‘They messed it up’: Biden’s backing for Haiti’s unpopular leader digs US into deeper policy hole

MIAMI (AP) — Then Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry filled the void left by the murder of the country’s president in 2021, he did this after protests from large parts of the population, but with the full support of the Biden administration.

Now, nearly three years later, Henry’s grip on power hangs in the balance, and Washington faces even worse choices as it struggles to prevent the country from falling into anarchy.

“They have screwed up deeply,” James Foley, a retired career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said in an interview about the Biden administration’s support for Henry. “They rode this horse to their doom. It is the fruit of the choices we have made.”

The embattled prime minister left Haiti 10 days ago and has since crisscrossed the world – from South America to Africa, to New York and now Puerto Rico – remaining silent as he tries to negotiate a return home that looks increasingly unlikely.

The power vacuum has been exacerbated by the almost complete withdrawal of the police from key state institutions mass escape of hundreds of murderers, kidnappers and other violent offenders from the country’s two largest prisons over the weekend.

Haiti remained Paralyzed on Thursday after another night of attacks on police stations and other targets by armed groups vowing to force Henry’s resignation. The country’s acting prime minister, who is replacing Henry while he is abroad, extended a poorly enforced curfew through Sunday.

Stubborn U.S. support for Henry is largely responsible for the deteriorating situation, said Monique Clesca, a Haitian writer and member of the Montana Group, a coalition of civic, business and political leaders who came together in the wake of the crisis. Jovenel Moise ‘s assassination to promote a “Haitian-led solution” to the ongoing crisis.

The group’s main goal is to replace Henry with an oversight committee composed of non-political technocrats to restore order and pave the way for elections. But so far Henry, who has repeatedly promised to hold elections, has shown no willingness to hand over power.

While in Guyana last week for a meeting of Caribbean leaders, he again postponed Haiti’s first vote in a decade until mid-2025.

“He’s been a magician in terms of his incompetence and passivity,” Clesca said. “And through it all, the US has stuck with him. They have been his biggest factor.”

Whatever the case, Haiti’s always shaky governance has gotten much worse since Henry came to power.

Last year, More than 8,400 people are reported to have been killed, injured or kidnappedmore than double the number reported in 2022. The United Nations estimates that nearly half of Haiti’s 11 million residents are in need humanitarian help.

But even as Haiti has plunged deeper into chaos, the US has firmly backed Henry.

“He’s taking tough steps,” Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in October 2022, as Haitians took to the streets to protest the end of fuel subsidies. “These are actions we have wanted to see in Haiti for some time.”

When demonstrations resumed Last month, America’s top diplomat in Haiti demanded Henry’s resignation and again rushed to his defense.

“Ariel Henry will leave after the election,” said US Chargé d’Affaires Eric Stromayer told a local radio station.

But the Biden administration is not the only US administration that failed to get Haiti right.

The country has been in a downward spiral for decades as rampant poverty, corruption, lawlessness and natural disasters overwhelm any effort to rebuild the economy and democratic institutions. Factionalism among political elites, some with ties to the thriving criminal underworldhas also taken its toll, making it extremely difficult for the US to find partners it can trust.

“It’s an occupational hazard in Haiti,” Foley said. “It’s just too difficult, too complicated, too unsolvable.”

The Biden administration has defended its approach to Haiti. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre, without specifically endorsing Henry, said the U.S. long-term goal of stabilizing the country so Haitians can hold elections has not changed.

“That’s what we encourage,” Jean-Pierre, whose parents fled Haiti, said Wednesday. “But we’ve been having these conversations for a while.”

Nichols is expected to discuss Haiti when he delivers a speech later Thursday on U.S. policy in Latin America, hosted by the Council of America in Washington.

The US bears much of the blame for the country’s ills. After the French colonists were forcibly expelled in 1791, the US attempted to isolate the country diplomatically and strangle it economically. American leaders feared that a newly independent and free Haiti would lead to slave revolts at home. The US didn’t even do that officially recognize Haiti until 1862, during the Civil War that abolished American slavery.

Meanwhile, American troops have maintained an occasional presence on the island, dating back to the era of “gunboat diplomacy” in the early 20th century, when President Woodrow Wilson sent an expeditionary force that occupy the country for twenty years to collect unpaid debts to foreign powers.

The last intervention came in 2004, when George W. Bush’s administration diverted resources from the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq to calm the streets after a coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Foley said he sees many parallels between the Aristide crisis he had to deal with as ambassador and the crisis facing the Biden administration. Then, as now, Haitian political leaders have been unable to reach consensus and state authority has collapsed, even as the extent of the security and economic freefall is much deeper. Reimagining democracy will take years of painstaking work.

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon want to send troops to Haiti because a proxy war against Russia is taking place in Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict threatens to spread and the growing rivalry with China in the Indo-Pacific.

Politically, such a move, just months after the US presidential elections, would be seized upon by Biden’s likely opponent, Donald J. Trumpas yet another example of useless nation building by the US

But Foley said the situation is deteriorating so quickly that the Biden administration may have no choice. He insists on a limited troop presence, like the one handed over to UN peacekeepers in 2004 after just six months. Unlike the UN peacekeeping mission, which was hastily organized, Kenya has been working for months to organize a multinational force to fight the gangs.

“I fully understand the deep reluctance in Washington to have American troops on the ground,” Foley said. “But it may prove impossible to prevent a criminal takeover of the state unless a small US security contingent is sent in on a temporary basis to create the conditions under which international forces can take power.”

But whether another U.S. intervention will help stabilize desperate Haiti, or merely add more fuel to the raging fire, remains an open question. And given the recent US track record, many are doubtful.

“The US has been too present and too meddlesome for too long,” Clesca said. “It’s time for them to step back.”

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