Haiti’s Crucial Missing Piece

By Ambassador Patrick Duddy

Patrick Duddy, a retired U.S. diplomat, served as the U.S Ambassador to Venezuela as well as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere.  He is now a Senior Advisor for Global Affairs at Duke University.

OPINION — For much of the first two years of the Biden administration, U.S. interest in the Western Hemisphere understandably took a back seat to other crises.  The COVID pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s increasingly broad-based challenge to the U.S. in Asia and elsewhere, all crowded out a consistent focus on the Western Hemisphere.  Key diplomatic positions were left vacant and Washington’s messaging to the region was inconsistent.   The Biden administration is only now, after two years, fleshing out its diplomatic team for the region. This is a positive development, even if a belated one.  

On January 3, 2023, the administration nominated a veteran, career diplomat, Jean Manes, to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Colombia. Ambassador Manes is an outstanding choice. She has more than twenty years of experience including three years as ambassador in El Salvador.  For the last twenty years, Colombia has been the United States’ closest ally in South America but the country recently elected a left-leaning former guerilla as president.  So, it is important that the Biden administration have an experienced, senior envoy in place to try to maintain the deep, multifaceted partnership that the last four U.S. administrations have cultivated.  

In December 2022, the Senate finally confirmed the nominees for Brazil, El Salvador, Suriname, Uruguay and the Organization of American States.  All are well-qualified and experienced.   

Somewhat earlier, the Senate confirmed strong ambassadors to Chile, Panama, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago. Following last spring’s fractious hemispheric summit in Los Angeles, the White House named former Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd as a special envoy for the Americas.  Dodd speaks Spanish and served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.  He is well-known and respected in the region. 

These new appointees, along with the professionals already installed at the State and Defense Departments, will be assuming responsibility for diplomatic portfolios in a region experiencing significant turmoil.  It is also a region that is vital to U.S. national interests.

Recent developments convey some idea of the challenges ahead.  The rioting in Brazil, spiking violence in Peru and Mexico, surging cocaine production in the Andes, fentanyl smuggling through Mexico, and the spiking flow of undocumented migrants over our southern border are all illustrative.  Rampant criminal violence in Central America is fueling an embrace of authoritarian policies by some elected governments frustrated by their inability to control or even compete with the money and weaponry of the criminal organizations.  U.S. Venezuela policy appears to have completely unraveled.  This short list is by no means exhaustive.   

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As encouraging as these recent appointments are, and as daunting as the challenges many of them face, there are still serious gaps in the Caribbean.  Nassau, for instance, has not had a Senate confirmed U.S. ambassador for eleven years.  Much more alarming and urgent is the fact there is no U.S. ambassador in either Haiti or the Dominican Republic and the crisis in Haiti may be the most disheartening and difficult to address in the region. 

Over the last two years, Haiti has experienced a presidential assassination, a major earthquake and been hit by an especially destructive hurricane.  Most of the country, over 60%, is now controlled by criminal gangs.  Cholera has once again broken out.  Life expectancy and child mortality rates, already the lowest in the Caribbean before the current confluence of disasters, are almost certainly falling as food and medicine are in acute short supply.  Access to international relief supplies is regularly constrained by threats from gangs.  Kidnapping for ransom is endemic.  The whole situation is made worse by the fact that the Dominican Republic has been deporting some undocumented Haitians, and Dominican President Abinader insists they will not permit the establishment of large refugee settlements in his country.

The Haitian government, such as it is, has largely lost control in most of the interior and is struggling even in the capital.

In October of 2022, the Haitian prime minister and eighteen members of his government requested of the United Nations (UN), the immediate deployment of an international force to restore order. The U.S. and Mexico jointly made clear to the UN security council that they supported the idea of some sort of security mission.  

The Secretary General reportedly agrees that some sort of relief force is necessary, but the Security Council has not yet signaled its concurrence.  In October, the United Nations did unanimously approve sanctions on those responsible for the chaos and violence and the U.S. has greatly increased support to the Haitian national police. So far, however, countries are not lining up to participate in the mission. 

Many countries in the Western Hemisphere are traditionally dubious about foreign intervention but are nevertheless concerned that the desperate situation in Haiti can only be effectively addressed by some sort of relief force. The problem is much of the Haitian public, desperate as current circumstances may be, is deeply skeptical of international interference in Haiti’s internal affairs. Haitians vividly recall the many problems associated with the last major intervention when the United Nations deployed a 9,000-person peacekeeping force after former President Aristide fell the second time.

The United States is already supplying substantial aid, but a sustainable improvement in the current circumstances will not be achieved until the rule of law is reestablished. Some insist that Haiti should be left to resolve its own internal problems, but Haiti is now essentially a failed state and no longer has the institutional capacity to address the multiplicity of challenges it faces. Conditions on the ground are quickly metastasizing into a humanitarian catastrophe.

By definition, failed states cannot contain their problems.  Beyond the privations suffered by the people in a collapsing state, neighboring countries need to understand that potentially vast numbers of suffering citizens will seek to escape.  International criminal organizations will seek to take advantage of the withering of the state’s capacity to police the national territory.  Haitians with resources will get their money out of the country and those Haitians or foreigners who might otherwise invest, will look elsewhere.  

For the United States, for Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors, for the rest of Latin America, the situation in Haiti should be intolerable.  The question is what can be done.

If past is prologue, relatively generous foreign assistance can almost certainly be sustained, at least temporarily.  Money, food and medical supplies are already flowing to Haiti, but without the institutional infrastructure to manage the assistance, restore the rule of law and hold plausibly free and fair elections, the situation will not improve.

Regrettably, this probably means that concerned nations must somehow organize a relief force that will be both powerful enough to deal with armed criminal organizations and legitimate enough not to immediately generate popular resistance. 

The Biden Administration and Mexico are to be commended for endorsing the idea of such a force, but they need to press the case harder to the U.N. security council. The U.S. needs to make clear that it is prepared to underwrite a significant portion of an ambitious rescue. The Caricom nations also need to signal their support and other countries with the capacity to help should be enlisted to supply men, material and, to the extent possible, money. Canada may well be persuaded and willing to lead a relief force and would likely not generate the resistance internally or regionally that the United States would.  Canada’s participation alone, however, would not be enough.

The failure of recent U.S. led efforts to compel change in other circumstances and regions should not dissuade the United States from taking a leading role on Haiti.  Indeed, an inadequate response to the Haitian crisis would be a serious abdication of leadership in a region increasingly inclined to go its own way with or without us.  One good way to signal that we are ready to get serious would be to send solid, experienced ambassadors to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

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