Haiti

Some Haitians want U.S. to weigh in on crisis. But Trump administration is focused elsewhere

As Haiti continues to descend into chaos, with gangs dismembering the bodies of rivals, police protesting their own government and marchers setting businesses ablaze, Haitians on both sides of the crisis are looking to the United States to help solve their problem.

Those who support Haitian President Jovenel Moïse want the U.S. to send food, money and logistics support — which some have taken to mean the U.S. military — to help him deal with the crisis. Those in opposition want the U.S. to stop supporting him.

But the Trump administration appears to have little interest in getting involved in Haiti, where many banks and businesses, the schools and the courts remained shuttered Tuesday for the seventh week.

Washington’s lack of a clear policy on Haiti is not lost on Haitians or Haiti observers who, whether true or not, believe the U.S. is standing by Moïse because of his decision in January to break with a longtime ally, Venezuela and leader Nicolás Maduro.

The U.S. does not appear to be doing anything to overtly support Moïse, but its lack of public criticism of the president and a series of recent decisions are being perceived by Haitians as a sign of diplomatic support. There was the invitation to Mar-a-Lago to Moïse to meet with Trump in March, the swift removal of armed U.S. mercenaries the month before and the periodic statements couched as support for elections and democratic values.

Short of removing Moïse, the opposition believes the Trump administration and others in the international community can send a signal that they will not interfere in the opposition’s mission to force his resignation and put a transition government in place.

During a visit to the U.S. State Department two weeks ago, Gary Bodeau, the president of the Lower Chamber of Deputies in Parliament, argued that the U.S. support of Moïse requires more than subtle diplomacy.

“They need to step up, otherwise he won’t survive,” Bodeau told the Miami Herald. “It can’t just be them saying, ‘I support Haiti. I support democracy.’ No, we have a political crisis, we have social issues, we have economic issues so they need to bring money to the table, which I don’t see. The U.S. support is not sustainable without help.”

Bodeau, who was also looking for statements from members of Congress in support of Moïse’s embattled administration, said he visited Washington at the request of fellow pro-government lawmakers in the lower chamber. In March, the lawmakers fired Prime Minister Jean Henry Céant after only six months, making the crisis worse. In August, they also blocked an attempt by opposition members to impeach Moïse.

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Haitian Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond during a session at the Organization of American States on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

Bodeau described Moïse as a U.S. ally. As proof, he cited Moïse’s decision to support the Trump administration on Venezuela and to have Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond serve as one of two vice chairs of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, which last month imposed new sanctions against members of Maduro’s regime.

“If you say you support the president, you need to put your hands in your pockets; give him help,” Bodeau said.

That was also the sentiment expressed by Edmond in an Oct. 11 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in which he asked for “urgent humanitarian aid and logistics support” to distribute it.

Moïse, in a pre-taped interview with Radio Metropole on Monday, confirmed the request. Asked by the journalist if logistics support means foreign soldiers, the president implied there was nothing wrong with such an arrangement, responding: “I didn’t hear anyone say anything when ... the Americans came with aid during Hurricane Matthew. Did they come by themselves?”

During the interview, in which he adamantly defended a decision to arbitrarily cancel the electricity contracts of three private power providers, Moïse continued to reject calls for his resignation, renewed his calls for a dialogue and proposed a government of national unity. He also sought to cast himself as the people’s protector against “the system.”

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The police secure the area in front of the office of immigration and emigration after protesters tried to burn it during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in the Haitian capital in Port-au-Prince on October 28, 2019. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

Following the interview, Bodeau tweeted that in three interviews the president had failed to make any effort at dealing with the unrest. “The head of state has to listen to the people. ... The head of state @moisejovenel is not the only one on board.”

Hours after the tweet, Bodeau went further, indicating that he too may be ready to abandon the president’s ship. In an interview with Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste newspaper, Bodeau said “the departure of the president can be an option.”

A spokesperson with the U.S. Agency for International Development told the Herald that the agency is aware of Haiti’s humanitarian request and is “in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Haiti to determine the nature of any requests for additional USAID food assistance.”

A spokesperson with the State Department did not directly address the question of whether Moïse, who has hired a foreign security team, asked for U.S. military assistance. The spokesperson said the USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, which Haiti requested, works with organizations such as the U.N. World Food Program and other non-governmental organizations to get food to those in need.

But even the logistics of delivering aid is unclear. The U.N. announced earlier this month that it had been forced to suspend its food assistance program and cash transfers due to the ongoing violence.

The State Department spokesperson did confirm that the U.S. Navy medical ship Comfort is scheduled to conduct a port call in Haiti in the coming days. But the long planned mission is to provide medical, not military, assistance.

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Protesters burn tires as they march in the street demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in the Haitian capital in Port-au-Prince on October 28, 2019. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

“The decision by the Moïse government to flip its position on Venezuela and side against Maduro and with the United States was strategically smart and bought some good will,” said Daniel Erikson, a former adviser for the Western Hemisphere at the State Department and special adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden in the White House. “But this should not be confused with a permanent alliance between the Trump administration and Moïse. One ironclad rule of Washington is that the White House does not want to find problems emanating from Haiti in its inbox.”

Last week during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on aid and U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean, U.S. Rep Andy Levin, D-Mich., broached the subject of Haiti. He asked Michael Kozak, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, if the administration’s lack of public statements on the crisis in Haiti and its “failing to defend good governance” had anything to do with Haiti’s stance on Venezuela.

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Kozak, a seasoned diplomat who was involved in Haiti 25 years ago, responded: “I don’t think so.” But Levin didn’t appear convinced.

“It seems to be that the Trump administration is reverting to this horrible Cold War approach to Haiti,” Levin later told the Herald, referring to the days when the U.S. supported the Duvalier family dictatorship because the father and son rulers opposed communism.

Though he has no love for Maduro, Levin said, “The U.S. should not base its policy on Haiti on how Haiti votes or what attitude they take on the Maduro regime.”

”People are protesting and we have to take that seriously,” he added.

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An alleged phone thief who was beaten by the protesters is arrested by the police during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in the Haitian capital in Port-au-Prince on October 28, 2019. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

The day after Levin’s questioning, and after the Herald’s inquiries about the U.S. stance on the Haiti crisis, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince finally made its first public comments — more than six weeks after the latest round of protests began. In a tweet, the embassy urged Haiti’s various political actors to enter without delay or preconditions into a dialogue to form a functioning government.

Three days later, the embassy spoke out — again in a tweet. By now, images of chopped-up body parts, from warring gangs in Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite, were circulating on social media; the French and Canadian embassies in Port-au-Prince had been attacked with Molotov cocktails by demonstrators; and a U.S. flag had been burned in Cap-Haitien. Haiti’s foreign affairs ministry swiftly condemned the attacks, which included a man bludgeoned to death after he fired on a group of protesters. The killing was captured on video.

The mobilization by the opposition to oust Moïse also included hundreds of Haiti National Police officers, who defied internal regulations against demonstrations to join a more peaceful protest against the government to demand better working conditions and wages.

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Protesters throw Molotov cocktails against the consulates of Italy and Peru during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in the Haitian capital in Port-au-Prince on October 28, 2019. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

“These shootings, killings, arson, and destruction not only hurt Haitian citizens, but also add to Haiti’s economic and social instability and prolong the interruption of daily life for the Haitian people, particularly Haiti’s school children,” the embassy tweeted. “The apparent lack of urgency to resolve the extended political stalemate is increasingly worrisome, as is the growing negative impact on public security, the economy, and the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including food aid.”

Neither of the embassy tweets mentioned Moïse, and instead stressed the need for dialogue. However, with the opposition digging its heels in and the president’s own dialogue commission imploding following the resignation of several key members after he refused to negotiate on his five-year term, it’s unclear whether any dialogue can begin.

“No one is willing to make a compromise,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert and author of “Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy.”

“What I am afraid, though, is that this situation can easily degenerate into mass violence,” he added. ”At one point this may happen; people may start getting so angry that they start burning everything.”

Fatton said beyond the recent statements out of the U.S. Embassy, he isn’t sure any top Trump officials are even thinking about Haiti and its deteriorating political impasse.

The White House did not reply to questions about Haiti and deferred to the State Department on the issue. Since January, the administration has been busy trying to deal with Venezuela, working on several rounds of sanctions against Maduro’s government and his closest ally, the Cuban government. At the same time, Trump’s aides have been negotiating immigration agreements with Mexico and several Central American nations. Haiti policy seems to have fallen through the cracks.

“I don’t think the United States is going to intervene unless it becomes absolutely clear that [Moïse] is no longer useful to them,” Fatton said. “And I don’t know at what point they reach that decision, because he clearly has lost essentially the support of every sector in society, whether it’s the private sector, the church, the police, the popular sectors, the vast majority of the population. I don’t know when they will say ‘Enough is enough,’ and they are going to tell him, ‘You should exit.’ ”

It is not unexpected that Haitians wish the United States would step in. The U.S. has a long history of becoming involved in Haitian affairs. And when it has not deposed its leaders, the U.S. has interfered by changing the course of elections.

In 1915, after Haitians went into the French embassy and dragged then Haiti-president Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam out into the streets and dismembered him, U.S. Marines began a 19-year occupation of the country. In 1986, Washington sent a C-141 U.S. Air Force plane to take President-for-Life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and his family out of Haiti to France.

In 2004, the U.S. again sent in a plane to Haiti. This time it was to ferry then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his family out of Haiti via Antigua and Barbuda. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials persuaded Aristide to pack his bags and get on the plane in the midst of a bloody revolt. Aristide called it a kidnapping.

And in 2011, amid allegations of ballot fraud, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Port-au-Prince to tell President René Préval to remove his preferred presidential candidate, Jude Célestin, out of the election in favor of musician Michel Martelly in the second round.

This time around, Haiti’s opposition isn’t asking for an airplane — they want Moïse to stay in the country to stand trial on corruption allegations — and they want to lead their own transition, rather than have the U.S. take charge as it did in 2004 after dropping Aristide.

“Haitians have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. When the U.S. intervenes, they don’t like it, and when it doesn’t, they ask for it,” said Fatton. “It depends on whether you’re in the opposition or the government.”

But he’s not so sure this administration will pay attention to Haiti.

“Haiti doesn’t really matter to them unless you have boat people,” Fatton said. “Ultimately the ball is in the hands of Haitians. If they want to change the situation, they have to do it, and they have to do it on their own and not expect any significant assistance from the external community.”

Nora Gámez Torres: 305-376-2169, @ngameztorres

Jacqueline Charles: 305-376-2616, @jacquiecharles

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In this Oct. 15, 2019 file photo, President Jovenel Moïse speaks during a press conference at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Rebecca Blackwell AP

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Haitian Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond during a session at the Organization of American States on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS
Nora Gámez Torres estudió periodismo y comunicación en La Habana y Londres. Tiene un doctorado en sociología y desde el 2014 cubre temas cubanos para el Nuevo Herald y el Miami Herald. También reporta sobre la política de Estados Unidos hacia América Latina. Su trabajo ha sido reconocido con premios de Florida Society of News Editors y Society for Profesional Journalists.
Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.
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