International interventions in the nation of Haiti have never benefited actual Haitians. Here there has been a long and disgraceful history: from the 1915 invasion and occupation that set a dark precedent of military misadventures to come to the more recent United Nations mission that brought cholera to the country in a scandalous chapter that’s now returned to the news. So it’s no surprise that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s plan to send an international military force to Haiti has been met with resistance. The most broad-based coalition of civil organizations and political forces in the country doesn’t want foreign soldiers to come, and a former U.S. ambassador is warning that the move is partly the result of American policy failures and runs the substantial risk of ending in violent tragedy.
The latest news in this breaking story is that the U.N. Security Council is considering Guterres’s request to send “a specialized armed force” to restore order. The latest nationwide anti-government protests have lasted more than seven weeks, and gang violence has brought the capital, Port-au-Prince, and its environs to a standstill. The U.N. says it is responding to a request by Haiti’s so-called “government,” headed by an unelected prime minister, Ariel Henry. So far, the U.S. State Department says only that it is “studying” the request, but an informed source says the United States is likely deeply involved behind the scenes and that any such military force would probably have to include some American troops.
The Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, also known as the Montana Accord (named for the Port-au-Prince hotel where the group formed), issued a statement on October 7 opposing any foreign intervention. “History teaches us that no foreign force has ever solved the problems of any people on earth,” it said. The Accord is a coalition of more than 650 Haitian organizations and individuals, including labor unions, community organizations, Catholic and Protestant churches, women’s groups, chambers of commerce, and a range of political groups.
Not all of Haiti’s political forces are represented in the Montana Accord, and critics rightly point out that it is not an elected body. But the broad panoply of interests united under its banner still contrasts favorably with the de facto government, which has almost no legitimacy inside Haiti. Ariel Henry was not elected into office but rather appointed after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in July 2021. Haitian democracy had, by that point, already flatlined: A full Parliament has not existed since 2019; Moise had been ruling by decree, and he had started dismantling the nation’s Supreme Court. Even more astonishing, The New York Times reported that there is credible evidence that Henry himself may have been linked to the killing of Moise. The murder investigation is, unsurprisingly, going nowhere.
Since July 2018, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have risked their lives to protest against the dismantling of democratic institutions and the concomitant rise of political corruption and gang violence. Protesters regularly excoriate the U.S. and the U.N. for propping up the Henry government. These pro-democracy protests have received scant coverage in the U.S. mainstream media (with the honorable exception of the Miami Herald). Had these demonstrators been on the march in, say, Eastern Europe, there’s little doubt that planeloads of American reporters would have raced to the scene.
Against the backdrop of this media blackout, Daniel Foote—a career American diplomat who resigned as U.S. special envoy for Haiti in September 2021—has offered a blistering, public critique of U.S. policy toward the nation. He follows Haiti closely and continues to sharply criticize his former colleagues at the State Department in his Twitter account.
Foote told me that he fears any foreign military force will be helpless to distinguish between genuine protesters and actual gang members, and the likelihood that troops will open fire on the wrong people is high. “There’s big risk with any kind of intervention because you’re sending foreign soldiers into an environment that they don’t understand,” he said. “If you send a bunch of soldiers down there with an objective to go after ‘bad Haitian people,’ there is enormous risk that they’re going to wind up confronting innocent civilians who are just trying to make their voices heard for a better life.”
Foote says that some Haitians are angrier than he’s ever seen before, so much so that any sort of foreign intervention will meet with a violent backlash, especially if the end result is Henry maintaining his hold on his despotic regime. “Foreign soldiers seen as an invading force, propping up a dictator, could be met by more than street protests,” he said. “There could be a bloodbath.”
And then there’s the aforementioned complication: Cholera has just broken out again in Haiti at an overcrowded prison. Haitians remember that their country was cholera-free until U.N. peacekeeping troops introduced the disease in 2010. Some 10,000 Haitians died, but the U.N. never provided any compensation.
Velina Elysée Charlier is a member of Nou Pap Domi (We Are Not Sleeping), an anti-corruption group that is part of the Montana Accord. She is in her thirties and lives in Port-au-Prince with her family. Like everyone else there, she has to take strong precautions against the risk of kidnapping or other violence. A year ago, she told me: “When you become an activist, you have to make peace with the idea that you can be killed.” Still, she opposes the involvement of foreign military forces. On September 29, she testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and explained that previous international interventions in Haiti “have not helped to solve the problems, but rather exacerbated them.” She recognizes that the Haitian National Police are weak, but insists they should be strengthened, not replaced.
In mass demonstrations that swept across the country on Monday, the Henry government’s call for foreign intervention was widely denounced, with protesters referring to their ersatz ruler as a “traitor” amid renewed calls for his resignation. The Haitian press reported that in addition to the Montana Accord, several other groups rejected Henry’s request, including three transportation unions as well as the Haitian Military Association, an organization of former soldiers.
Other Haitians with whom I’ve maintained long-standing contact agree. The Pierre family, whom I’ve known for for 20 years, are one example. They live in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood called Carrefour Feuilles (Leafy Crossroads), which Haitians consider to be a lower middle- or working-class neighborhood (although your average American would describe the area as “very poor”). The patriarch, René Pierre, a disabled small-business man, struggles to get passable care from the nation’s rudimentary health system. His son-in-law, Étienne, is a primary school teacher, who is often without work due to the chronic economic crisis. Étienne’s wife is in Canada, part of the huge Haitian diaspora that sends home an astonishing $3.8 billion a year—a sum that helps keep the country afloat, accounting for a third of the annual economy. René Pierre’s three other sons and his grandchildren also live in the family compound.
You can always call Étienne to find out what’s really going on in Haiti. A few weeks back, some in Haiti claimed that the widespread protests were of questionable sincerity, that they had instead been engineered by sections of the elite, or by the gangs, who paid people to demonstrate. A U.S. State Department official shamefully endorsed this view.
Étienne corrected the record: “It’s Ariel Henry and his government that pays the bandits to déranger [disturb] the popular movements.” I asked: Why do Haitians think the U.S. props up Ariel Henry, when it’s obvious to everyone that he has no support? Étienne, without hesitation, answered: “Because Joe Biden deported thousands of Haitian migrants to Haiti from the U.S.-Mexico border—and Henry didn’t complain.” (The number of Haitians deportees is now more than 25,000.)
It was these very deportations that prompted ex-Ambassador Foote to resign. In his letter, he called the expulsions “inhumane” and “counterproductive.” But his critique went much further. In a clear indictment of U.S. policy, he added: “What our Haitian friends really want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course.… I do not believe that Haiti can enjoy stability until her citizens have the dignity of truly choosing their own leaders fairly and acceptably.” Many Haitians regard ex-Ambassador Foote as a hero for speaking out, and it appears they agree with him about the danger of foreign intervention.