The song remains the same: The United States in Haiti this week

This week a new interim government was established in Haiti and the United States appointed a special envoy to represent US interests in the effort to move forward on elections, provide security and to offer support for the investigation into Moise’s assassination. Along the way, the Biden administration demonstrated once again the inability of the US government to listen to anybody standing outside the echo chamber clamoring about the indispensable role of the United States in finding a solution. As we’ll see, it is not as though alternative messages from Haitian civil society have been hidden. If there is one positive in the US response thus far it is that there are no occupation troops being deployed – not yet at least. Whether this is an indication that the administration is actually listening, or simply reluctant to engage the optics of US troops moving from Afghanistan to Haiti, is an open question.

A “new” government

Shortly after president Moise was assassinated on July 7, 2021, acting prime minister Claude Joseph took the reins of government. Joseph, the former foreign minister, had been appointed by Moise as an interim prime minister earlier this year but was replaced with Ariel Henry by Moise the day before his death. Henry was never officially sworn in, and thus Joseph, with the support of Haiti National Police head Leonel Charles, declared himself in charge, and was recognized as such by US appointed UN diplomat Helen La Lime a couple of days later. Meanwhile, Henry claimed interim status for himself. Along with the ten members of Haiti’s senate that are technically still in office (though, absent a quorum, the senate cannot actually do business), Henry formed a government with Joseph Lambert as interim president and himself as interim prime minister. Behind the scenes, businessman Reginald Boulos supported the arrangement. It came to light that he had already hired a lobbyist to press the case for a new government with US policy makers before Moise was killed. 

The Lambert/Henry formation never actually took power, but the United States, fearing further turmoil (or more to the point, the lack of negotiating partner to dominate), stepped into the Joseph/Henry divide to negotiate a backroom deal last weekend that led to a new interim government with Henry as prime minister, and Joseph back in his role as Foreign Minister. Jake Johnston, writing in the American Prospect this week, says, “What this really means is that Haiti’s political class is dividing the spoils of government out of public view once again, and negotiating with foreign powers to ensure that whatever emerges is recognized by the international community.” Indeed, in The New York Times this week one can read about how various factions of Haiti’s elite are competing for legitimacy – in Washington – by hiring lobbying firms. 

With a new government in place – not a government with any public legitimacy, or one that emerges from a constitutionally recognized process – the United States can now proceed. And so, on Thursday, Biden appointed Daniel Lewis Foote as special envoy to Haiti. Foote is a career diplomat that once served as Deputy Chief of Mission for the US embassy in Haiti, and, more to the point in this case, was once acting head of the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. Foote’s mission:

The Special Envoy will engage with Haitian and international partners to facilitate long-term peace and stability and support efforts to hold free and fair presidential and legislative elections. He will also work with partners to coordinate assistance efforts in several areas, including humanitarian, security, and investigative assistance. Additionally, the Special Envoy will engage stakeholders in civil society and the private sector as we pursue Haitian-led solutions to the many pressing challenges facing Haiti.

There is another way

While this is going on, a conference of civil society leaders representing the Commission for a Haitian Led Solution is being convened this weekend to craft proposals for a more participatory transition plan. Johnston notes:  

This civil society–led organization formed many months ago, bringing together more than 300 organizations representing unions, farmers, churches, anti-corruption activists, feminist movements, human rights organizations, and many others. The conference would have begun earlier, but hotels refused to provide space. Many participants have received pushback from political leaders across the spectrum, and for a clear reason: The commission’s work is a threat to the political class. It is also a threat to the holding of elections later this year.

However, the United States, with Foote pressing the issue, seems determined to press forward with elections in Haiti. The single minded mantra concerning elections is increasingly out of step with the voices of many Haitians, who have been arguing for a different path for months now. This week Haitians were making their case in the United States.

One Wednesday, the Haitian Studies Association, Center for Economic and Policy Research, and other groups sponsored a panel discussion with speakers drawn from Haiti’s vibrant civil society, including the Rosy Auguste Ducena of RNDDH, Velina Elysée Charlier, Nou Pap Dòmi, Magali Comeau Denis, Komisyon pou Jwenn yon Solisyon Ayisyen, Mario Joseph, BAI, Sabine Lamour, SOFA, Josué Merilien, UNNOH/ Konbit and David Oxygène, MOLEGHAF.

The presentation can be watched on Youtube here:

Members of the Commission also briefed members of congress this week. Other members of civil society have met with administration officials in the United States.

The Haiti Response Coalition also released its statement, signed by 146 organizations, calling for policy makers to listen to Haitian voices, including on the question of elections. The letter calls for, 

Ensuring that conditions for fair, participatory, and credible elections are in place before rushing Haiti to the polls. Elections are a fundamental part of the democratic process. However, they must be free and fair and perceived as legitimate in order to strengthen democracy. Elections will not be free and fair without inclusive voter registration, an independent and legitimate electoral body, and the security necessary not only to vote, but also to campaign leading up to election day. Meaningful participation requires that women and other marginalized groups also participate in the electoral process. A race to hold elections on an internationally-imposed timeline risks further eroding democracy in Haiti.  

We note that Foote’s mandate (above) says that he ”will engage stakeholders in civil society and the private sector as we pursue Haitian-led solutions.” Is this just another Democrat lifting progressive language, while bullying ahead with business as usual? Or is Biden finally listening? Of course, we will know by what the US actually does – not what its diplomats say in press releases. And thus far, Biden’s team does not seem to get it, at all. 

But maybe there is a seed here we can nurture. Afterall, what choice do we have?

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