Already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is on the brink of social collapse. At least 40% of the country’s 11.5 million people are suffering from acute hunger. Gang warfare and rolling antigovernment protests have blocked the distribution of food, fuel and water. A cholera outbreak has killed dozens and sickened many more. Surging murders, kidnappings and rapes have caused tens of thousands to attempt to flee, compounding the region’s migration crisis.
At the request of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, the U.S. and its regional partners have been exploring a possible armed intervention to restore stability and deliver humanitarian aid. They should think twice. Haiti’s rich neighbors must do more to help, but sending foreign troops into such a chaotic environment risks an even greater disaster.
Haiti has long suffered from lawlessness, drug trafficking and corruption, in addition to a string of devastating natural disasters. Those chronic sources of instability have been exacerbated by a political crisis sparked by the assassination last July of then-president Jovenel Moise. At least 40 suspects have been arrested in connection with the crime, but the investigation has failed to resolve whether government officials were involved. (Despite allegations that Henry was in contact with a suspect in the case, he has denied any involvement.)
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Meanwhile, Henry has refused to set a timetable for new elections, adding to public anger over food shortages and rising gas prices and further weakening the government’s authority. It’s estimated that gangs control more than half of the country, including its main ports.
Last month, the U.S. co-drafted a resolution seeking United Nations authorization for an international security mission to Haiti. In hopes of limiting the involvement of U.S. troops, President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed that a “partner country” lead the effort. Possible candidates include Mexico and Canada.
The U.S. and its partners have an interest in preventing Haiti’s collapse. But under the current conditions, any foreign military intervention would likely do more harm than good. There’s little chance the operation would remain limited and “carefully scoped,” as the U.S. intends. A previous U.N. peacekeeping mission to Haiti lasted 13 years and was ridden with scandals.
Attempts to secure ports, roads and warehouses to enable the flow of humanitarian relief will inevitably produce clashes between foreign troops and heavily armed local gangs. And because the international force would be acting on behalf of a government that lacks popular legitimacy, its ability to earn the trust and cooperation of the Haitian people would be compromised from the start.
Better to focus on building the capacity of Haitians themselves. The State Department has pledged $48 million in assistance this year to Haiti’s 14,000-person national police force, which is a good start. The U.S. should expand similar programs that have shown promise, such as a joint effort with France to train anti-gang SWAT teams, and press partner governments to increase contributions to a U.N. fund focused on bolstering Haitian law-enforcement capabilities. More humanitarian relief should be provided directly to government agencies with a proven record of distributing funds effectively.
In response to Henry’s request for an international security mission, meanwhile, The Biden administration should rule out putting U.S. boots on the ground, but offer to deploy additional maritime assets to Haiti’s ports to curb drug and arms smuggling. In return, Henry should commit to hold new elections, bring opposition groups into the government and work with business leaders, labor unions and other civil-society groups to develop plans for an orderly democratic transition.
The world can’t ignore the suffering of the Haitian people — but it’s imperative that outsiders avoid making a bad situation worse. Sustained diplomatic engagement and security assistance, not military intervention, holds the best chance for success.