Haiti crisis looms large as Biden visits Canada’s Trudeau
With US and Canada promoting different approaches to worsening crisis in Haiti, experts say question is ‘what’s next?’
Montreal, Canada – For many months, daily life in Haiti’s capital has been marked by widespread violence and deepening political instability since powerful armed gangs seized control of the streets of Port-au-Prince.
The still-unfolding crisis is expected to figure prominently in discussions this week between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden, who will be making his first official trip to Canada since taking office in early 2021.
Washington has been pushing Ottawa to lead a multinational armed force in Haiti, and Biden is expected to seek an answer from Trudeau on whether Ottawa intends to take up the mission during his visit to the Canadian capital on Thursday and Friday.
But experts say Canada is not ready to lead such a deployment, instead supporting what it calls a “Haitian-led solution” to the country’s political crisis while also advancing a sanctions regime and increased assistance to the Haitian National Police.
Canada is “not going to get pushed – even by a very strong, powerful neighbour like the US – into doing something it doesn’t want to do here”, said Stephen Baranyi, a professor of international development at the University of Ottawa and an expert on Haiti.
He said Ottawa’s strategy is based on an assessment that Trudeau and other officials have stated publicly, “that past interventions have failed, that a new approach is needed and at the centre of that has to be a respect for and support for this idea of Haitian-led solutions”.
“That’s been a sensible position, but we have to acknowledge that the dilemmas arising from that approach are becoming sharper and sharper,” especially as the security situation continues to deteriorate in Port-au-Prince, Baranyi told Al Jazeera.
“The political process is taking a long time, and so many people are asking, ‘Well, until when can Haitians wait?'” he said.
‘Specialised armed force’
Haiti’s interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, asked the international community in October to help deploy a “specialised armed force” to push back gangs and restore order in the country of 11 million people.
At the time, a powerful gang coalition had maintained a weeks-long blockade on the main petrol terminal in Port-au-Prince, causing water and electricity shortages, forcing the closure of health facilities and severely disrupting movement in the city.
Henry’s request drew support from the US as well as the United Nations, but it also set off angry protests. Some Haitians called for the resignation of the prime minister, who has faced a crisis of legitimacy since he took up his post after the July 2021 killing of President Jovenel Moise.
Haitian civil society leaders also rejected the idea, warning that a history of foreign interventions and occupations, including by the US, has shown such deployments bring “more problems than solutions”. Instead, they called for outside forces to stem the flow of weapons into Haiti and bolster its police force.
While the US has touted the need for an international force in Haiti, it has shown no desire to lead it. After the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, another intervention “simply has political implications and carries baggage, if you will, for the White House”, said Georges Fauriol, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, DC.
For Canada, “there is a sort of legitimate concern that this is potentially an open-ended kind of operation,” Fauriol told Al Jazeera. He noted that Haiti is not only grappling with the surge in gang violence but also faces high unemployment, internal displacement and a health crisis.
So while “the Haitian-led solution concept is a good one”, he said, Haitians have faced a challenge in generating a consensus.
Indeed, Haiti, which is largely without any functioning government institutions, is juggling competing visions for how to solve the political deadlock. One is backed by Henry and the other by prominent opposition figures and civil society groups.
Fauriol said one way to help bridge the gap in Haiti might be for Canada and the US to agree to appoint “a trusted go-between that would represent international views without pressing on the Haitians themselves but at least would encourage them towards a workable plan”.
“Simply kicking the can down the road isn’t going to help,” he said.
Sanctions, other measures
In Canada, as questions swirl around the prospect of sending an armed force to Haiti ahead of Biden’s arrival, Trudeau and his ministers have repeatedly reinforced their approach to the crisis.
“Outside intervention as we’ve done in the past hasn’t worked to create long-term stability for Haiti,” the prime minister told reporters in mid-March as he stressed the need to bolster the Haitian police and other national institutions.
In past months, Ottawa has delivered security equipment to the police force, imposed sanctions against more than a dozen Haitian political figures and other “elites” accused of being linked to gangs and deployed a military aircraft in the skies above Haiti to provide aerial surveillance and intelligence information.
The Canadian government also provided $100m Canadian ($73m) in aid to Haiti last year and has contributed $12.3m Canadian ($9m) so far in 2023, said Charlotte MacLeod, a spokesperson for Canada’s foreign affairs department.
Asked if Ottawa would lead a multinational armed force, MacLeod told Al Jazeera in an email: “At all times, solutions must be made by and for Haitians. Canada is leading international efforts to support Haiti, the Haitian people, and a Haitian-led solution to the crisis.”
Canada’s top general also has cast doubt on the Canadian military’s ability to lead a mission to Haiti. “My concern is just our capacity,” Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre said in a recent interview with the Reuters news agency. “It would be challenging.”
According to Fauriol, Biden’s talks with Trudeau this week are “critical” given the deteriorating security situation in Haiti. “If there isn’t some sort of a breakthrough at the Ottawa meeting, when you look at the calendar, you’re not quite sure exactly what happens next,” he said.
Baranyi said he believes a major breakthrough is unlikely but that each side would try to get the other to move closer to its respective goals. That means “the Americans will try to get Canada to move faster in planning for a possible multinational force” while “Canada will try to get Washington to broaden its sanctions.”
A bridge between the two positions, Baranyi said, would be to back Haitian dialogue that could lead to limited international intervention – “mostly policing, time-bound [with] clear rules of engagement” – as well as a political transition agreement that could lay a path towards elections.
“Without a political agreement inside Haiti [that is] fairly broadly based, … an international intervention will not have domestic legitimacy,” the professor said. “It also might not have domestic legitimacy in countries like Canada.”