The United States must break the habit of disastrous intervention.
At the end of the first U.S. occupation of Haiti—a period of brutal domination from 1915 to 1934—a critic warned that U.S. forces would not be gone for long. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State Department had left Haiti in the hands of a man friendly to its core interests: the Haitian conservative Sténio Vincent, whose otherwise fervent nationalism was tempered by a deep affection for U.S.-centric capitalism.
The critic, the American journalist and orator William Pickens, wrote in the NAACP’s flagship magazine, The Crisis, in June 1935: “The marines are gone, but the American Financial Adviser is still there, collecting for American creditors, and if opposing Haitian factions start cutting each other’s throats with their machetes, [Vincent] may yell for the marines to come and help him protect the money bags.”
Now, another yell is coming from Port-au-Prince. In October, the government of Ariel Henry, Haiti’s de facto prime minister and president, called for a foreign military intervention—“the immediate deployment of a specialized armed force, in sufficient quantity” to stop the street gangs that are terrorizing the population and cutting off access to Haiti’s ports, most crucially the one that receives and stores Haiti’s imports of oil and gas. He did not specify which nation would oversee this armed force. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Haitian history—or access to a map—knew the only country he could be referring to.
Vincent never needed to call for the Marines, but in the main Pickens got it right: In the nearly 90 years since that first U.S. occupation ended, U.S. and U.S.-backed forces have remained the most constant factor in Haiti: training and arming Haitian militaries, meddling in elections, and alternately reinstalling and overthrowing Haiti’s leaders. In the last 30 years, U.S. troops have invaded or otherwise intervened in Haiti three times: in post-coup invasions in 1994 and 2004 and to quell feared unrest (which never materialized) after the 2010 earthquake.
In the intervening time, the United States explicitly outsourced its occupations to other countries’ troops: first, a U.N. mission from 1993 to 1997, and then under a mostly Brazilian-led multinational force that controlled Haiti’s streets and rural areas from 2004 to 2019. The latter force, known by its French initials as Minustah, left as its main gifts to Haiti an abandoned generation of children fathered by the U.N. troops and a catastrophic cholera epidemic started by a battalion from Nepal.
Two years after the last U.N. mission left, in July 2021, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his home in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Moïse was the hand-picked successor of Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a popular singer-turned-right-wing nationalist who became president thanks to the electoral interference of the Obama administration in the post-2010 earthquake election. (Martelly had been allowed to go through to the second round after then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the sitting president of fraud to benefit his own protégé.) Though the plot that led to Moïse’s assassination remains unsolved, this much is clear: He was killed by a group of gunmen, mostly consisting of Colombians and claiming to be agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Indeed, at least two of them were in fact former DEA informants. A New York Times investigation found evidence that the men may have been looking for a list of drug traffickers Moïse was intending to expose. The Intercept reported that several had received U.S. military training.
By the time of his death, Moïse, with the tacit support of the Trump administration, had allowed Haiti’s already hollowed-out government to effectively collapse around him. There was no functioning parliament or plans to elect one. He had overstayed the end of his constitutional term and was ruling by decree. Gangsters, along with elements of the Haitian police and the reconstituted Haitian army, carried out a series of massacres; a Harvard Law School study detailed “a widespread and systematic pattern that further state and organizational policies to control and repress communities at the forefront of government opposition.”
The most notorious of those gangsters was and is Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former Haitian National Police officer and head of a gang consortium that calls itself the “G9 Family and Allies.” (His nickname is said to be an allusion to a penchant for burning his victims.) The Harvard study reported that, in November 2018, armed gangs led by Chérizier carried out a massacre of at least 71 people in the slum of La Saline, raping at least 11 women and destroying 150 homes. According to the study, “In the weeks before the attack, two senior officials from Moïse’s administration, Pierre Richard Duplan and Fednel Monchéry, met with then-police officer and gang leader Jimmy Chérizier alias Barbecue to plan and provide resources for the attack.” (Chérizier has denied any links to the Moïse government.) Further massacres followed.
Moïse’s death left an inescapable power vacuum. Institutionally, it was filled by then-71-year-old Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who entered politics as part of the coalition that fomented the 2004 coup against the leftist Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Moïse had announced his intention to nominate Henry as his prime minister (the No. 2 role in the Haitian system), but given the lack of a parliament, that nomination was never confirmed. Instead, Henry was installed by press release: an announcement from the so-called Core Group (a consortium of ambassadors headed by the United States, France, and Canada that includes representatives of the United Nations, European Union, and Organization of American States), which called on Henry to form a government—despite his lack of a democratic mandate.
In the streets, the power vacuum has been filled by the gangs, particularly Chérizier’s G9 alliance, which among other things now controls access to the country’s main fuel port. Those gangs are, by necessity, allied with and financed by Haiti’s tiny clique of import-export oligarchs, who use them as muscle to grab territory and settle scores. The exact web of connections and alliances is opaque, for obvious reasons. But when something as profitable as a port is in play, it is not the nearby poor but people at the uppermost echelons of Haitian society who have the most to gain or lose from which areas the gangs control.
It was against that backdrop that Henry’s government requested the foreign force, in its words, “to avoid a complete asphyxiation of the national economy.” The United States responded with, ultimately, a pair of resolutions in the U.N. Security Council. The first, approved by the council last week, authorized a travel ban, asset freeze, and arms embargo against individuals it deems “as responsible for or complicit in, or having engaged in, directly or indirectly, actions that threaten the peace, security or stability of Haiti.” That could include some of Haiti’s oligarchs or politicians, but for now the only person explicitly named in the resolution is Chérizier. This prompted the spectacle of representatives of the world’s most powerful nations, including the United States, Russia, and China, taking a break from arguing over the war in Ukraine to talking about a gang leader named “Barbecue.” It was undoubtedly the highlight of the year for a man who has styled himself as a “revolutionary” and clearly dreams of even greater national power.
The second resolution, which has not yet been approved, proposes “a limited, carefully scoped non-UN mission led by a partner country with the deep, necessary experience required for such an effort to be effective, and whom the United States could find ways to support.” The “non-UN mission” part implies that this would not be a force directed by the U.N. Department of Peace Operations or outfitted in the trademark blue helmets, which have now been thoroughly discredited in Haiti thanks to Minustah’s malfeasance. (Ironically, a resurgence of the cholera epidemic that the U.N. caused, and has since entirely escaped accountability for, is one of the justifications for this new mission.)
The “partner country” is not specified. But it is likely Mexico, which co-sponsored the resolution along with the United States. Why would Mexico want to intervene in Haiti? Well, there has been a major surge in Haitians seeking refuge in or trying to enter the United States through Mexico. In 2021, Haitians became the largest group of asylum-seekers in Mexico, exceeding the number of people trying to flee violence in Honduras and nearly equaling all other sources of asylum-seekers combined.
Late last year, the Biden administration was chastened by a media storm surrounding the arrival of Haitian refugees crossing from the Mexican state of Coahuila to Del Rio, Texas. The Mexican army has been trained, financed, and equipped by the United States under the so-called Mérida Initiative, aimed at ending that country’s ongoing drug wars—which would fit the definition of “deep, necessary experience required for such an effort,” at least from the State Department’s point of view.
But as Michael Paarlberg has argued, the Mérida Initiative is a prime example “of dysfunctional U.S security cooperation arrangements with foreign governments” that foster corruption and violence instead of lessening them. In Mexico’s case, that is likely because it ignores the core U.S. involvement in narcotrafficking: providing a market for drugs headed north and a seemingly unlimited source for the weaponry heading south.
In Haiti—which has its own obvious problems with narcotrafficking—the U.S.-supported rot runs even deeper, to the democratic vacuum that a century of U.S. invasions, occupations, and interference has left in its wake. Sending an armed force to do battle with one Haitian gang and its sponsors may briefly win the de facto government (or Chérizier’s other rivals) access to the fuel port, but it will do nothing to make Haiti a safer or more stable place for its people to live in the medium or long term.
It is not clear when or if the resolution approving an armed force will be taken up by the Security Council. China and Russia have both signaled skepticism about the U.S.-backed mission. Asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson told me: “While we envision this mission would be authorized by the [Security Council], such a mission would rely on voluntary support from the international community, and our draft resolution explicitly asks for contributions of personnel, equipment, and other resources.” Already, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Northland has been dispatched to the Bay of Port-au-Prince, and the United States and Canada have jointly delivered tactical vehicles “and other supplies” to the Henry government.
This will, in effect, just bolster another gang: the clique that Henry currently represents, its allied elites, and whatever loyal faction they favor within the Haitian National Police. In other words, outside force may give a different group access to the fuel port and keep the current clique in relative power a little longer. But it will do nothing to prevent the violence and inequality that rive Haitian society. Only forcing the unpopular and manifestly undemocratic Henry government to share or cede power, preparing the ground for eventual elections and a return to Haitian democracy, and ending a century of destructive U.S. interference in their affairs, will give ordinary Haitians a shot at survival.