Source: AP Photo / Odelyn Joseph.
Haiti is headed toward a catastrophic humanitarian and political crash. With an estimated 90 percent of the Port-au-Prince region under the chaotic control of gangs, kidnappings remain a lucrative trade (389 recorded incidents in the 1st quarter of 2023). Societal life—including the operation of schools—is essentially shut down. Haiti is halfway off the cliff. This is not a sudden development but the result of a dramatic deterioration of Haitian political governance since President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in July 2021. Yet the international community’s response has been strikingly messy. U.S. policy, historically the determining factor, appears at this stage to be boxed in by two factors. First, its continuing support of Haiti’s interim PM, Ariel Henry, anchored to the delusion that he could survive the deepening chaos. Second, the U.S.’s reluctance to help break the political stalemate in Haiti necessary for a coherent international response. In fact, the outcome of this policy paralysis is likely the kind of full-scale security intervention that the Biden administration wants to avoid.
This policy hesitancy may be shaped in part by the U.S. domestic political repercussions of the Afghan withdrawal. While the U.S. ability to shape events in Afghanistan was sharply reduced by the summer of 2021, the circumstances on the ground—let alone the geopolitical context—are different in the Haitian case. Yet, the void of substantive U.S. diplomacy toward Haiti over several years implies that partial remedies are unlikely to secure constructive outcomes.
This includes three components whose overall flaw is that each is dependent on the successful outcome of the other. First, strengthening the PNH (Haitian National Police), the most widely held component of U.S. and multinational responses so far, and now the most misaligned element with reality in the streets of Haiti. Second, energizing the Haut Conseil de Transition (HCT–High Transition Council), the operational heart of the December 21, 2022 political consensus cobbled together with encouragement from particularly the UN and nominally providing Henry with a transition gameplan. Third, encouraging some form of political harmony between enough elements of the December 21 agreement and its primary alternative anchored by the Montana Accord political and civil society constituency. This is not an easy task considering that both have suffered internal divisions, let alone defections over time.
As a practical matter, the PNH is not only understaffed but weakened by street-level corruption, penetrated by gang elements, and tied to a regime lacking credibility in the eyes of too many Haitians. It is, by implication, faced with an operational security environment where it is unlikely to succeed. As for the HCT—a core element of the December 21 agreement architecture—it is not only not operational but undermined by a nearly fatal conceptual contradiction. A transition mission that implies that sooner or later, Henry fades from a leadership position when in practice, the interim Prime Minister has demonstrated little interest in doing so. Hence, the longer this impasse continues, the less likely the HCT can succeed in its mission. Overall, without strategic engagement from the international community, there is little incentive among key Haitian actors to work toward a political consensus. But without the latter, Washington and other key actors remain reticent to act.
Critically, this might offer limited openings to alternative options. There are still behind-the-scenes Haiti-related discussions at the Organization of American States (OAS). However, it is unclear how it can achieve a consensus on thorny issues such as addressing Haiti’s security challenges. Also, one can conceive of a response built around a “coalition of the willing,” but without more engagement from the U.S. and Canada, how other hemispheric actors like Chile, Brazil, and Colombia could sustain such an option is not apparent. Finally, The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) remains an interested party in the above scenarios. However, since its Bahamas summit in February, it has backtracked somewhat from direct engagement to address Haiti’s violence. Nonetheless, a high-level delegation CARICOM to Haiti in late February led by the Jamaican Prime Minister and a follow-up session in Jamaica to gather Haiti’s political and civil society leaders in the near future retains some potential.
Despite repeated calls for action from the UN Secretary-General and the arrival of a new head of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH), the big power dynamics of the Security Council don’t hold much promise. These uncertainties provide an opening for a third wheel of international diplomacy. In this case, a of British diplomat Jonathan Powell’s negotiating mission after a roughly two-month hiatus. It remains unclear how stalemated political dynamics in Haiti (whose ambassador in Washington was just recalled on corruption charges ) can support this form of semi-private diplomacy without clearer signals from Washington and other key capitals.
In the near-term, several potential scenarios should make policymakers pause. The most worrisome may be the collapse of the Henry regime, either violently or through internal political divisions. This is enhanced by the fact that there is little left of functioning state institutions. Secondly, the increasingly vocal frustrations of Dominican leaders demanding international action regarding their chaotic neighbor is an understandable policy posture but runs the danger of transitioning to potentially inflammatory rhetoric and mistakes as the country enters a presidential election cycle. A third catastrophic scenario has already emerged, in effect mayhem in the streets of Port-au-Prince, with gangs fighting among themselves and local communities taking matters into their hands against both the gangs and the government’s impotence. In effect, Haiti’s spiral toward a humanitarian and political crash is underway.
Georges A. Fauriol is a Fellow with Global Americans; he is also a co-chair of the Caribbean Policy Consortium (CPC), as well as a Think Tank Haiti (TTH) Steering Group member, a partnership of Université Quisqueya (Haiti) and the Inter-American Dialogue, and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).