite.
Citing the humanitarian crisis, on October 6 de facto prime minister Henry formally requested the assistance of unspecified foreign militaries. The de facto authorities solicited “the immediate deployment of a specialized armed force, in sufficient quantity, to stop throughout the territory the humanitarian crisis caused by, among other things, the insecurity resulting from the criminal actions of armed gangs and their sponsors.”
The civil society-led Montana Group, which has been advocating for a transitional government to replace Henry, restore basic state functions, and eventually hold elections, quickly rejected the request, labeling it an act of “treason” and disavowing all forms of foreign intervention. The group claimed that Henry’s request was simply a desperate attempt by the leader to stay in power amid growing calls for his resignation.
Some aid groups have also raised concerns. “Our immediate reaction, as a medical organisation, is that this means more bullets, more injuries and more patients,” Benoît Vasseur, the director of Doctors Without Borders, whose clinics in Haiti serve many of those in areas controlled by armed groups, told The Guardian. “We are afraid there will be a lot of bloodshed.”
Political Negotiations Collapse; Calls for “Humanitarian Intervention” Grow Louder
De facto prime minister Henry took office just weeks after last year’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse — a crime he was later implicated in. The Core Group (made up of foreign embassies and international organizations) issued a public statement urging Henry, who was not in office during the assassination, to form a government. Within days, he did just that. However, after more than a year in office and with thousands taking to the streets protesting in favor of his resignation, his hold on power is tenuous at best. Yet he has retained the support of those same international actors.
Throughout September, high-level political negotiations were taking place, brokered by the UN office in Haiti, BINUH, on a “political accord” that could provide some legitimacy to the government. On October 3, an advisor to Henry went on local radio and declared that a deal was imminent and would be signed in the next couple of days. In only a matter of hours, that prospect dimmed, with opposition leaders publicly denouncing it before anything had even been signed. Notably, the Montana Group said it had been excluded from the negotiations altogether. The deal that had been on the table, backed by the international community, would have kept Henry in his position as prime minister.
Foreign diplomats hoped that the accord, despite keeping Henry in power, would at least provide a temporary reprieve and allow for the resumption of deliveries of basic goods like fuel. But, as the deal fell apart, the calls for foreign intervention quickly got louder.
On October 4, Canada’s ambassador to Haiti, Sébastien Carrière, tweeted that foreign embassies, the UN, and the OAS were “concerned” about the “humanitarian impact” of the blockade of Terminal Varreux and called “for an immediate humanitarian truce to allow the release of fuel for urgent needs.” The next day, BINUH issued an official statementcalling “for the immediate opening of a humanitarian corridor to allow the release of fuel.”
On October 6, after meeting with the de facto Haitian government’s foreign minister and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the OAS General Assembly in Peru, the secretary general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, “called on Haiti to request urgent support from the international community to help solve [the] security crisis and determine [the] characteristics of the international security force.”
Within hours of Almagro’s tweet, the Miami Herald reported that Henry had asked his council of ministers to approve a formal request for foreign military assistance. That request was made official on October 7.
On October 9, Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, issued a statement urging “the international community, including the members of the Security Council, to consider as of matter of urgency the request by the Haitian Government for the immediate deployment of an international specialized armed force to address the humanitarian crisis.”
In Guterres’ letter to the Security Council, which outlined various security measures that could be taken, the UN leader suggested that such a force could be led by “one or several member states.” However, it also stated that “a return to a more robust United Nations engagement in the form of peacekeeping remains a last resort if no decisive action is urgently taken by the international community in line with the outlined options and national law enforcement capacity proves unable to reverse the deteriorating security situation.”
Two days later, on October 11, Haiti’s de facto ambassador to the US, Bocchit Edmond, made clear what they were really asking for. “We would … like to see a better and deeper involvement of the US in giving leadership to a strike force that will confront the armed gangs and work together with the Haitian National Police to restore law and order,” he told Bloomberg. “We wish to see our neighbors like the United States, like Canada, take the lead and move fast,” he told Reuters in a separate interview.
On October 12, the US dispatched its top diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, Brian Nichols, along with a high-ranking military official, to Haiti to meet with various stakeholders. At the request of the de facto authorities in Haiti, it also sent a Coast Guard cutter to patrol the waters off Port-au-Prince. The Biden administration has said it is “considering” the request from Henry but has offered no clear public support for a military intervention. “It’s premature to start thinking whether the United States is going to have a physical presence inside of Haiti,” an official told the press.
The US Response
There are two points to consider about the Biden administration’s response to Henry’s request for troops. First, the US has made it clear that its preference is for another country (or group of countries) to be the face of any possible military intervention in Haiti. This was the strategy behind the largely Latin American composition of MINUSTAH — a force of 10,000 or so troops that was in Haiti following the US-backed 2004 coup up until 2017 — and remains the preference today. Second, the Biden administration is extremely unlikely to embark on any such military adventure in Haiti with just under four weeks before the US midterm elections.
Rather, the US strategy over the last month appears to have been to try and buy time with the threat of sanctions against those behind the violence in Haiti. The Biden administration, early on in the nationwide uprising, placed the blame on “economic actors who stand to lose money” from recent changes the de facto government made regarding customs. “These are people that often don’t even live in Haiti, who have mansions in different parts of the world, and are paying for people to go into the streets,” Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, said at a September 19 public event. The comments set off a firestorm in Haiti, with activists and civil society leaders lambasting the remarks as undermining the legitimate peaceful protests taking place all over the country.
But Gonzalez was telegraphing where the administration was headed on its Haiti policy. “I don’t think anybody, including Haitians, wants to get to the point of having a return of a” United Nations peacekeeping force, he said. “So the question, short of that, is what is something we can do?”
The answer to that question came just a few days later. Nichols, the State Department diplomat, told the Miami Herald that the US was working on a UN Security Council resolution that would sanction “gang leaders” and others behind the violence. They “are in the crosshairs, and their actions to destabilize Haiti will be met with international travel and financial sanctions,” he said. Though the administration did not name any specific individuals, those familiar with the administration’s thinking explained that the hope was that raising the threat of sanctions would be enough to unblock the terminal, lessen the unrest, and convince perceived “bad actors” to stop working to undermine negotiations over a political accord.
After three-plus weeks, however, the situation had only deteriorated further — leading to the breakdown in political negotiations and Henry’s request for troops. Given the US’s public position, and the knowledge that the administration would be loath to take on such an effort in the run-up to elections, the actions of OAS Secretary General Almagro and the de facto Haitian authorities begin to look like a coordinated attempt to force a begrudging US into sending troops — or, perhaps more likely, to get the US to find some other country to do so.
The same day that Nichols and a top Defense Department official traveled to Haiti, the US announced it was placing visa restrictions on “Haitian officials and former government officials, and other individuals involved in the operation of street gangs and other Haitian criminal organizations that have threatened the livelihoods of the Haitian people and are blocking lifesaving humanitarian support.” In a background briefing for the press, an anonymous State Department official added that the US had also introduced its UN Security Council resolution on sanctions and were “negotiating with [council] members right now ahead of a vote.”
The US delegation also held meetings with both de facto prime minister Henry and with the leaders of the Montana Group, urging “political leaders in Haiti to put aside their differences to find a path toward sustainable peace.” With visas pulled, sanctions looming, and a possible military invasion being planned, however, any negotiations will be taking place with — as is so often the case — the heavy hands of the US and the international community looming over them.
On October 17, the UN Security Council is scheduled to meet to discuss the situation in Haiti; the meeting was actually moved up four days from its initial date. It is expected that topics will include both Henry’s request for troops and the US-drafted sanctions resolution. At a prior meeting, the council had also set mid-October as a deadline for the de facto Haitian authorities to report back on their efforts to reach a political accord. There will be tremendous pressure to reach such a deal in the coming days.
The Political Repercussions
The rejection of Henry’s appeal for foreign troops extended far beyond the Montana Group. The 10 remaining Haitian senators (the rest of the parliamentarians’ terms expired years ago, and the body itself is not functional), also denounced it, as did many leading political figures and civil society organizations. There have also been large protests explicitly rejecting Henry’s request.
However, despite the long and negative history of foreign interventions in Haiti, it is not hard to find support for such an effort today. I asked a friend, a school teacher in Cité Soleil, what they thought about foreign troops. “It would be good for the people even though military interventions in Haiti haven’t ever given us good results,” he responded. It’s not hard to understand the sentiment.
With no security, no clean water, no fuel, and food that, even if available, is often too expensive for most to even purchase, there is no denying the magnitude of the situation on the ground. Even before the latest shutdown, more than four million Haitians were facing severe hunger. Now, stories of families going days without eating or drinking anything have become common. “Nou bezwen yon souf” has become a common refrain in Haiti — “We need a breath.” With a state that has abandoned and excluded the majority of the population, and who many see as ultimately behind the violence perpetrated by armed groups, many have little faith in a short-term local solution led by their own government or others among the traditional political class.
But, when I asked my friend if his opinion would change if the military intervened and Henry remained in power, his answer was just as clear. That, he explained, would be problematic. “Anything and everything bad could happen if they kept Henry in power,” he said.
While the talk of foreign troops has been framed almost exclusively as a response to the humanitarian situation, it is impossible to divorce such a mission from the nation’s politics. And while there is no doubt that government officials and members of the elite are funding much of the insecurity throughout the country, not all are working toward the same objective. Comments like those of the NSC’s Juan Gonzalez make it seem as if such actions are meant to undermine Henry, but in many ways, the violence and humanitarian crisis are playing right into the hands of Henry and other factions of the elite who also see their interests as threatened by the popular uprising. It would be naïve to think that certain actors are not stoking the crisis in order to justify a foreign intervention that, they believe, would protect the status quo — a brutally unequal status quo that lies at the root of the current situation.
It is during times of great upheaval that foreign powers have historically intervened in Haiti, in 1915, 1994, 2004, and 2010. But in each instance, the intervention ended up serving the interests of the US and a small local elite. Security is necessary, but security for whom? “Every time there’s intervention the same system stays in place,” Louis-Henri Mars, who runs a peacebuilding organization in Port-au-Prince, told The Guardian.
Now, if the international community does send troops to Haiti, the “legitimacy” of such an operation would stem from the authorization of Henry, making him an indispensable part of any political negotiation. Meanwhile, the urgency of the situation on the ground is putting added pressure on Henry’s opponents to make concessions part of any deal.
On October 13, the Associated Press obtained a copy of the US-backed resolution to be discussed in the coming days at the UN. In addition to sanctioning Chérizier, the G9 leader — who has already been under US sanctions since 2020 — the resolution “encourages ‘the immediate deployment of a multinational rapid action force’ to support the Haitian National Police.”
There are already conversations taking place about who would lead such a force and what its composition, mandate, and timing would really be. The specifics of the latest foreign military intervention in Haiti remain to be seen, but even putting it on the table appears to be serving the interests of those seeking to prop up an inherently unsustainable status quo.
This first appeared on CEPR.