After the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, a popular musician known as Sweet Mickey won the favor of quite the power couple – then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton. In the subsequent presidential election, the musician, whose given name is Michel Martelly, came in third. But the United States and other interested parties pushed aside the second-place finisher for no democratically legitimate reason, alleging fraud without any statistical or constitutional basis for the decision, so that Martelly could be in the 2011 runoff, which he won.

Thus began the country’s dozen-year downward spiral, centered on the Haitian Tèt Kale or “Bald Head” Party, fittingly named after Sweet Mickey’s famous pate, rather than any set of values or policies. For complex and tragic reasons, the United States stubbornly stuck with Martelly, his hand-picked successor, Jovenel Moïse, and most recently with Moïse’s last extra-constitutional prime minister, Ariel Henry as Haiti descended first into kleptocracy, then into systematic gangsterization and lawlessness, and finally into complete chaos — until the whole house of cards came crashing down last month. As gangs united against the government and prevented Henry’s plane from landing at the Port-au-Prince airport, even the United States had to concede that its handpicked “leader” was no longer tenable, and Henry was forced to announce that he would resign as part of a transition process (though even that has dragged on, so stay tuned).

Why would the United States stick with one very personality-driven political party and its progeny when independent human rights, democracy, and good government watchdogs found over and over that their leaders were involved in the theft and mismanagement of billions of dollars of public money, the massacring of people in poor opposition neighborhoods, and the sponsorship of gangs that eventually branched out into their own violent criminal enterprises? When the party’s leaders evidenced a complete lack of interest in democratic structures, such that they didn’t organize elections for years, and dismantled an electoral system now in tatters? When in retrospect, their crimes were so apparent that a United Nations panel of experts recently found that Martelly had cultivated gangs to advance his political agenda, a Harvard Law School report found that Moïse’s aides were part of massacres against civilians in opposition neighborhoods, and the governments of Canada and the United States issued sanctions against many top Haitian officials of the past dozen years?

The painful answer is that, despite official protestations, the United States has not actually supported the development of the kind of popular democracy in Haiti that we demand — but don’t always achieve — for ourselves. Real democracy in Haiti would mean the poor mass of Haitians who comprise the majority of the population would be in the driver’s seat, electing governments that carry out things they want — like much higher wages, universal free education, and infrastructure development that assists small agricultural producers.

US Favoring of Haitian Political and Business Elite

The small number of wealthy families and interests that run the Haitian economy do not favor significant change, but rather seek to maintain control and exploit the cheap labor of a disempowered, famously hard-working population. And the United States has stayed close to the economic elite, often acting as if the Chamber of Commerce is a pretty fair representative of civil society at large.

I saw this as a college student even before the end of the Duvalier dictatorship. When I visited Haiti in January 1980 to study the effect of programs funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, I found that our government favored developing cash crops like flowers and coffee rather than emphasizing rice and other foodstuffs for nutritional self-sufficiency. The United States accepted that schools and media were in French (spoken by less than 5 percent of the people) rather than the universally understood Kreyol, because French was a language of business and international commerce.

After Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier fled Haiti in 1986, a wonderfully boisterous civil society began to take shape. All manner of groups sprung up representing peasants and women, promoting literacy, human rights, neighborhood protection and beautification efforts, and more. After Haiti started having legitimate elections in 1990, two leaders secured the support of Haitian voters in large numbers — Jean-Bertrand Aristide and René Préval. But the United States didn’t care for these populist leaders, who endeavored to make the country more equitable. It wanted “responsible,” “stable,” “pro-business” leaders to help Haiti “move forward.”

I’ve always thought backing Haitians’ efforts to form unions and double and triple wages to levels that can support a family would lead to widespread prosperity. I imagine big markets in the United States, Canada, France, and beyond for justly made goods from a country whose conditions of slavery were so horrific that it has symbolized racial oppression ever since. My vision was never shared by U.S. policymakers, who opposed large minimum wage increases as “irresponsible” and “unreasonable” and union organizing campaigns as “radical” and “unwanted” — at least by those who owned the factories.

Is it any wonder that Haiti remains the poorest country in the hemisphere?

After I was elected to Congress in 2018, I secured a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) and its Latin America subcommittee, and I created a Haiti Caucus. Once Democrats won control of the House in 2021, HFAC Chairman Greg Meeks championed my work, and we conducted more oversight on Haiti policy than Washington had seen in years.

But I can’t say we succeeded. When Moïse failed to organize elections and began ruling by decree, the United States said he remained the legitimate ruler of Haiti. When he claimed he had an extra year as president because he took office late after an electoral controversy, almost all Haitian legal experts said there was no constitutional basis for this – but the United States backed him, and he stayed. After he was assassinated and there was a squabble between his sixth and seventh prime ministers (Moïse had named the seventh, Henry, but he had not taken office at the time of Moise’s death, partly because there was no longer a parliament to ratify his accession to the post), the United States declared that Henry was the legitimate de facto head of state, and continued to recognize him against virtually blanket opposition.

A Haitian Civil Society Solution — Rejected

Amazingly, amidst all the problems Haiti has had, a group of civil society leaders began organizing a transition back to democracy before Moïse’s legitimate term ended. I watched with admiration as they did the real work of democracy — negotiating with more and more leaders to grow their movement. Their transition plan changed constantly to bring new groups on board.

In the end, the agreement they brokered, which became known as the “Montana Accord,”  had the support of many political parties and a stunningly broad array of leaders from religious, human rights, legal, and business organizations, unions, and other popular groups. While far from perfect, it represented a workable road map back to democracy, and even included a place for representation from the ruling party, despite its corruption and connection to violence.

The U.S. reaction: a huge “meh.” I did everything I could think of to make leaders in the State Department and White House see that we were watching the kind of deep and authentic democratic development Alexis de Tocqueville praised in our own country two centuries ago — to no avail.

State Department officials told me they were afraid of instability and a power vacuum if they got out of the way of what civil society leaders called “a Haitian solution to the crisis.” I kept wondering, isn’t there enough instability already to realize we must change course?

We can’t have a fresh-start kind of transition to democracy, they said. Why not, I wondered. After all, no election overseen by Henry (as the United States continued, until recently, to expect) could possibly be seen as legitimate. State Department leaders simply couldn’t imagine that a broadly based group of Haitian leaders who swore off personal ambition in favor of rebuilding democratic structures could succeed. In any event, the United States wasn’t about to throw in with them if that’s not what elite actors, ruling political parties and their affiliated gangs wanted.

Foreign Security Interventions

For more than a year, the State Department has insisted a foreign security force is the only way to go. But considering Haiti’s long history of colonialism and post-colonial foreign interventions that have ended in failure, shouldn’t a turn to political legitimacy come before any thought of foreign military force or “police assistance?” Why not allow the Haitian people to first install a transitional government designed by a broad swath of civil society, and then let them seek whatever international assistance they need in a transparent fashion? Is it so hard to see that the United States organizing and funding an international force (even if the police or troops aren’t American) is one thing, and providing security assistance sought by a new and legitimate transitional government is something else altogether?

So, here we are. The refusal to see and take seriously groups representing the broad, Black, proud, impoverished majority – to see that they are perfectly capable of governing themselves – has finally fallen in on itself. Henry is on the way out. Now gangs are running the place without even a fig leaf of foreign-imposed official rule. Insecurity and hunger are rampant throughout the capital region. And Kenya suspended its effort to send a security force until there’s a government to host it.

You know you’re in a bad place when murderous gangs step up to “lead a revolution” to force the removal of an extra-constitutional ruler who is only in place due to U.S. support.

Sadly, the period when the Montana Accord could have been implemented has passed, after too many months of being rejected by the United States and other foreign powers. Given the lack of support for this “Haitian solution to the crisis” and the inability to breathe life into it from the bottom up amidst gang control of the capital region, Haiti now faces exactly the kind of power vacuum the United States has said it was trying to avoid.

U.S. policymakers and others are supporting the installation of a transitional government but are trying to make it up on the fly. It is expected to include a “presidential council,” composed of seven voting leaders and two observers, and a prime minister, and Henry is to step down once it is in place. But that plan already is taking weeks to put into place, and Henry has already on several occasions questioned its viability.

Learning Lessons?

Whatever happens, the United States needs to learn the lessons of building durable democratic governance, even where it refused to follow them before. Forget about quick elections. Whatever time is necessary, Haitians must have sufficient calm and security or there is no hope for free campaigning and significant voter participation. They must have confidence in the government organizing the elections — that its interim leaders will not buy, manipulate, or coerce the electorate — in order to turn out to vote. The rule of law and a free press are also necessary ingredients for the popular will to express itself.

In other words, Haitians must be allowed to rebuild the conditions necessary for authentic democratic elections. Any transitional structure must be run for the good of the people and not to advance the interests of particular political parties or business elites.

In the coming days and weeks, the transitional government will begin to take shape. People close to the negotiations anticipate that the presidential council will announce itself in the official government gazette, Le Moniteur. The council will select a council president and an interim prime minister, and together, they will govern Haiti and mount elections expected later next year.

Meanwhile, we in the United States and the international community should be preparing to steadfastly support the council in resisting pressure from gangs and corrupt politicians and business leaders and in building back democratic institutions.

This is the supportive role that our U.S. government should have played in the past. Some 230 years after the Haitian people threw off the yoke of slavery, one has to wonder when the United States and other countries will begin to see Haiti as a country full of brilliant people who can govern themselves if we only listen to them, respect them, and honor their own choices in building a durable democratic culture.

IMAGE: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, flanked by Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry (L) and Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs, Alfred Nganga Mutua (R) addresses diplomats during a meeting on the security situation in Haiti, on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York City on September 22, 2023. (Photo by BING GUAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)