By Garry Pierre-Pierre
In 1994, Bill Clinton staked his administration’s foreign policy on restoring Jean Bertrand Aristide to power after a military coup ousted the Haitian president. It was a risky move because Clinton’s foreign policy bona fide was negligible, to say the least. His previous job as governor of Arkansas provided him little opportunity to wade into foreign policy.
Clinton was determined to bring Aristide back to power so that Haiti could return to the ranks of “democratic” states in our hemisphere, leaving Cuba as the only country without a democratically elected nation. After years of failed diplomatic efforts with the military junta led by Gen. Raoul Cedras, Aristide did return to Haiti — with 20,000 U.S. soldiers leading the way.
Though controversial at the time, the decision to invade Haiti yet again had much support in Haiti. Even those who vehemently opposed Aristide’s short but polarizing rule backed the invasion because the country was paralyzed, and people wanted a sense of normalcy back.
One year later, facing reelection and blistering criticism from Republicans, Clinton “cut and run,” as his successor George Bush put it, leaving the mission unfinished. That decision was just the latest in a series of missteps and abandonment by the U.S. government amid a crisis. Some, self-inflicted by the Haitians. Others, perpetrated by bad international policies forced on the perpetually political and socially challenged Caribbean nation.
It doesn’t matter whether the disaster is natural or manmade. Ultimately, Haiti is left on its own to deal with the aftermath.
This summer, Haiti has had twin crises encompassing the natural and the manmade in one fell swoop. In July, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by unknown assailants. In August, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked the southern region, causing at least 2,200 deaths and damage that is still being evaluated.
The U.S. and other nations swooped in and provided materials and medicine to rescue the injured. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We know the hardest part of a disaster is the recovery and readiness period, where officials assess what went wrong and determine how to mitigate future disasters.
Watching the U.S. response to the earthquake is instructive because officials have learned from the lessons from 2010. Back then, they threw a gaudy amount of money to Haiti that ultimately landed in the wrong hands and did not accomplish much.
In 2010, for once, the Haitian government was not the culprit of the mismanagement or misuse of the money. That was the purview of foreign non-profit organizations, with the Red Cross serving as the poster child for what went wrong. An organization steeped in the rescue part of emergency work, it found itself awash in millions of dollars to rebuild the entire do. It did not go well.
Why Biden seem better positioned to deal with Haiti
Two weeks ago, I interviewed Juan Sebastian Gonzalez, Special Assistant to President Biden and the National Security Council Director for the Western Hemisphere, about the administration’s policy and its plans to deal with the current crises facing Haiti.
Gonzalez is a former Peace Corps volunteer like yours truly. I’ve found many of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers in the upper ranks of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other federal agencies.
I’m bringing this up because the essence of the Peace Corps is about people diplomacy and understanding a country’s culture while working there. It is about collaborating, not imposing solutions. Our conversation had that tenor.
To me, if Biden listens to aides like Gonzalez and others like him in his administration, the president has an opportunity to get Haiti right this time around. Gonzalez made it clear that the administration will no longer play the game of throwing its hat behind one candidate. He understands that when Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, imposed Michel Martelly on the Haitian people, that was one of the worst recent decisions the U.S. made regarding Haiti. Martelly’s inability to govern led to a degradation of civil society and created an untenable situation that culminated in the assassination on Jul. 7.
Gonzalez told me in no uncertain terms that the administration will not support individual candidates. Rather, he said, Washington will work with civil society and the political sector writ large to come up with a Haitian solution.
Washington meddling in Haitian politics has led to the people losing their appetite for democracy. They watch repeatedly as their chosen candidates are deposed, only to have unsavory characters like Martelly imposed on them as president, despite him never receiving the majority of the Haitian vote. Martelly ascended to the presidency by making a deal with Cheryl Mills, Counselor and Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Clinton. He was sworn in, then presided over four years of inept governance.
On the earthquake, Gonzalez asked the right question during our conversation.
“What is the U.S. objective,” Gonzalez said. “Is the U.S. objective disaster response? Is it preventing migration? Is it or is it actually building resilience? The conclusion that we’ve come to here is that at the end of the day, we have to support Haitian solutions to Haitian challenges, whether its security, political, and others — as opposed to imposing our, you know, [the] international community’s view.”
It looks like Biden, a president with decades of foreign policy chops under his belt, is surrounded by advisors who can steer his Haiti policy toward one that not only serves American interests, but the interests of the Haitian people.
Unlike Bill Clinton, Biden has a capable cadre of Haitian Americans who understand both interests because they are inextricably tied to both countries. Let’s hope that he can bring them into the fold in a meaningful role.