When Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated last month, the sudden power vacuum and political uncertainty created were just the latest in a long line of political and humanitarian crises to have hit the island nation. While Haitians went about figuring out how to move forward, the shadow of possible foreign intervention loomed large. For much of its history, Haiti has seen powerful nations and international bodies intervene in its internal affairs, both responding to and often exacerbating crises in the process.
So far, the Biden administration, alongside other Western nations and several international bodies, have responded with actions to promote political stability within Haiti while also acknowledging the country’s sovereignty. These outside forces must continue to strike this delicate and difficult balance – resisting the urge to intervene more intrusively in Haiti’s political rebuilding – if they truly intend to assist the Haitian people as they forge their own future.
Throughout its history, Haiti has been plagued by foreign interventions that have destabilised the country. Such interference began shortly after the Haitian Revolution of 1804 when former colonial power France returned to demand an “indemnity” of 150 million francs – the equivalent of 17 billion euros today. This act of extortion plunged the country into debt and impeded social and economic development in the country, contributing to much of the instability that Haiti as seen throughout its history.
In 1915, after the assassination of a United States-friendly Haitian president, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, US marines began a 20-year occupation of the country, in which the occupying force propped up American business interests while committing various human rights abuses.
The US staged a temporary invasion to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after a 1994 coup and later returned after Aristide was overthrown a second time in 2004; the latter American incursion transitioned to a United Nations peacekeeping mission that became notorious for abuse and mismanagement.
And even though the ultimate masterminds behind Moise’s assassination have yet to be identified, the murder has already proven to be an international affair; according to police, it was conducted by Colombian mercenaries with the aid or support of several American residents.
With this long track record, Haitians understandably have little faith in outside interventions doing anything other than eroding their sovereignty and exacerbating the hardships facing the nation. Thus, when Haiti’s Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph called for US troops to come and help stabilise the country after Moise’s death, many Haitians opposed the idea, and Biden showed welcome restraint in declining the request. Nevertheless, the Biden administration did controversially weigh in concerning an emerging power struggle between Joseph and neurosurgeon Ariel Henry, who had been set to take over as prime minister on the day that Moise was killed. After a US-led group of international power brokers held meetings with both politicians and with other Haitian political actors, the Americans publicly made known their preference for Henry assuming the lead role. Joseph quickly handed over power to Henry, who in turn appointed Joseph as Haiti’s Foreign Minister. Henry has pledged to quickly hold elections for a new government.
Even without US troops on the ground in Haiti, many Haitian political figures and social activists see American involvement in the current crisis as yet another instance of outside meddling in local affairs. A third contender for power, Haitian Senate President Joseph Lambert, later revealed that he dropped his bid to lead after he was asked by US diplomats to step aside. And many civil society leaders favour a longer approach to rebuilding the country’s political system from the ground up rather than a quick election that they fear will be dominated by the same elites who have mismanaged the country.
But at this moment, it was simply unfeasible to leave the leadership of the country in doubt as it attempts a political reset. To find a more permanent political solution, it was first necessary to help establish a transitional political structure that was acceptable for the various claimants to power and within the spirit of the Haitian constitution. With the question of temporary leadership decided, American involvement in the political transition should now concentrate on creating a broad and inclusive process that favours not only elections but also true representation for Haitians and their interests.
This means pushing Haiti’s current leaders to include other political, community and civil society voices in designing and implementing the political transition, while providing technical or financial assistance as requested. It also means that Americans should mostly take a step back at this point and let the various peaceful political and societal forces within Haiti sort things out for themselves. The initial intervention to stabilise the political situation at the top was a useful short-term measure, but longer-term stability in Haiti depends on allowing Haitians to create an inclusive and sovereign political system.
The process may be messy – already, Haitian gangs have been stepping in to fill the space left by the dwindling state. It is possible that, should an acute humanitarian crisis arise, the US and other outside forces may be compelled to take more forceful measures to restore order and protect civilians. But any such intervention should be a last resort, and one done in coordination and dialogue with Haiti’s political leaders and civil society representatives rather than simply imposed from outside. Barring such circumstances, an imperfect but Haitian-driven process of political rebuilding is important for the stability and legitimacy of the Haitian political system going forward.
When asked about the US taking sides in the leadership dispute, a State Department spokesperson answered that the US was “taking the side of the Haitian people” and “supporting the inclusive dialogue that Haiti’s political actors are undertaking themselves”. While such an answer might sound like empty diplomatic rhetoric, the US can live up to these words by providing a supportive but distant hand to assist, not dictate, the process of political rebuilding.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.