If U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was hoping to return to Washington with a Canadian commitment to take the lead in Haiti, he went home disappointed.
Rather than offer to lead a military mission to battle the gangs that have seized about two-thirds of the Haitian capital, Canada has agreed to dispatch a fact-finding mission that will assess what Canada might do in the future.
It’s clear to all involved that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration — facing a difficult midterm election season with a cranky electorate that has soured on overseas wars — wants to pass the buck to a Canadian government that has no interest in embarking on such a perilous enterprise but doesn’t like giving Washington a flat refusal.
Which explains the “assessment team.”
The team’s mission, according to the announcement from Global Affairs, is “to consult with stakeholders on options to support Haitian people in resolving the humanitarian and security crises and how Canada can contribute to the international response.”
They’re the ones who put him there. So why don’t they come back and pick up their trash?– Former UN official Monique Clesca calls on Canada and the U.S. to nudge Ariel Henry from power
Its unstated mission is to buy time and fend off further U.S. pressure to wade into the Haitian quagmire.
The facts in Haiti are well known. It’s the solutions that nobody seems to have a handle on.
But events on the ground, and the reluctance of Ottawa and Washington to get more directly involved, may finally be forcing Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to adopt a position long favoured by the Haitian opposition — that Haiti’s current government is part of the problem.
It’s a position long resisted by Canada and the U.S., Haiti’s two primary donor nations, both of which have been accused of pulling the strings in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere for decades.
Hunger stalks the Haitian landscape
Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on July 7 last year, Haiti has fallen to its lowest point in living memory.
Hunger is beginning to kill. Dozens of inmates in Haitian prisons succumbed after prison authorities ran out of food. Acute malnutrition already threatened the lives of thousands of children, even before the gang blockades closed schools and markets.
As both Blinken and Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly have acknowledged, Haiti faces three interlocking crises: one humanitarian, one security-related and one political.
The humanitarian crisis is worsened by the security crisis. One example is the way cholera — which had finally been defeated in Haiti after a decade-long epidemic that took 10,000 lives — has surged back because the gang blockades are forcing people to drink contaminated water.
“Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs due to this insecurity,” said Tom Adamson. He’s a Canadian who operates a mattress factory in the Haitian capital, where he’s lived since 1988.
His factory has been shut down for weeks but he is one of the few employers who continues to pay his furloughed workers. “We’ve just made a decision that this is the way we want to do things,” he told CBC News.
The lack of jobs in Haiti means that most Haitians have to try to make it in the informal sector, which in Port-au-Prince often means working as “marchands” reselling goods and produce in the streets.
“But right now they’re unable to,” said Adamson. “They they don’t have goods to sell because the goods from the provinces are not coming into Port-au-Prince, and the goods that are imported from outside of Haiti are blocked in the port.”
The marchands are eating through what little stock they have just to keep their families alive, said Adamson.
The link between the security crisis and the humanitarian crisis is obvious to all. Intimately linked to both is Haiti’s political crisis — but those connections are far murkier.
The government, led by de facto prime minister Ariel Henry, lacks both democratic legitimacy and popular acceptance. That makes it difficult to distinguish between its attempts to restore order and its attempts to suppress legitimate protest and dissent.
Canadian officials have told CBC News they made it clear to the Henry government that the armoured vehicles Canada delivered to the Haitian National Police this month are to be used to break the blockades — not for crowd control.
“The purpose is to reinforce their capacity to finally get a grip on the the security situation and to deal with the problem of gangs dominating certain critical parts of Port-au-Prince,” Blinken said in Ottawa on Thursday.
So far, the vehicles have not been used for either purpose.
Politicians and gangsters in cahoots
There’s a reason why Haiti’s gangs have graduated from machetes to machine guns in recent years, while other sectors of Haitian society have stagnated or gone backwards: active collusion between gang leaders and members of Haiti’s ruling party and oligarchy.
“They’re proxies of the government,” said Monique Clesca, a former UN official and now a member of the Montana Group coalition of political parties and civil society organizations that has been negotiating with the Ariel Henry government for a transition to democracy.
“They’re proxies for Ariel Henry, just like they were proxies of Jovenel Moise, just like they were proxies of [former Haitian president] Michel Martelly. [The PHTK Party] has been in power for 11 years and the gangs have only gained in strength.”
Haiti’s ruling Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK or “Bald Head Party”) has used gangs to commit gruesome massacres in poor neighbourhoods that have opposed its rule.
“Government officials have sought to suppress anti-government organizing through bribery, and when that has failed, have enlisted gangs to carry out targeted attacks against anti-government strongholds active in the protests,” reported the International Human Rights Clinic of Harvard Law School. It explained how massacres in the districts of Bel-Air, La Saline and Cite Soleil showed collusion between the gangs, the Haitian National Police and the ruling party.
And although the government now appears to have lost control of the gangs it once sponsored, few Haitians believe it has lost its appetite to use them in the future.
“How is an intervention going to deal with a government that is working hand in hand with gangs, that is a criminal organization?” said Clesca.
Call for intervention ‘treasonous’
By requesting a foreign fighting force that neither Washington nor Ottawa seems willing to give, Ariel Henry has forced them to explore other options, and to confront the fact that his unelected government is itself an obstacle to a long-term solution in Haiti.
“The intervention is a short-term solution for something that is not a short-term issue, and the intervention is a response of an illegitimate government,” Clesca said.
“There is no way, no legitimacy, no acceptable scenario in which Ariel Henry could ask for a military intervention. And we believe that it is actually treasonous. It makes absolutely no sense to us that Anthony Blinken should be in Canada talking about an intervention in Haiti as if we were his backyard.
“Why is Antony Blinken talking to Canada and not talking to us? Why are Madame Joly and Mr. Trudeau talking to Antony Blinken rather than talking to us?”
Clesca said both Canada and the U.S. should concentrate their efforts on easing Henry out of power.
“What they should be doing is whispering in Ariel Henry’s ear to say, ‘Listen, we picked you and you were a loser. You have done nothing in the last 15 months, and we don’t want you anymore,'” she said.
“Because they’re the ones who put him there. So why don’t they come back and pick up their trash?”
Speaking alongside Blinken last week, Joly suggested that Canada is not interested in being part of a solution that merely serves to prop up Henry’s unelected government.
“It is also of equal importance to address the political crisis because there needs to be fair elections happening,” she said.
And Joly made it clear that Canada was not keen to play the role of Haiti’s saviour alone.
“We need to make sure that it is, yes, Canada and the U.S. collaborating with the Haitians, but also with many other countries,” she said. “At the end of the day, we need to make sure that there is strong legitimacy for this approach.”
So while many countries are talking about how to help Haiti, they all seem keen for someone else to take the lead. And not one government has offered a single soldier to do battle with the gangs.
Foreign powers, Haitian opposition converging
Despite all of the anger and mistrust between the Haitian opposition on the one hand and the U.S. and Canadian governments on the other, their messages actually seem to be increasingly in sync these days.
Both sides now agree that the political situation is unsustainable. Neither side is keen on military intervention.
The Haitian opposition recognizes that it will need foreign help to reverse the country’s slide into anarchy.
“Clearly we do have huge, humongous security issues,” said Clesca. “Just as we are in a constitutional crisis, we are in a judiciary crisis, we are in an executive crisis, we are in a police crisis. Yes, Haiti is in massive crisis mode.
“We have said we would need technical assistance, we need financial assistance, we would need equipment.”
That vision dovetails far more neatly with what the U.S. and Canada are willing to give than Ariel Henry’s request for Canadian soldiers and U.S. Marines to do his fighting for him.
“It is extremely important that we get this right, that we support the Haitian people in this difficult moment. But it’s important to do it in the right way,” Trudeau said Friday.
“Before we establish any sort of mission, we need to see a clear plan of action, a level of support by the Haitian people and the Haitian government and opposition parties and a consensus about how.”
Request may backfire
For Trudeau, an armed intervention would not only be fraught with physical danger for Canadian soldiers in Haiti — it could also lead to political problems at home. The New Democrats who now prop up his minority government would oppose it.
“The Haitian people are asking for Canada to not provide that military intervention,” NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson told CBC News. “At this point, what we’re asking for is that the people of Haiti lead in the democratic reform of their country.”
Given that fact-finding missions often find the facts that those who send them wish to hear, it seems likely that Canada’s team on the ground in Haiti will report back that it’s best to leave the actual fighting to Haitians — with Canadians strictly in a supporting role.
And Joly’s comments this week suggest there may be a renewed focus on negotiating a political transition.
Haitian police officers, bureaucrats and legislators all know that their salaries depend in large part on foreign donors — they don’t want to serve a leader who can’t secure foreign support. That’s why former Haitian prime minister Claude Joseph abandoned office as soon as the foreign embassies issued a two-paragraph statement supporting his rival Ariel Henry.
Today, it’s Ariel Henry who faces the growing impatience of his former backers. He may have hoped that his unpopular request for foreign intervention would save him. It may turn out to be his undoing.