‘They messed it up’: Biden’s backing for Haiti’s unpopular leader digs US into deeper policy hole

A police aims during clashes with gang members in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

A police aims during clashes with gang members in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

MIAMI (AP) — When Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry filled the void left by the assassination of the country’s president in 2021, he did so over the protest of wide segments of the population but with the full-throated support of the Biden administration.

Now, almost three years later, Henry’s grip on power is hanging by a thread, and Washington is confronted by even worse choices as it scrambles to prevent the country’s descent into anarchy.

“They messed it up deeply,” James Foley, a retired career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said in an interview about the Biden administration’s support for Henry. “They rode this horse to their doom. It’s the fruit of the choices we made.”

The embattled prime minister left Haiti 10 days ago and has since crisscrossed the world — from South America to Africa to New York and now Puerto Rico — all while staying silent as he tries to negotiate a return home that seems increasingly unlikely.

The power vacuum has been exacerbated by the almost complete withdrawal of police from key state institutions and a mass escape of hundreds of murderers, kidnappers and other violent offenders from the country’s two biggest prisons over the weekend.

Haiti remained paralyzed Thursday after another night of attacks on police stations and other targets by armed groups that have vowed to force Henry’s resignation. The country’s acting prime minister, filling in for Henry while he is abroad, extended a poorly enforced nighttime curfew through Sunday.

Stubborn U.S. support for Henry is largely to blame for the deteriorating situation, said Monique Clesca, a Haitian writer and member of the Montana Group, a coalition of civil, business and political leaders that came together in the wake of Jovenel Moïse ‘s murder to promote a “Haitian-led solution” to the protracted crisis.

The group’s main objective is to replace Henry with an oversight committee made up of nonpolitical technocrats to restore order and pave the way for elections. But so far, Henry, who has repeatedly promised to hold elections, has shown no willingness to yield power.

While in Guyana last week for a meeting of Caribbean leaders, he delayed what would be Haiti’s first vote in a decade yet again, until mid-2025.

“He’s been a magician in terms of his incompetence and inaction,” said Clesca. “And despite it all, the U.S. has stayed with him. They’ve been his biggest enabler.”

By any measure, Haiti’s perennially tenuous governance has gotten far worse since Henry has been in office.

Last year, more than 8,400 people were reported killed, injured or kidnapped, more than double the number reported in 2022. The United Nations estimates that nearly half of Haiti’s 11 million people need humanitarian assistance.

But even as Haiti has plunged deeper into chaos, the U.S. has stood firmly by Henry.

“He is taking difficult steps,” Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in October 2022, as Haitians poured into the streets to protest the end of fuel subsidies. “Those are actions that we have wanted to see in Haiti for quite some time.”

When demonstrations resumed last month demanding Henry’s resignation, the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti again rushed to his defense.

“Ariel Henry will leave after the elections,” U.S. chargé d’affaires Eric Stromayer told a local radio station.

But the Biden administration isn’t the only U.S. administration that failed to get Haiti right.

The country has been on a downward spiral for decades as rampant poverty, corruption, lawlessness and natural disasters overwhelm any effort to rebuild the economy and democratic institutions. Factionalism among political elites, some with ties to the flourishing criminal underworld, has also taken its toll, making it especially hard for the U.S. to find partners it can trust.

“It’s an occupational hazard with Haiti,” Foley said. “It’s just too hard, too complicated, too insoluble.”

The Biden administration has defended its approach to Haiti. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, without specifically endorsing Henry, said the U.S. long term goal of stabilizing the country so Haitians can hold elections hasn’t changed.

But in what may be a telling slip that speaks to the neglect Haiti has suffered in Washington of late, Jean-Pierre confused the Haitian president, the country’s top elected official, with the prime minister, who is picked by the president and subject to parliamentary approval.

“It’s the Haitian people — they need to have an opportunity to democratically elect their prime minister,” Jean-Pierre, whose parents fled Haiti, said Wednesday. “That’s what we’re encouraging. But we’ve been having these conversations for some time.”

Nichols said he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Henry on Thursday and urged him to broaden his political coalition. He said the U.S. would work to speed up the deployment of a multinational security mission to combat the gangs led by Haiti under the auspices of the United Nations but that other countries needed to step up their support in the way the world is working together to address humanitarian needs in Ukraine and Gaza.

“We’ve got to do more, we’ve got to do more urgently,” Nichols said at an event hosted by the Council of the Americas in Washington. “The crisis in Haiti has the humanitarian proportions that demand a global response.”

The U.S. bears much of the blame for the country’s ills. After French colonizers were violently banished in 1791, the U.S. worked to isolate the country diplomatically and strangle it economically. American leaders feared a newly independent and free Haiti would inspire slave revolts back home. The U.S. did not even officially recognize Haiti until 1862, during the Civil War that abolished American slavery.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops have been an on-and-off presence on the island, dating from the era of “gunboat diplomacy” in the early 20th century when President Woodrow Wilson sent an expeditionary force that would occupy the country for two decades to collect unpaid debts to foreign powers.

The last intervention took place in 2004, when the administration of George W. Bush diverted resources from the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq to calm the streets following a coup that removed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Foley said he sees many parallels between the Aristide crisis he had to navigate as ambassador and the one confronting the Biden administration. Then, as now, Haitian political leaders have proven incapable of consensus and state authority has collapsed, even if the magnitude of the security and economic free fall is far deeper. Re-engineering democracy will take years of painstaking work.

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon wants to send troops into Haiti with a proxy war taking place in Ukraine against Russia, the Israel-Hamas conflict at risk of spreading and the growing rivalry with China in the Indo-Pacific.

Politically, any such move just months from the U.S. presidential election would be seized on by Biden’s likely opponent, Donald J. Trump, as another example of futile nation building by the U.S.

But Foley said the situation is deteriorating so fast that the Biden administration may have no choice. He’s pushing for a limited troop presence, like the one that in 2004 handed off to U.N. peacekeepers after only six months. Unlike the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which was hastily organized, Kenya has been working for months on a multinational force to combat the gangs.

“I completely understand the deep reluctance in Washington to have U.S. forces on the ground,” Foley said. “But it may prove impossible to prevent a criminal takeover of the state unless a small U.S. security contingent is sent on a temporary basis to create the conditions for international forces to take over.”

But whether yet another U.S. intervention helps stabilize a desperate Haiti, or just adds more fuel to the raging fire, remains an open question. And given the recent American track record, many are doubtful.

“The U.S. for too long has been too present, too meddling,” said Clesca. “It’s time for them to step back.”

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