The July 7 assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, produced a deep political crisis in a country already beset by major challenges. This marks the latest turn in a nonstop upheaval that has engulfed the Caribbean country since 2018, when Haiti was rocked by protests against fuel price hikes and revelations of a massive government corruption scandal.

Since the departure of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti in October 2017, the country’s security situation has worsened dramatically. Criminal gangs control about 60 percent of the country’s territory, and kidnappings and murders have skyrocketed over the past year, limiting the government’s capacity to deliver public goods. More than 13,000 Haitians are thought to have fled gang violence in the past month alone, and hundreds have died in shootings.

Oliver Stuenkel
Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, Brazil. He is also a nonresident scholar affiliated with the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Haiti’s economic outlook is also sobering. Almost 60 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line. The pandemic-induced decline in remittance payments by Haitian migrants—representing about one-third of the country’s GDP—has further battered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, a surge in coronavirus infections and the absence of a vaccination program contribute to what the Pan-American Health Organization has called a “perfect storm” in Haiti.

The Elements of Haiti’s Perfect Storm

As numerous observers have correctly pointed out of late, Haiti’s worrisome plight cannot be fully understood without considering the many international challenges the country has faced since independence in 1804. At that time, the economic powerhouse and the world’s leading producer of both sugar and coffee became the world’s first Black-led republic. U.S. plantation owners feared Haiti’s abolition of slavery would spread to the Unites States, threatening the thriving but slavery-dependent capitalist system that spanned the Atlantic Ocean in those days, and Haiti suffered diplomatic isolation from the United States and European powers for decades. A traumatic U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934 and the autocracy of the Duvalier family from 1957 to 1986 factor prominently in Haiti’s history, as do devastating hurricanes and earthquakes—like the 2010 quake that killed more than 200,000 and displaced more than 1.5 million Haitians (of a total population of around 9 million at the time).

Over the past year prior to his death, Moïse had revealed authoritarian tendencies, using gangs to intimidate opponents and ruling by decree since September 2020. But the administrations of both former U.S. president Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden publicly backed Moïse’s increasingly controversial hold on power. Elections scheduled for October 2020 did not take place, most of the country’s parliament was disbanded, and the president’s cronies were appointed to run major cities.

In the wake of Moïse’s death, the line of succession was initially uncertain and contested. While Haiti’s 1987 constitution stipulates the prime minister should take over if the president dies, Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, and Ariel Henry, who had been appointed to the post but had not yet been sworn in, both initially said they were in charge.

While the international community initially signaled it would regard Claude Joseph as Haiti’s legitimate leader until new elections could be held, the so-called Core Group—an informal but highly influential bloc of ambassadors representing the United States, several European countries, Brazil, and the Organization of American States—changed course and released a statement supporting Henry—even though his political legitimacy at home is bound to be brittle, giving him limited room to maneuver or address Haiti’s complex combination of political, economic, security, and public health crises. In response, Claude Joseph then quickly announced he would step down and support Henry. Joseph Lambert, the head of Haiti’s dismantled Senate, who had also laid claim to the presidency, was largely ignored by the international community.

How the International Community Failed Before

Haiti’s dire situation has led actors both inside and outside of Haiti to call on the international community to assist the Caribbean country. Before announcing that he would step down, Claude Joseph was quick to request U.S. troops to stabilize the country, and two Washington Post editorials called for an international intervention, one using the words “swift and muscular.” Yet there are several reasons why a less heavy-handed approach is likely to be the better option.

While the UN peacekeeping mission did provide some stability in Haiti from 2004 to 2017, many if not most Haitians despised its presence, amid accusations that peacekeepers committed sexual assaults and inadvertently brought about a cholera epidemic that killed thousands of Haitians. A decision by an unelected leader to welcome peacekeeping troops back to Haiti only four years after they left would almost certainly cause a public backlash. Despite its many problems, the UN stabilization mission had the benefit of being carried out by Brazil, a Latin American country with no history of imperialism in the Caribbean and one that sought to use the mission to burnish its geopolitical credentials. Yet given Brazil’s internal woes, the country would be extremely unlikely to join any future effort to stabilize Haiti, and considering the economic and human devastation the coronavirus pandemic has caused in Latin America, such a mission would only have minimal regional participation.

Just as the UN stabilization mission failed, after thirteen years, to help Haiti mount a transition toward greater stability after the peacekeepers’ departure, any future mission would face the same fundamental problem of lacking a clear exit strategy. Further, a future mission could possibly even hinder a broader public debate in Haiti about the future of the country, as André Michel, an opposition leader, has argued. Despite, or perhaps in part due to, the foreign troop presence and $13 billion in aid provided to Haiti over the past decade, the country’s institutions are as feeble as ever.

What the International Community Should Do Now

Rather, the international community should consider focusing on a new, three-pronged approach. This would include emphasizing negotiations to reach a national accord and create a government of national unity; building a timeline toward free elections, a process that most likely would involve postponing the vote currently scheduled to take place in September 2021; and support to implement a vaccination campaign against COVID-19 as soon as possible, building on the Biden administration’s recent decision to donate half a million vaccines to Haiti through the COVAX initiative.

First, the international community could aid Haiti’s stabilization by creating a supportive environment to facilitate a national, Haitian-led dialogue involving government officials, opposition figures, civil society, religious leaders, business leaders, and the diaspora, which could help advance a discussion about how to reduce political tensions and build toward a “constitutional reboot.” This reboot would tie together ongoing efforts by opposition parties and civil society groups to promote a national dialogue, something Henry will struggle to do given the perception among many Haitian activists and democracy advocates that his greatest source of legitimacy is foreign support.

Second, such a dialogue could ideally also help the country achieve the basic stability required to move forward with elections. When the time is right, international observers could be invited to assure a free and fair process. Third, and parallel to this political process, international donors should prioritize a nationwide vaccination campaign to help mitigate the collapse of Haiti’s healthcare system.

The more the United States can involve other Latin American actors in these efforts, the better. Former U.S. national security adviser Ben Rhodes is right to call for a U.S.-led Western Hemisphere coalition. However, considering that most Latin American governments are facing profound domestic challenges, finding governments willing to offer more than symbolic help would require concerted high-level outreach to leaders in the region.

The United States’ humbling experience in Afghanistan over the past two decades, limited political appetite for long-term nation building in the West, and repeated failures to stabilize Haiti in the past (despite ample support) may offer a useful vantage point to think about a less heavy-handed international approach that places Haitians at the center of forthcoming efforts to rebuild their country.