In the recent congressional testimony of Ambassador Daniel Foote, the former U.S. special envoy to Haiti, I heard words I never thought I would hear from an American government official. Foote told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee exactly why he could no longer pursue U.S. policy in Haiti.
“Our political interventions have never worked,” he said. “We have always prioritized stability, which is critical, over going after the root causes of instability.”
The United States has essentially adjudicated Haitian elections, and anointed and supported political leaders who have “raped” the country, he said, speaking powerfully and undiplomatically. Foote said he saw those disastrous interventions up close after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake when he was part of the effort to rebuild. He said: “I feel responsible.”
For people like me — whose life and work are built on the history of my home country, Haiti — these admissions were shattering and redemptive. It felt as though one U.S. envoy had restored some measure of honor to decades of shameless American intervention in my country. He spoke words that finally reconcile with Haitian reality.
Haiti today is in crisis. Recent governments have decimated the structures of political life. There has been no president since the assassination of Jovenel Moïse this summer. There is no parliament, since Moïse dissolved it and began ruling by decree. Gangs armed and empowered by the regime control everyday life. The police and judiciary are weak and corrupt.
Still, I have felt a huge spark of energy and hope because civil society leaders are organizing Haitians in a grassroots effort to build a way forward, and they are doing so despite facing death threats. They have produced an accord that includes blueprints for each step of the proposed transition to democracy, and they have gathered more than 650 signatories, representing a majority of Haitian society, including unions, professional organizations, farmers’ alliances, the Protestant and Episcopal Churches, and dozens of political parties. They want to build a path toward an interim government that will hold legitimate and truly participatory elections.
Root Causes of Instability
But the United States has not supported this effort to restore public trust and democratic institutions. Instead, U.S. leaders have persisted in backing the current illegitimate government that has contributed to Haiti’s destruction. In instances where there was controversy about the results of Haitian elections, U.S. officials have repeatedly decided them.
“I believe the root cause of instability now,” Foote told the committee, “is the Haitian people do not believe they have had a voice in their destiny and in selecting their leaders in a long time.”
Via Zoom, I have attended meetings of the civil society initiative, called the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. On numerous phone calls, and through writing papers and critiquing documents, I have been able to participate, like many other Haitians. in a transparent discussion and wide-ranging negotiating process unparalleled in the history of our country.
I have not seen this kind of energy in Haiti since the end of the Duvalier regime, when a popular movement for democracy helped write a new constitution and in 1990, elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president.
Now, it is time for the United States to acknowledge the historic achievement the new civil society accord represents, stop blocking its success, and end U.S. backing for the current corrupt regime. Asked in his congressional briefing whether the current government of Haiti would survive without U.S. support, Foote said, “I do not believe they would survive or remain.”
This is more reason for the United States to follow the commission’s lead in establishing a new kind of democracy in Haiti.
Failed US Interventions
Intervention by the United States and other countries has failed Haiti my whole life. As a 4-year-old boy in Port-au-Prince in the 1950s, I watched my mother in her white-and-red-dotted dress aim with a small pistol at the tree in the garden as my father taught her how to shoot — in case the “Tonton Macoutes,” the paramilitary force of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, came for us.
The United States supported the brutal and repressive regime of Papa Doc, and later his son Baby Doc—though the regime killed tens of thousands of Haitians and forced countless others, including my family, into exile.
Later, our “friends” the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank insisted on structural adjustment policies that decimated Haiti’s agriculture sector and led Haitians to import staple crops like rice. That caused the mass exodus of impoverished peasants from the countryside to the capital.
Our “friend,” the Organization of American States, or OAS, has so frequently failed as a mediator and enforcer in Haitian conflicts and democratic efforts that Haitians now consider the organization a kind of guarantor of strife and stolen elections. Today, the French acronym for OAS is used in Haiti as an insult.
Our “friend” the United States Agency for International Development has provided significant aid over the years. But most of it flows through American non-governmental organizations and for-profit companies, hindering the development of Haitian businesses and impeding our country’s self-sufficiency. Foote in his testimony told of a meeting he attended in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake to help coordinate $5.1 billion of U.S. assistance. “I was struck by the fact that it was all Americans in the room,” he said. “I believe we need Haitians in the room, Haitian buy-in, and Haitian-led solutions.”
And our “friends” in the U.S. government have continued to get in the way of Haiti’s democracy today.
In 2016, in elections imposed, financed, and organized by the United States and a small group of other countries, Haitians voted at the lowest rates in the country’s history. Jovenel Moïse won the presidency with about 600,000 votes in a country of 11 million people.
When Moïse was assassinated in July, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti tweeted its designation of Claude Joseph, a Moïse appointee, as acting prime minister — only to abruptly shift gears and tweet a new statement from a group of international diplomats who had decided to anoint a different Moïse appointee, Ariel Henry. U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison has no right to interfere in the matters of a sovereign country. It is illegitimate under our Constitution.
“It’s critical that civil society has a voice in this new government,” Foote said. “It’s not critical that Ariel Henry and his administration has a voice in this new government, so I hope that our administration will stop imposing Ariel Henry on the Haitian people.”
Dear friends, stand by our side and do what Foote has done: acknowledge U.S. mistakes and seek to make repairs.
As Foote has urged, it is time for the United States to reset its policy toward Haiti and listen to the voices of Haitians trying to rebuild democracy. We are fighting for our lives and for the ideals the United States has long espoused but failed to deliver.