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Commentary

U.S. Hoping Haiti Can Fix Its Failed State For Elections. It Can't — Not Without The U.S.

ArielHenryHaitiPols.jpeg
Joseph Odelyn
/
AP
THEY'RE NO TOUSSAINTS Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry surrounded by his cabinet in Port-au-Prince this summer. Prosecutors say Henry is under scrutiny in the investigation of President Jovenel Moise's July 7 assassination. He denies any involvement.

COMMENTARY As Haiti descends into failed-state chaos, it's not a question of if the U.S. should step in to help it get back on track for valid elections — but how.

In “The Black Jacobins,” the landmark study of Toussaint Louverture and Haiti’s 1791-1804 revolution, C.L.R. James argues the Haitian independence hero made a tragic mistake.

As Toussaint and his fellow Black warriors ousted Haiti’s colonial overlord, France, Toussaint still “strove to maintain” Haiti’s connection to France “as necessary to [the] long and difficult climb” ahead, James writes. He feared a country founded by newly freed enslaved Africans “could not attain to” modern statehood in the West “by ‘going it alone.’”

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France would instead betray Haiti, capturing Toussaint and sending him to die in a French prison while extorting $21 billion from the new Haitian republic. James’ point is that Toussaint, for all the bold vision that made him one of history’s greatest leaders, succumbed in this case to naivete — and to a fear of “going it alone” that over the past two centuries has made Haiti by turns more dependent on and more vulnerable to foreign powers like France…and the United States.

One modern example: the $13 billion pledged by the U.S. and the international community for Haitian earthquake recovery in 2010 that didn’t produce all that much earthquake recovery.

READ MORE: U.S. Reverses Its President Precedent in Haiti. Is It Moïse's Invitation to Dictatorship?

Granted, foreign powers are only part of Haiti’s problem. Its leadership since 1804 has too often been a grievous shadow of Toussaint.

Still, that’s all the more reason two big questions that evoke Toussaint hang over Haiti right now as it hurtles toward political and economic collapse: Would it be wise to urge the U.S. to get more deeply involved in solving the crisis? And would it be wise for the U.S. to actually step in?

Unfortunately, neither Haiti nor the U.S. may have a choice at this point.

If you needed any reminding that Haiti this year has descended to the state of failed state, catch the latest dysfunctional headline this week: the top prosecutor investigating the brutal July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse wants to charge Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry in the murder – but can’t because Henry fired him just before he issued the charge. That’s just one snapshot of the howling chaos passing for Haitian governance.

At this point only U.S. and international community help can realistically ensure reliable election conditions in Haiti. But how — without making it an even more dependent country?

The Moïse killing’s unsolved plot appears so bizarre and baroque it makes JFK’s assassination feel like a Blue’s Clues mystery. But Haiti was already in free fall before that trauma. Its legislative and judicial branches are all but gone; multi-billion-dollar corruption scandals have crippled its energy sector; almost half the population is going hungry; and violent gangs are so ubiquitous and omnipotent thousands of Haitians have been displaced from their homes like war refugees — and gang leaders have hijacked relief supplies for victims of last month’s earthquake.

So the more relevant question is: how can the U.S. intercede this time without making Haiti an even more reliant ward of Washington – and without making Americans feel as though they’re jumping from one futile nation-building episode in West Asia into a new one in the Caribbean?

BALLOTS VS. BULLETS

Leaders like Henry say Haiti can hold presidential and parliamentary elections in November to put the country back on track. Usually the U.S. would agree, insisting elections are the panacea for every broken country’s every problem. But the Biden Administration isn’t so sure a reliable vote can be held under current conditions — acknowledging (again, unusual for a U.S. administration) that no election is better than a poisoned one.

Biden officials say it should be up to Haiti to improve conditions. But that isn’t likely to happen, this year or next. For now, it seems that can realistically happen only with U.S. and international community assistance.

ToussaintLouverture.jpg
Portrait of Toussaint Louverture (artist unknown).

More political mediation and electoral funding can help – but can it clear earthquake rubble to set up polling sites? Election aid can hire and train poll workers – but can it keep politically affiliated gangbangers from scaring voters away?

It can hire more police protection – but can Haiti’s cops, who are so often in league with the gangs, be trusted to keep ballots safe from bullets? If not, should U.S. and international peace-keeping forces, like the U.N. troops that patrolled Haiti from 2004 to 2017, be deployed to keep order?

Questions like those need to be asked. Because the tragic fact is that in 2021, Haiti can’t go it alone.