Although the war between Ukraine and Russia has dominated the news, other countries have been suffering through their own violent conflicts in recent years. In this and future pieces, I will highlight contemporary wars and other conflicts that are too often overlooked.
NOTE: This piece discusses sexual violence and other human rights violations.
Haiti is nearing total collapse. Over roughly the last two years, the long-troubled island nation has experienced the assassination of its president and the progressive breakdown of its government. The vacuum has been filled by organized crime factions that now dominate life in the capital.
This fractured civil order has pushed the Haitian people, already struggling against severe poverty and related problems, into a humanitarian crisis. At the start of the current crisis, Robert Fatton of the University of Virginia, an expert on Haitian politics, commented, “Everything that could go wrong seems to be going wrong.” The situation has not subsequently improved.
Haiti’s turmoil defies a clear or easy solution, but an adequate response will likely require a mixture of careful diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and openness to refugees.
A History of Oppression and Disaster
A nation of over 11 million people occupying the western third of an island in the Caribbean, Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and one of the poorest countries in the world. A former French colony populated largely by descendants of African slaves, Haiti gained its independence in 1804 but remained in crushing debt to France and other nations for over a century.
In the 20th century, Haiti endured rule by a new foreign power, the United States. Following years of political instability in the island nation, US Marines occupied Haiti in 1915. US forces would not leave Haiti until 1934. During the occupation, the United States imposed political repression, forced labor, and racial segregation. Roughly 15,000 Haitians died in rebellions against US rule.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, The Duvalier family ruled Haiti, whose dictatorial rule was marked by corruption and further violent repression. Since the dictatorship’s fall, political instability and foreign interventions have continued to plague Haiti.
Beyond political oppression, Haiti has also suffered from natural disasters. Hurricanes, such as 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, and other extreme weather events have struck the country frequently (and will likely become only more frequent because of climate change). These weather events’ effects are aggravated by the practice, dating back to colonial times, of deforestation. The lack of trees means that storms and flooding take more of a toll on farmland. Earthquakes are also a danger: a 2010 earthquake killed more than 220,000, displaced millions, and devastated the economy. Another quake in 2021 was less severe but still quite damaging.
The Current Crisis
Haiti held its last national election in 2016. Because the election has highly contested, the apparent winner of the presidential election, Jovenel Moïse, did not take office until 2017. As president, Moïse blocked elections to the country’s legislature so that as legislators’ terms expired, their positions went unfilled. Moïse’s rule inspired major protests, and opposition to the president reached a climax with Moïse’s assassination in July 2021. Responsibility for the assassination remains unclear.
The former prime minister, Ariel Henry, has served as acting present for almost two years. In the absence of new elections, however, Henry’s legal legitimacy is unclear. With the terms of Haiti’s 10 remaining legislators having expired this January, the country no longer has a functioning legislature. As Patrice Dumont, one of the departing legislators, commented, “It's a collapse.”
While Haiti’s government is in disarray, other forces in the country are asserting themselves. Roughly 200 criminal organizations are active in the country, including the capital of Port-au-Prince. According to a 2022 United Nations estimate, 60 percent of the capital, home to over 1 million people, has been taken over by gangs. Gangs, which often operate in loose alliances, engage in activities such as drug trafficking and extortion and also control roads and many services in Port-au-Prince, making money from water and electricity distribution, for example.
Gang turf wars in Haiti have killed hundreds and displaced thousands. Sexual violence is commonly used by gangs as a tactic in their rivalries and struggles for influence. Women, men, and children have all been targeted by such violence.
Haitian authorities currently lack a clear means of restoring civil order. The Haitian army numbers only 500 soldiers. The police number a modest 9,000 and are underpaid, underequipped, and undermined by corruption and gang infiltration. The government’s weakness was demonstrated in the summer of 2022 when gangs ransacked Port-au-Prince’s two main courthouses.
The present crisis has disrupted the healthcare system and caused hospitals to close. Almost 5 million Haitians currently face acute hunger. The country is also struggling to contain a cholera outbreak.
Good options for addressing Haiti’s crisis seem limited. Acting President Henry, as well as UN officials, have called for an international intervention to restore order. Other Haitians are far less enthusiastic about such a policy. Such skepticism is understandable given past interventions, including a UN peacekeeping mission from 2004 to 2017 that clearly did not provide long-term stability and caused its own share of harm.
Nevertheless, some modest but significant steps to help Haiti could be attempted:
Negotiations. Talks among different factions within Haiti could aim to establish arrangements for the regular provision of public services and distribution of humanitarian aid. Such talks could involve Acting President Henry and other Haitian officials and opposition groups such as the Montana Accord, a coalition of political parties and civil society organizations. The negotiations would also probably have to involve representatives of the various gangs in Haiti. Talking to the gangs and perhaps offering them some financial incentive to allow services and aid to reach people in need might be a bitter necessity. (Government negotiations with gangs may have resolved a 2022 crisis over control of the country’s main fuel terminal.) Beyond allowing the provision of services, negotiations might aim, in the longer term, to arrange new national elections. Despite their differences, both Henry and the opposition may agree to organize elections. Negotiations among different Haitian factions could be facilitated by international actors such as other Caribbean or Latin American nations.
Weapons Limits. Helping Haitians might require working with criminal gangs, but other countries can still act to undermine the gangs by denying them further weapons. Efforts to stop the flow of small arms or other weapons to Haiti may somewhat limit the gangs’ power. Freezing the assets of those associated with gangs may also be useful.
Aid. Haiti needs humanitarian aid, as well as longer-term aid to develop its farming and foster more jobs. The United States, as the wealthiest nation in the region, should lead the way here.
A Haven for Refugees. Haitians fleeing violence and extreme poverty should be granted a haven in other countries. Again, the United States can play a valuable role here. The Biden administration currently provides Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to roughly 264,000 Haitians, allowing them to stay in the United States and giving them access to work permits. This TPS has been extended through August 2024. The TPS should be extended further, as necessary, and may need to be extended indefinitely. The Biden administration should also expand the quota of Haitians allowed to migrate to the United States under the recently established parole program. The administration should also relax the program’s requirements to make access to parole easier: for example, Haitians cannot always obtain the required documentation given that their government is not fully functional. Other pathways to access to the United States, such as exemptions from immigration restrictions imposed during the pandemic, should also be expanded for Haitians.
American citizens should contact President Biden by phone and email and their representatives in the House and Senate to urge them to provide extensive humanitarian and economic aid to Haiti, secure extended TPS for Haitian refugees, and expand Haitians’ ability to migrate to the United States under the parole program.
The Haitian people have suffered far too long. They deserve our help.