Why the US should tread carefully as it weighs supporting armed intervention in Haiti again

Haiti appears to be on the precipice of foreign intervention yet again.

Gangs have been blockading the country’s biggest fuel terminal since mid-September 2022, strangling Haiti’s food and energy supplies. The World Food Program says that Haiti’s need for humanitarian aid is urgent.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry began in early October to call for foreign troops to come help it gain the upper hand against the gangs. The first international response has been a U.N. resolution placing sanctions on the primary gang leader, former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier.

More direct involvement may be on the horizon. The Biden administration has indicated that the U.S. and Mexico plan to submit another proposal for the U.N. Security Council’s consideration that would authorize a “non-UN international security assistance mission” to quell violence and facilitate the distribution of aid.

Conditions in Haiti today are alarming, but as a scholar of 20th-century Haitian history, I am concerned that foreign intervention runs the risk of making a bad situation worse – as has happened repeatedly there for more than 100 years. I believe any response should carefully consider how past aid and military interventions have shaped the dire situation Haitians face today.

US occupation

Foreign influences have long exerted power over Haitian internal affairs.

Initially enslaved in a brutal French sugar colony, Haitians won their freedom and independence in 1804 after 13 years of war and revolution.

But a state of free Black people was viewed suspiciously by the surrounding slave-holding empires in North and South America. There were many efforts to weaken, control or contain the young country.

The most expansive of these efforts was the U.S. occupation of Haiti.

In 1915, the U.S. occupied Haiti and ruled it as a client state for 19 years. The pretext for the invasion was to calm political turmoil in Haiti, but scholarship has shown how the U.S. was primarily interested in protecting and expanding its economic interests in the region.

Many white Americans justified the occupation because of their paternalistic ideas about Black people. And many U.S. Marines in Haiti shared a Jim Crow mentality about race, which shaped governing styles and exacerbated tensions between light-skinned and dark-skinned Haitians.

The U.S. military claimed to be a modernizing force in Haiti, but the changes it made weakened the country’s institutions. It undermined Haitian political autonomy by establishing a puppet government that rubber-stamped legislation drafted by U.S. officials.

The U.S. invested heavily in the capital city of Port-au-Prince while letting the rest of the country fall into decline. When U.S. troops departed in 1934, power had been concentrated in the central government, leaving Haiti’s provinces weak and the country with few counterweights to executive authority.