In November 1989, Alvin P. Adams arrived in Haiti as the country was struggling with its nascent democracy. A coup led by Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril had the country on edge. Upon his arrival in Port-au-Prince, Adams gave an impassioned speech during which he quoted a Haitian proverb. “A loaded donkey does not stand still,” he said. At the time, many Haitians interpreted the phrase as meaning the U.S. was serious and that elections would go forward.
From then on, Adams would be affectionately known as “Bourik Chaje”, or loaded donkey. Two years later, as he was leaving Haiti, he said, “Let’s hope democracy will get another chance. It can’t be dead.”
I had the opportunity to meet Adams when he was head of the United Nations Association of the U.S. At the time, I was considering writing a biography of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a project that never got off the ground. Adams was charming, and knowledgeable about Haiti’s politics and history.
If past is prologue, it doesn’t augur well for Haiti’s democracy. It may take another generation or two before the country can find some sort of stability. Since February 1986, when the late dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled to exile in France, Haiti has struggled to find its democratic footing. We don’t seem to be making much progress. If anything, we’ve regressed.
Recently, Adams came to mind when I heard about Kenneth H. Merten, another ambassador and chargé d’affaires to Haiti sent to help stabilize democracy in Haiti yet again. President Joe Biden’s choice of Merten for a second tour in Haiti was not without controversy. But when he too left Haiti last week, his message was just as discouraging as Adams’ parting words.
“We have already explained our limitations at the level of the American government to give arms and ammunition to Haiti,” Merten told Le Nouvelliste in an interview before his departure. “But the Haitian state can buy them itself by turning to friendly countries to obtain these lethal equipment.”
Merten was explaining that cooperation with the Haitian National Police can increase to $30 million over the financial year. In May, he said, personnel recruited by the USA will be on site to help with training and vetting the PNH.
Merten’s second tour of duty in Haiti was quite unremarkable. He kept a low profile and spent less than a year in the job. Haiti assignments are not career makers at the State Department.
As of this writing, the U.S. doesn’t have an ambassador or chargé d’affaires on the ground in Haiti at this critical junction. Not too many candidates are raising their hands to tackle one of the thorniest countries in this hemisphere.
Watching democracy backslide
Brian A. Nichols, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and the State Department have been calling for a Haitian solution to the current problem. That is akin to a parent doing everything for their children all their lives, then asking them to care for themselves once the parent realizes that, at 40 years, this is no child.
Haitians are so accustomed to U.S. meddling in their affairs that Haitian leaders don’t know what to do without guidance from Washington. This relationship is complicated because it’s a lose/lose situation. When Haitian leaders pilfer from the country’s coffers, Washington looks the other way as long as they don’t impede U.S. interests. They are allowed to operate with near impunity.
This conflicting message – dependence and complicity – has been one of the many culprits stifling Haiti’s awkward democratic experiment. So where do we go from here? Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. It takes hard work, trust, patience and competence. These virtues have been in short supply in Haiti for a long time and the current cadre of leaders have not shown they have the capacity to take the country where it needs to go.
Since 1989, Haiti’s democracy has backslid to the point where gangs are now the de facto rulers that have paralyzed the country. Leaders are stuck and have been begging for the U.S. help to tackle the problem, created by a deeply unequal society. Foreigners can’t fix this structural issue. This is not resolved by giving the cops more guns. Part of solving the gang situation involves providing the people an ability to fish.
Nichols has said publicly that combating the gang problem and paving the way for elections are his priorities. However, there has been little traction on both efforts.
Nichols has been steadfast in his support for interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, convinced that the physician turned politician is the best person to steer the democratic ship into port by holding elections. But the seminal question is when. Henry has not laid out a clear path to elections. At this juncture, holding the vote is providing a broad definition of elections and democracy.
No reckoning, no future for Haiti
The reality is that no serious elections can be held until the scourge of the gangs is dealt with. The Haitian National Police has shown little signs that it is up to the task. The force is demoralized, politicized and ostracized. Even if the police were able to regain control of the situation, leaders have not unveiled a plan to deal with the lack of education and job opportunities that have made young men so vulnerable to joining gangs.
I often harken back to the late 1980s and 1990s because those were Haiti’s glory days, to me. There was a renewed revolutionary spirit among the population. There was a democratic movement, a feminist movement and a labor movement brewing all at once.
There was optimism.
By the early 2000s, the decline had begun, and we found ourselves wondering what went wrong and how to get back on the right track. But unlike 1989, we’re going to need more than a bourik chaje to get the job done. We need a reckoning.
A reckoning that addresses the gap between Haiti’s haves and have-nots. We need to explore the roots of the internal conditions that turned innocent young men into murderous gangs.