The NY Times misses the point once again on Haiti

People march in Cite Soleil area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti during a protest to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moise [Chandan Khanna/AFP]

The New York Times published an editorial on Haiti earlier this week (November 4) titled Haiti’s Ashes, with a subtitle/teaser that read: Decades of misrule have once again brought Haiti to the brink of collapse. Does anyone care?

In my years of doing work in Haiti, there are a couple of things that have been consistent. One is that U.S. foreign policy has been focused on using Haiti for regional balance of power purposes, as a source of cheap labor and as a market for U.S. products, all while resisting any domestic political process that might challenge these external uses of Haiti. The second thing, is that The New York Times coverage of Haiti has sucked.

This latest editorial is par for the course. It is patronizing. It flies in the face of reality, given the historical context of U.S. intervention, and even manages to be vacuously saccharine with its “nobody cares about Haiti” refrain. 

There is no doubt that the people of Haiti are facing a crisis that could well shape the future of the country. The government is on the verge of collapse. It is strapped for resources and unable to build a governing coalition, a step necessary for the government to access aid, pass a budget, and hold local and parliamentary elections – now past due. It is a serious moment to be sure, and it may well be that the situation is not getting sufficient attention outside of Haiti. But The New York Times myopic analysis is not the place to start, but being The New York Times, sadly, people will listen.

After presenting the broad outlines of the crisis – which is simplistic but basically accurate – the editors say, “[Moïse] refuses to step down, and few Haitians have put forward any ideas on who or what should come next, or how Haiti can pull itself out of its tailspin.” Because the Haitians can’t figure it out on their own, the Times editors want more U.S. engagement:

What is clear is that something has to change, and the country needs outside help. The question is where to begin. The Trump administration is not in the business of helping poor countries unless there is some sort of reciprocal deal. The current spasm of destructive demonstrations does not seem capable of bringing real change.

Yet it is demonstrably in the interest of the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere to help their poorest neighbor get back on its feet. There must be enough expertise and imagination available in Haiti and among international and nongovernmental organizations to formulate a plan and to help form a coalition government, and there must be long-term international assistance to get them going.

Okay, so where to start? Firstly, The New York Times manages to get significant things wrong in this editorial. For example, they say “[t]he country has had at least 10 presidents since its first democratic election in 1990; only three have completed five-year terms.” This is not true – or at least highly misleading. Haiti has had six presidential elections since 1990. Preval won two of these, Aristide won two of these. Martelly and Moïse “won” the other two. Preval and Martelly completed their terms, and Moïse may or may not. Aristide was ousted in coup d’etats twice (1991 and 2004). So, Haiti’s issue with democracy is not that they can’t figure it out, as the Times implies, but that powerful domestic interests, aligned with international actors, including politicians in the U.S. and Canada, have resisted allowing a left leaning president and the Lavalas movement to consolidate power. This inside/outside alliance, with some variation, supported coups in response to both of Aristide’s elections. This is a very important point, given where the editorial is heading – basically a call for more intervention.

Then the editors give us a history lesson: 

Compounding the misery is a sense that nobody cares. During the Cold War, the United States tacitly supported the dictatorships of François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier because of their anti-Communist stance, and in the 1990s Washington first propped up and then helped force out the first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. 

After a horrific earthquake in 2010, in which more than 200,000 people lost their lives and tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed, many countries and organizations responded with generous aid and teams of rescue and medical workers. A United Nations peacekeeping mission set up in 2004 provided a modicum of stability, but it was also blamed for bringing cholera to Haiti, and dozens of its peacekeepers were involved in sexual abuse scandals. The last of the United Nations peacekeepers recently departed, contributing to the current lawlessness.

While one can only do so much in a paragraph covering 70 years of history – this is highly misleading as well. 

I would add a few things: The U.S. relationship with the Duvaliers is complicated. The United States supported a failed coup attempt against Francois Duvalier in 1958, and then ended up backing him for lack of an alternative. Jean Claude Duvalier received support from the United States as well – but it was also the United States that made clear when it was time to go in 1986 and flew him out of the country amidst a popular uprising. The Duvaliers were never more than vehicles for U.S. maintenance of a system of domination put in place after the occupation. The Cold War made a good excuse, it was not the cause of U.S. support for the Duvaliers. The one institutional allegiance the U.S. maintained was the Haitian military – which the U.S. created during its 20-year occupation of Haiti in order to suppress domestic opposition. The military continued in this role once the U.S. occupation ended.

After Aristide was elected the first time, George H.W. Bush and ideologues in Congress like Jesse Helms, denounced his election. When the 1991 coup came against Jean Bertrand Aristide, it was a U.S.-trained general, Joseph Raoul Cédras, who orchestrated it and CIA assets in charge of the FRAPH that worked alongside him in order to consolidate power in a murderous counter-insurgency against the leadership of the Lavalas movement. So, to say that the United States first propped up Aristide is basically incorrect. Clinton did mobilize U.S. forces to reinstate Aristide – first assigning a variety of conditions that have hamstrung the country in the years since. Clinton even admitted this – in a most Clintonesque way – by apologizing for forcing reductions in tariffs and other economic measures back in 1995 while basically promoting the very same neo-liberal agenda in his role as special envoy following the 2010 earthquake.

That the United States helped to force Aristide out in 2004 is true – though a few more details are really needed here as well. As even The New York Times reported (too late to matter), the U.S. government was involved in funding the opposition to Aristide, and there were clear connections between U.S.-funded “democracy promotion” grantees and the armed groups that invaded the country from the Dominican Republic, sparking the final days of Aristide’s second term. None of this was ever investigated by Congress.

The U.S. military flew Aristide out of the country – he claimed against his will – and dropped him off the Central African Republic were he was detained for weeks. When he made an effort to return to Haiti, he got as far as Jamaica. The George W. Bush administration threatened sanctions against the government of Jamaica in response. Eventually, Aristide ended up in exile in South Africa. Meanwhile, the U.S. government invaded Haiti, installed a prime minister it considered an ally – even though his most recent gig was as a right-wing radio host in Miami – and then turned the whole operation over to the U.N. 

This is the “stability” about which The New York Times is nostalgic. Let’s be clear, though, that the U.N. was not simply “blamed” for bringing cholera, but has been demonstrably proven to have brought cholera into the country, and still resists taking responsibility for it. Involvement in sexual misconduct was endemic to the mission (not just “dozens” of peacekeepers). United Nations peacekeepers left over a year ago – what remained was a police training mission working to “professionalize” the Haitian police – units of which engaged in a massacre in the presence of these trainers in November of 2017. The end of this final phase of the UN mission on October 15 did not contribute to “lawlessness,” if this term is meant to refer to the current demonstrations, which had already begun well before this date. 

The point is that U.S. intervention, influence, interference, or whatever one wants to call it, has been a consistent feature of governance in Haiti for over 100 years. That is not hyperbole. That is a simple fact. Haiti was a U.S. colony from 1915 until 1934, and has never truly gained independence in the years since. Asking for the U.S. to “step up” and get more deeply engaged in managing the crisis is absurd. The fault-lines of the crisis were by and large made in the United States to begin with.

But it is the opening salvo in the editorial that is perhaps the most condescending nonsense in the whole piece. “[F]ew Haitians have put forward any ideas on who or what should come next, or how Haiti can pull itself out of its tailspin,” the editors quip.

I’m not sure what to do with this. The New York Times has a much larger budget for research than the Quixote Center, and, we assume, reporters who go to Haiti from time to time. And yet, the Times is not aware of the many, many people in Haiti who have promoted a variety of ideas for moving the country out of the crisis. It may be that the Times staff knows about all of this, but refuses to take such voices – those of Haitian people – seriously. But to opine that “few Haitians” have anything useful to say is pretty thick.

We can start with the fact that the constitution of Haiti has something to say about the resignation and/or impeachment of presidents. There are different interpretations of powers and process here, and so, should Moïse step down, the path forward would still require some negotiation.

The Times is certainly aware of the much publicized demands of the leadership of the political opposition in Parliament, that Moïse step down and hand the government over to a committee, drawn from the opposition, that would then oversee elections. One might imagine a number of issues with this approach – but it is basically the same thing the opposition in Nicaragua demanded of Ortega, a position the Times went along with in that case.

Of course, Moïse has a plan as well. He wants to establish a process of “national dialogue” out of which the hope is that a compromise on a new government would be achieved and then a path forward for elections. The proposal seems a non-starter in Parliament where the opposition sees no reason to negotiate with Moïse at this point, except to talk about how he leaves – as his hold on the presidency seems to weaken ever day. 

Outside of these “official” positions on transition, there are a number of grassroots coalitions that have offered their own proposals for moving forward in concert with the Constitution, but recognizing the need for a negotiated transition.

It is, of course, possible that if one could get the right leadership in a room, that effective outside mediation might help move the process forward. Some negotiation is obviously required to balance various interests and come to an outline for transition that can be broadly supported. That will be hard to do with only the usual power brokers vying for position.

But such mediation is not a role for the United States government. It cannot play a mediating role and be seen as a legitimate. Further, we know, given years of history, that the U.S. government will not be a neutral broker at all. Rather, if it gets into that room, it would only seek to gain what advantage it can for its own interests, which at this point seems to be keeping some version of Moïse’s party in power.

Could the United State and the international community do something? Sure. Back out. Cancel Haiti’s debt and get the International Monetary Fund out of Haiti’s budget process. Quit playing games with Haiti’s tariffs and using aid as a lever for open access to Haiti’s resources. Quit funding select political formations and bankrolling elections in Haiti in order to control (or try to control) the outcome.

The mantra for U.S. policy in Haiti and elsewhere in the world should become, first, to do no harm. Indeed, Haiti’s problem is not that the U.S. government doesn’t care. The problem is that the U.S. government cares too much about the wrong things.

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