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The Strategist
Vol 7, Iss 2   | 98-113


Stabilizing Haiti: A Guide for Policymakers

Proposals for a security-focused intervention in Haiti are logical given the rampant instability and endless escalation of gang violence. Many argue that Haiti’s foundational problems of economic underdevelopment, violence, and weak institutions cannot be addressed without improvements in basic security. Previous interventions — always on scales far larger than the currently proposed U.N.-approved mission — have not served Haitian civil society. Instead they have shored up corrupt regimes, and it is far from clear that they have contributed to any stability in Haiti. The country’s challenges are fatalistically ascribed to violence, and the narrative that nothing can be done to improve Haiti’s economic and social conditions until security improves both belies the origin of Haiti’s economic challenges and precludes discussion of economic engagement. Haiti is in chaos, and events are moving quickly. This heightens the need to consider both immediate and longer-term policy responses rather than another security intervention that will repeat the mistakes of the past.

On Oct. 7, 2022, Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry and 18 senior government officials requested the help of international troops to address the ongoing violence and a potential “major humanitarian crisis,” a request Henry made repeatedly afterwards.1 Seven months later, on May 9, 2023, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk repeated a call for a military intervention in Haiti. Specifically, he called for “a time-bound, specialized and human rights-compliant support force, with a comprehensive action plan to assist Haiti’s institutions.2” Since then, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for an intervention numerous times, and the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 2699 to authorize a Kenyan-led Multinational Security Support Mission in Haiti.3 Today, gangs directly control over 80 percent of Haiti’s capital, having completely displaced portions of the police force,4 and may soon control major airports and seaports — complicating any future efforts to deliver aid.

Henry’s resignation on March 12, 2024, in favor of a Presidential Transitional Council — supported by the Caribbean Community (also known as CARICOM) — further complicated a possible deployment when the Kenyan government announced that it would not deploy if Haiti had no functioning government.5 It also had no impact on the gang-led violence, as the planned council rejected the inclusion of any of the gang leaders or former rebel leader Guy Philippe.6

Henry’s repeated calls for an intervention are understandable. With control of the capital lost, the Haitian military have had to assist the police in repelling an attack on the international airport, and gangs have prevented Henry from returning from meetings abroad. The violence has also caused significant economic strife, bringing the country to the brink of collapse. What an intervention will not do is fundamentally change the economic and social prospects of the Haitian people, which will require a very different sort of international engagement.

From a humanitarian perspective, Turk’s and Guterres’ pleas are likewise understandable. However, the type of intervention that the U.N. Security Council has approved for Haiti will not resolve the current security situation or create a path to success for Haiti. There is the challenge of scale — in sharp contrast with the potential deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police officers and up to 4,000 additional unconfirmed forces, previous interventions often involved forces orders of magnitude larger. In 1994, Operation Restore Democracy involved more than 20,000 U.S. troops.7 The 2010 response to the Haitian earthquake involved more than 22,000 personnel.8 While the U.N. mission is often associated with the post-2010 earthquake response, it was established in 2004 in response to political violence, some of which manifested as gang violence, and comprised around 6,700 soldiers as part of a multinational coalition. Notwithstanding the nuance and complexity of the U.N. decision to intervene, it is worth examining the size of the force required as a litmus test for the feasibility of contemporary interventions. Even as recently as 2015, the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti was comprised of more than 5,000 military and police personnel.9 It hardly stands to reason, given the continued escalation in gang violence and the aggravating context of political instability, that a small force of police with limited knowledge of the environment and the language would achieve anything other than being swallowed up in the morass of Port-au-Prince’s violent chaos.

To give Haiti a chance at success, the proposed U.N mission and the policymakers behind it need to address the underlying causes of the spike in gang activity in Haiti. Any solution with a reasonable opportunity of success ought to address long-term macro-economic and social conditions on an equal footing with security. However, as long as the United States and the United Nations continue to accept the corrupt and ineffective Haitian government and economic elite by creating a security environment not linked to legitimacy and stability, developing human capital and strong institutions will remain goals prioritized well below those of personal enrichment and power consolidation.

As of March 2024, the United States had committed $300 million to support Kenya’s proposal to lead a police-focused intervention without any commitment of U.S. forces or assets.10 But neither history nor the current facts of the situation give any indication that an intervention is the right path forward. While some see improving the security situation11 as a prerequisite to restoring democracy, improving economic viability, and stemming a migrant crisis, this perspective is backwards. It neglects the economic history of Haiti and sets a course for repeating many past mistakes at the expense of true engagement with Haitian civil society. No intervention will improve the security situation until there is a viable economic future for Haiti. Haiti does not need just another military intervention. It needs an economic and civil-society intervention, only part of which involves security.

The Gangs of Haiti

Imagine the scene. Only blocks from security forces and in the middle of a main street, gang members set ablaze the body of a political opponent of the former president.12 Weeks later, members of the same gang stormed parliament to prevent a vote that would open investigations into politically motivated murders carried out by the gang. Near Cité Soleil — the dense commune in Port-au-Prince that is the epicenter of gangs and violence — a gang member named “Killer” showed off an abdominal wound sustained during a clash with security forces. He stated13 that he planned to fight against the current Haitian leadership. Outside of Jéremie, government-supporting gang members with the support of security forces murdered 27 people, wiping out four families,14 including the torture of children. In Port-au-Prince, large groups of locals tracked down and burned to death dozens of government-aligned gang members responsible for inflicting violence on the community. None of these events took place since the death of President Jovenel Moïse. In fact, some of the incidents date back to the 1960s.

Gangs and criminal groups have played a major role in grassroots politics in Haiti since at least the late 1950s, as both challengers and supporters of government.15 President François Duvalier and President Jean-Claude Duvalier used the Tontons Macoutes — a paramilitary force answering only to the Haitian president — as a counterbalance to the army and to target political dissidents. Over the next three decades, the Macoutes systematically assaulted, tortured, and murdered upwards of 60,00016 people with the tacit approval of the Duvaliers. Similarly, in support of his return to power in 2001 and after, Jean-Bertrand Aristide supported armed groups known as the Chimeres to serve as enforcers to intimidate or eliminate political opponents and to exert control over Cité Soleil17 and other poor neighborhoods. The politically inspired gang violence continued through the removal of Aristide and presidential elections in 2006. However, the U.N. Stabilization Mission’s operations targeting gang leadership resulted in the degradation of the gangs’ abilities to carry out organized activities. This meant that the gangs could only conduct limited turf expansion operations and did not have sufficient numbers to control the local populace.18 Following the 2010 earthquake that damaged the Port-au-Prince prison and allowed thousands of prisoners to escape, the gangs returned to their previous prominence as an enforcement arm of the political class.

The days of supporting a party to secure favor, money, and weapons faded, and the gangs began to use the weapons and resources provided by their benefactors to gain their own power and wealth.

Kidnappings for ransom dramatically increased immediately following the 2010 earthquake and then returned to normal levels. However, the gangs began to transition from machete-toting groups with relatively few firearms to well-armed groups able to confront security forces.19 The face of the Haitian gang had begun its transition to its current form. During the 2010–2011 elections, gangs associated with politicians Jude Celestin and Mirlande Manigat clashed in the streets, and gangs aligned with Michel Martelly set up burning tire barricades throughout Port-au-Prince after allegations of government-led voter fraud in favor of Celestin. Over the next 10 years, political leaders increasingly leveraged relationships with criminal organizations for both security and support, but the gangs viewed the relationship with politicians as transactional rather than as a political alignment.20 The days of supporting a party to secure favor, money, and weapons faded, and the gangs began to use the weapons and resources provided by their benefactors to gain their own power and wealth. After the assassination of Moïse21 in 2021, the most powerful gangs exerted their independence, disregarding their former masters.22

Since July 2021, though, gangs in the greater Port-au-Prince region have evolved from small groups exerting control over sections of neighborhoods into large organizations with the ability to directly challenge the state’s supposed monopoly of violence. The G9 gang federation paralyzed fuel imports at the Varreux Terminal23 for nearly two months, and the 400 Mawozo gang effectively seized24 the suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets. Gangs that had previously avoided confrontation with police began ambushing and killing them,25 and gangs engaged in open combat on the Port-au-Prince streets with each other and the police. While gang-related crime had always been a problem, gang activity began to more closely resemble a combat zone.26 The situation went from bad to catastrophic in Port-au-Prince. By March 2024, gangs had gained control of the areas surrounding the main port, the airport, and all routes in and out of Port-au-Prince. Neither the Haitian police nor private security companies can guarantee secure movements through the gang-controlled areas, and the gangs have at least parity with, if not dominance over, the state in terms of the use of violence. G9 leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier’s ability to control gang activity has made him the face of the criminal power and ultimately led to Henry’s resignation. That power used to solely reside with the Haitian elite. The gangs, once the muscle of the political and economic upper class, may have become a praetorian guard.

Previous Security Interventions

The United States is just one of a number of states and international organizations with a long history of intervening in Haiti to attempt to restore security and stability. Previous international interventions succeeded in curbing the gangs’ abilities to dominate the use of force in the capital, but the success was short-lived.

French Revenge for Independence

The first intervention — perhaps better referred to as a punitive action — took place in 1825 when French King Charles X sent 14 warships to Haiti demanding reimbursement for the loss of money and trade that resulted from Haiti’s independence. During the first two decades of its independence, Christophe Henry and Alexandre Petion ruled a divided Haiti. Christophe proclaimed himself king in the north, and Petion presided over the south. Following the overthrow of Napoleon in 1814, King Louis XVIII allowed his emissaries to engage in negotiations regarding a payment to France in exchange for recognition of Haitian independence.27 An indignant Christophe rebuffed such negotiations, but Petion offered $15 million, equal to the price that the United States paid for the Louisiana territory, which the French king rejected.28 In 1825, newly crowned French King Charles X offered to recognize Haiti’s independence for 150 million francs.29 The offer came via Baron de Mackau, who entered Port-au-Prince harbor with a 500-cannon fleet,30 implying that a rejection of the offer would result in war. Jean-Pierre Boyer, the Haitian president at the time, signed the document, agreeing to pay off the sum in five equal payments, even though it was 10 times the annual revenue of the country.31 Unable to make the required payments, the government of Haiti had little choice but to borrow from French banks, the only institutions that would lend to Haiti. The initial 150 million francs debt quickly ballooned, as the banks charged exorbitant fees, and the French government threatened Haitian maritime trade shipments.32 Debt payments accounted for nearly 80 percent of government spending for more than a century following the agreement. To meet those payment requirements, Haiti had no choice but to focus economic development on cash-producing agricultural products and forego attempts at industrialization. The ensuing wealth disparity continued to grow, leaving a much greater percentage of the Haitian population in poverty than other French colonies populated predominantly by former slaves from Africa.33 That first intervention had nothing to do with security or stability. It was purely an extortion play that has had a lasting, devastating economic impact on Haiti and set the stage for the societal and economic conditions that gave rise to security-related instability.

Protecting the U.S. Sphere of Influence

Ninety years later, the United States launched its first intervention in Haiti after four years of turbulence from 1911 to 1915 that saw seven Haitian presidents killed or removed from office. In December of 1914, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Marine Corps to seize $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank for “safe-keeping” in New York, effectively taking control of the institution.34 Seven months later, following another presidential assassination in Haiti, Wilson ordered the Marine Corps to Haiti, purportedly to prevent a descent into anarchy but really to prevent a potential German invasion.35 Within months, the United States gathered a group of political elites and held an election for a new president. Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave won the vote, but U.S. military leaders in Haiti maintained authority over most decisions.36 The Marine Corps faced significant challenges from locals, termed Cacos, and quickly realized that the 2,200-plus contingent was insufficient in the face of approximately 15,000 Cacos. Out of necessity, the United States created the Haitian Gendarmerie37 as a means to counter local discontent with local authority. The gendarmerie was a force comprised of U.S. and Haitian citizens under the control of the Marine expeditionary force and was later used to censor the press and conscript civilian labor as well as put down Haitian rebellions against the U.S. occupation.38

For the next 50 years, stability in Haiti became synonymous with a state security apparatus that did not allow room for dissent, and the Haitian military that evolved from the Gendarmerie leveraged that foundation in the name of forced stability.

During the 19-year occupation, U.S. forces defeated two Caco uprisings, but it only had two lasting accomplishments:39 the construction of the road from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haitien and improvement of the local hospital in the capital. The limited development that did take place favored U.S. companies40 present on the island at the expense of the average Haitian. The use of forced labor coupled with changes made to the Haitian constitution that benefitted foreign companies at the expense of locals detracted from any possible security gains that could have come from the intervention and the creation of the Haitian Gendarmerie.

The departure of U.S. forces in 1934 left President Stenio Vincent to rule a country that had not resolved its earlier divisions. Vincent, like many Haitian leaders since, turned to authoritarian tendencies41 to maintain control, holding onto power until 1941. For the next 50 years, stability in Haiti became synonymous with a state security apparatus that did not allow room for dissent, and the Haitian military that evolved from the Gendarmerie leveraged that foundation in the name of forced stability.

Operation Uphold Democracy and Its Aftermath

In September 1994, the United States led another military intervention as part of Operation Uphold Democracy with the intent of returning deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. Sanctions, a four-year economic embargo, and threats failed to get the military junta led by Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras to step down, which led the United States to launch a mission to remove the government by force. Only a last-minute agreement brokered by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter prevented direct conflict. Two days later, U.S. forces and the parallel U.N. peacekeeping effort arrived in Haiti and remained until 1996.42 In exchange for U.S. support, Aristide was forced to sign an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank43 that bound Haiti to structural adjustment policies. The forced opening of domestic markets to foreign trade coupled with the impacts of the previous four years of total embargo turned Haiti into a country completely dependent on foreign food imports and international organizations for its budget. Aristide’s second tenure would be short-lived, as well.

During the U.S. intervention in the mid-1990s, the Haitian military held most of the weapons in the country, and the gangs had little ability or will to directly confront the U.S. forces. Most of the gangs supported the return44 of Aristide, and the intervention allowed that to happen, creating little need for the gangs to engage. In fact, the most resistance came from Haitian military leaders who viewed the intervention as illegitimate. Because the U.S. military met little to no resistance from the populace during the first month, their efforts focused on seizing weapons caches, not on reducing gangs’ influence in neighborhoods.

Additionally, U.S. forces held preconceptions about the dangers of interacting with the local population, including unfounded fears regarding Voodoo and the prevalence of HIV in the population.45 This led forces to remain on their compounds unless directed to conduct an operation. When they did venture out, the soldiers were required to wear a significant amount of protective gear, including helmets and flak jackets, and leaders often appeared to be more focused on the wearing of proper uniform and equipment than on conducting effective missions.46 Without the routine interaction with locals, the occupying forces never gained an understanding of the local environment and left the Haitians to sort out their own problems. When the U.S. forces did act on information regarding weapons caches, they often found that the information came from an individual with a vendetta against the target, using the U.S. military as a tool of competition.

U.S. Special Forces units operating in central Haiti, though, proved the exception.47 As this type of mission is a traditional Special Forces mission, they had few problems quickly integrating with the local population to build local security, often despite the presence of Haitian Armed Forces personnel. In Port-au-Prince, U.S. leaders went to great pains to avoid the perception of choosing sides between groups in conflict. U.S. Special Forces had no such qualms, supporting groups that aligned with the mission objectives and countering those that did not. Despite their success relative to those of their compound-bound colleagues in Port-au-Prince, these units received very little support from higher commanders, and a few team leaders were threatened with relief of duty and court martial for exceeding their authorities and failure to wear the directed protective equipment. The opportunity to build security institutions with public support that did not view extortion of the local population as an inherent right passed, leaving a power vacuum in its wake.

Apart from the U.S. forces’ unwillingness to engage, Lt. Gen. Henry H. Shelton and the first commander of the U.S. mission in Haiti had concerns that failing to support the Haitian military and the local police or confronting them when committing acts of violence against the local population would lead to a collapse of the state security apparatus.48 This fear was confirmed after an interaction in Cap Haitien between a U.S. platoon and a Haitian police commissariat during a protest. Local Haitians were protesting against police abuses, and U.S. forces put themselves between the police station and the protesters. When the Haitian military forces supporting the police appeared and threatened the protesters, U.S. forces opened fire, killing the ten Haitian soldiers present.49 The remaining Haitian Armed Forces and police in Cap Haitien abandoned their duty stations and fled the city that day. U.S. leaders were concerned that such a thing could happen in Port-au-Prince, so they made the decision to not intervene when Haitian soldiers or police violated50 the rights of the population. This crucial decision engendered further disdain for the security institutions and created pockets of armed resistance in Port-au-Prince, initially as a means to protect the neighborhoods from predatory police and military personnel.

By focusing solely on structural economic changes while not addressing the underlying institutional and political problems, the U.S. intervention resulted only in a temporary reduction in violence and no long-term stability.

When the United States withdrew its forces from Haiti in 1995, it transferred command of international forces in Haiti to a small U.N. force of about 6,000 soldiers and police officers to work with the Haitian police and support elections. Political leaders called the mission a rousing success. As planned, Aristide returned to power, assuming his position as the elected president. However, the Clinton administration did not understand the level of failure of the mission, as it did not address the root causes of the instability in Haiti.51 The military junta that deposed Aristide did so with the political backing of many of Haiti’s elites, as they opposed many of the reform policies that Aristide planned to introduce.52 Even after Aristide returned with U.S. support, the opposition quickly set out to undermine any future success. While the intervention did restore a democratically elected leader to power, neither U.S. nor U.N. efforts did anything to address the underlying problems that led to his removal in the first place.

After regaining power, Aristide utilized the Chimere gangs to rally53 and often force support in the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of Cité Soleil, Bel Air, and Martissant. Initially, this gave Fanmi Lavalas, Aristide’s political party, an advantage in the capital. As opposition to Aristide within the economic and political elite grew, rival gangs received support in the form of weapons and money to encourage or obligate parts of the population to protest against the policies.54 Likewise, the inability of the U.S. intervention to counter the institutional weaknesses in the Haitian military, which Aristide disbanded in 1995, and Haitian police meant that leaders could take advantage of the lack of accountability to sell or provide weapons to interested parties. This allowed for the rise of Philippe and his supporters,55 who eventually deposed Aristide for a second time, as they were able to acquire sufficient quantities of arms to challenge the security forces loyal to the regime. By focusing solely on structural economic changes while not addressing the underlying institutional and political problems, the U.S. intervention resulted only in a temporary reduction in violence and no long-term stability.

The U.N. Stabilization Mission

Aristide’s second departure followed two years of violence among politically active gangs and between the gangs and security forces. In June of 2004, 8,000 peacekeepers deployed to Haiti as part of the U.N. Stabilization Mission. Over the next six years, it grew to a size of 13,000 by 2010 and then tapered off before the mission ended in 2017.

Despite the presence of Brazilian, Chilean, and Sri Lankan military units, among others, the gangs never disappeared. Their activity levels varied based on support from their benefactors, but the gangs generally avoided direct conflict with U.N. military forces after the first few years of the mission.56 Further, though the U.N. military intervention did have a positive impact on security in relation to gang activity, the Haitian government did little to consolidate those gains. During the first three years of the U.N. Stabilization Mission, which lasted from 2004 to 2017, gangs actively engaged with military peacekeepers and exerted their authority over their territories, as the military component did not conduct large-scale unilateral missions. The December 2006 request of the Haitian government to disarm the gangs and detain their leaders in the Cité Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince singaled a major shift in the fight against insecurity.57 By late 2007, U.N. military personnel had increased operations and suppressed gang activity,58 keeping it contained within their respective territories. During the latter years of the mission, the gangs opted to avoid conflict with the military forces due to the overwhelming firepower and armored vehicles of the U.N. forces.

Even with the advantage of military support and thousands of international police officers, though, the U.N. Stabilization Mission was unable to effectively disrupt the gangs because of their ties to politicians and the weak state institutions. Following the 2010 earthquake until its departure, U.N. anti-gang operations focused on the detention of key gang figures59 or the seizure of weapons caches rather than truly dismantling the gangs, because no mechanism to do so existed. U.N. military forces could arrest suspected gang members when operating in support of the Haitian police, but the Haitian justice system had no means to incorporate evidence produced by the U.N. mission. Politically connected gang members quickly returned to their neighborhoods, and the others languished in prison awaiting due process in a broken system. U.N. plans to clear and hold60 some of the worst neighborhoods while the Haitian government — with U.N. and non-governmental organization support — would provide infrastructure and services failed miserably. The Haitian government struggled to follow through on even the most basic promises of security, clean water, and shelter, and the U.N. forces did not have the will or ability to conduct long-term deployments into the impoverished neighborhoods. The gangs quickly learned to leave the area ahead of the operations and wait out the occupiers. Once the Stabilization Mission forces departed, the gangs were free to resume their activities unmolested. The cycle repeated through the departure of the military forces in 2017. The follow-on U.N. mission in Haiti did include roughly 1,300 police officers, the majority of whom comprised the seven Formed Police Units. However, they had limited ability to assist the Haitian National Police with operations, including the July 2018 riots following an increase in oil prices, due to insufficient transportation and support capabilities. Additionally, the dispersion of the small force made it largely ineffective in terms of providing any scale of response to unrest besides securing U.N. locations in their area of responsibility.61

Gang-related violence typically did not affect the upper echelons of society, as the U.N. forces were able to contain the criminal organizations. Additionally, the political and economic elite focused their efforts on using the gangs to manipulate the poorer population to incite protests when it served their political interests. By using the gangs to mobilize or disrupt votes, the Haitian elites took advantage of a broken election system that the United Nations and major international donors went to great pains to support.

As in previous interventions, the focus was to contain the violence, ostensibly to provide the indigenous security forces the time to develop into a force capable of maintaining security on its own. However, the two missions were not linked in a manner that would ensure that success in one area determined success in the other — or that failures in one necessitated a change in the other. Thus, Haitian and international policymakers cited the reduction in violence that resulted from U.N. military successes as proof that the Haitian police was ready to assume security responsibilities. Despite failures to meet personnel minimums, little to no improvement in the justice system regarding processing criminal cases, and continued protests that delayed Moïse from assuming the presidency on time, Haiti was declared self-sufficient. Within two years of the departure of the military forces from the Stabilization Mission, gang violence had surged once again,62 increasing 60 percent in each of the next two years before exponentially growing in 2021.

Lessons from the Past

The long history of interventions in Haiti paints a bleak picture overall, but the lessons from contemporary interventions send the clearest signal. Haiti has seen an almost unbroken chain of interventions since 1994 — ranging from a few thousand deployed U.N. forces to full U.S.-led stabilization missions of more than 20,000. The Haitian government and international aid community have never been able to consolidate any gains due to weak institutions, lack of economic growth, governments that actively employed gangs and criminal elements in power struggles, and — more than anything — a failure to engage with Haitian civil society.

Haitian National Police Development … or Lack Thereof

Following the departure of the U.N. military mission in 2017, the Haitian National Police became the sole guarantor of security in the country. With approximately 10,000 officers — 3,300 fewer than in October 201963 — the force has a ratio of police to 1,000 citizens of less than half of the minimum prescribed by the United Nations (1.06 vice 2.2).64 The proposed Multinational Security Support Mission would, in theory, greatly increase the quantity of security forces on the ground, but it would still be far fewer than needed. Furthermore, contributing nations have not yet made clear their caveats regarding how their forces could be used, which would have a significant impact on the mission’s effectiveness. Calls for a military intervention tend to portray a scenario of quick wins65 against the gangs that will provide the Haitian police space to increase in size and capability in a short period of time. The previous “successes” often cited by the proponents of this strategy, however, show that they fail to look beyond the short-term effects. While violence may have temporarily subsided, the underlying situation that allowed the gangs to gain strength never changed, and the Haitian police had no greater ability to confront the criminal threat.

As international donors poured more resources and money into police force development, the government’s efforts at undermining such development continued, making the constant influx of support more of a problem than a solution.

Following Aristide’s disbanding of the Haitian Armed Forces in 1995, the police served as the sole security force in Haiti, and Aristide understandably did not trust a robust, well-resourced security force. Thus, in 2006, the Haitian police had fewer than 7,000 officers. U.N. Police Development plans called for a goal of reaching 14,000 officers by 2011 and a potential end strength of 20,000. By 2012, the Haitian National Police still remained below the target goal, with approximately 10,000 officers and the goal of 15,000 by 2016.66 Despite over $300 million67 in direct support from the United States and $150 million68 from Canada,69 plus contributions from France, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, among others, the Haitian National Police has not been able to meet basic end-strength and capability goals in nearly 20 years, including during the 13 years of support from the U.N. Stabilization Mission. Despite an increase of nearly 100 percent of GDP since 2010, the police budget remains a paltry $204.6 million70 (1 percent of GDP), with the United Nations71 and the United States accounting for about one-third of the funding.72 As international donors poured more resources and money into police force development, the government’s efforts at undermining such development continued, making the constant influx of support more of a problem than a solution.73

The evidence of the police force’s inability to rapidly develop and grow, despite support and significant resources from donors, shows that an intervention with the goal of creating space for the institution is doomed to failure. The Haitian police will remain a lackluster performer if officers do not have adequate pay or health insurance to cover injuries sustained74 in the line of duty. Low pay, endemic corruption, and political interference hamper recruiting and retention efforts, and no intervention force will have the ability to change that in a short period of time.

Re-establishing the Social Contract

Compounding the Haitian police’s failure to stop the gang violence, a military intervention would likely create second-order effects that would hamper future government credibility and allow the Haitian government to avoid fulfilling its governance duties. Notwithstanding his March 12 announcement that he would step down from office, Henry has held power since the assassination of Moïse, although much of the population viewed75 his administration as illegitimate. By not immediately holding elections, Henry allowed the security situation to deteriorate to a point where elections were not a viable option. Without new mandates or provisions, the terms of both chambers of the Haitian parliament expired, leaving him to rule by decree. An intervention, which Henry repeatedly demanded, would have cemented his position of power despite his lack of constitutional or electoral legitimacy. His willingness to step down, under significant duress, does not eliminate the severe the risk of continued democratic backsliding76 that is the direct result of the dissolution of all of Haiti’s elected government.

An intervention would almost certainly provide an opportunity for the Haitian government to divert resources away from police force development to other, personally beneficial projects, much as Martelly and Moïse are accused of doing with PetroCaribe funds. Despite the notable increases in the Haitian police budget since 2010, force size only increased by 30 percent at its peak, and its capabilities remain limited. Much like in the education and health77 sectors, the security sector is one in which the government would likely shift responsibility to foreign donors.

To respond effectively to the situation in Haiti, the policymakers in the United States and the United Nations should identify the core economic and social problems and condition political support and aid on the Haitian government and elites providing viable pathways to enduring solutions. The north star to any Haiti policy should be a respect for democratic processes and the ability for Haitian civil society to possess true agency in political decision-making — not the expediency of an ostensibly “stable” regime.

The Haitian economy continues to flounder, going into its fourth consecutive year of contraction.78 One could argue that the economic woes stem from the problems with crime. The reality is that two key linkages tell a very different story. Chronic unemployment and underemployment mean that there are almost no routes to escape poverty. The vast majority of Haitian workers rely on informal employment with little opportunity for financial improvement.79 Consider that 80 percent of the population remains in poverty and youth unemployment has remained at 30 percent or higher since 2004. Interviews with current and former gang members highlight their dependence on gangs or kidnapping rings in order to simply survive, corroborating that unemployment and lack of economic opportunity directly contribute to the security problems.80 This should be no surprise, as unskilled and uneducated youth have historically been prime targets for recruitment by criminal and extremist organizations, and Haiti is no different. The second key linkage is that much of the GDP growth in the past decade can be attributed to the increase in remittances (up to 24 percent of GDP),81 which shows a stagnated economy. Likewise, the failing Haitian educational system undermines the ability of Haitians to change their socio-economic status, as education remains inaccessible to those without significant resources. With the cost of education consuming between 15 and 25 percent of household income,82 fewer than half of Haitian children complete basic primary education,83 which simply continues the vicious cycle — none of which will be ameliorated without significant economic advances.

Above all, Haiti lacks accountability. In 2022, the United States sanctioned Haitian politicians84 associated with the gangs, many of whom, such as Senators Youri Latortue and Josef Lambert, were already suspected of illicit activity. Canada followed suit with a more robust sanction announcement85 that included Martelly, former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, and Martelly’s brother-in-law Charles “Kiko” Saint-Remy. However, none of the Haitian politicians, family members, or wealthy businesspeople have faced prosecution in Haiti, the United States, or Canada despite the mounting evidence of their theft of state funds.86 Holding political and economic elites accountable, confiscating funds and property, and canceling visa and resident status for crimes committed in Haiti would prevent them from waiting out political turbulence in the United States or Canada in luxury homes.87

The Convergence of Security and Economics

Many arguments regarding88 Haiti rest on the idea that establishing security is the prerequisite to any sort of economic or social development. Yes, insecurity directly shapes every facet of life for the vast majority of Haitians, and the recent events have had an impact on the economic and political elite at unprecedented levels. Extreme levels of insecurity clearly undermine any possible economic and social development opportunities. This serves as a perennial multi-tool for rebutting any variety of arguments89 that challenge the utility of a security-focused intervention or security sector-focused aid. However strong or convincing these arguments might be, so the logic goes, it is simply unavoidable that a vast improvement in the security situation remains the primary precondition for development. But there is ample reason to suggest that Haiti’s economy would not thrive even with greatly improved security conditions. Many structural factors — such as trade imbalances, the high cost of servicing sovereign debt, the collapse of many export sectors following the 1991 trade embargo — provide greater impediments to economic growth. They are all also potential focus points for a foreign policy strategy that does not hinge on an intervention and or neglect the participation and equities of Haitian civil society.90

With continued degradation of the security environment, some type of support to security forces would need to be part of the plan — however, it should be in the context of implementing economic and political reforms as the primary effort.

Fatalism often91 seems to pervade a discussion of economic growth in Haiti, seeing it as an immutable condition of a small Caribbean island prone to natural disasters. This neglects the history of the Haitian economy and the fact that the other small Caribbean economies, even ones deemed at more risk of natural disasters, have shown promising growth. Fatalism encourages a fixation on security aid or intervention rather than engagement on issues that restrain foreign direct investment and economic growth. But these economic and policy issues represent an alternative approach that could encompass diversifying Haiti’s export industries, attracting greater foreign direct investment, and reforming Haiti’s regulatory structure to promote international business. With continued degradation of the security environment, some type of support to security forces would need to be part of the plan — however, it should be in the context of implementing economic and political reforms as the primary effort.

A Sabotaged Economy

Much focus is rightly given to the long-term impacts to the Haitian economy that derive from the appalling indemnity92 that Haiti was forced to pay France to secure its independence. Haiti continued to pay the debt, the equivalent of $21 billion dollars93 in today’s terms, for over 122 years, crippling its ability to prosper. This is not the only structural obstacle that other state actors have levied on Haiti throughout the years. Following the U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1934, Washington continued to control Haitian finances for another 13 years, servicing U.S. and French debt that accounted for 40 percent of Haitian national income.94 And, of course, former President Bill Clinton apologized in 201095 for tariff policies that benefited American farmers but also destroyed Haitian rice cultivation as subsidized American rice flooded the Haitian market.96 Perhaps just as impactful in the contemporary consideration of the Haitian economy are the less-often discussed impacts of the 1993 embargoes that the United Nations imposed following the coup d’état that ousted Aristide. Often viewed as a transitory action necessary to restore democracy, the real result was the collapse of many Haitian export sectors, something that defines the discussion of Haiti’s economy today.

Haiti once made97 90 percent of all baseballs used worldwide — today, it exports none. Likewise, coffee once constituted a $46 million98 export to the United States for Haiti but is nearly nonexistent as an export commodity now. The reason is straightforward and was examined in a recent U.S. International Trade Commission report99 on the Haitian economy. Following the removal of Aristide from the presidency on Sept. 29, 1991, the United States initiated a series of trade embargoes that escalated by 1993 to include a near total oil embargo. The result was to crush most Haitian export industries. As the report notes, “Notably, none of the most-exported manufactured goods from before the embargo (other than apparel) appears in the top tier of the NRCA list”. The NRCA refers to normalized revealed comparative advantage and measures relative comparative advantage. Today Haiti’s only significant exports are linked to the apparel sector. The vast majority of inputs into the Haitian economy derive from remittances and foreign aid.

There are, of course, other challenges to expanding Haiti’s export sectors. The same report from the Trade Commission indicates that executives responding to a survey believe that Haitian tax policy does not encourage investment, that a small number of firms dominate most of the economy, and that the poor infrastructure is an impediment to any expansion. Infrastructure is a clear challenge, given that in 2018 the World Bank ranked Haiti 153rd of 160100 countries with respect to a logistics performance index. At the same time, the stark contrast between the pre-embargo Haitian economy and the post-embargo Haitian economy might light a path towards fruitful policy objectives — such as developing infrastructure, reforming Haitian tax and business policies, and expanding export sectors — that are more productive than temporary attempts to quell security threats. The role of security in improving Haiti’s attractiveness to investment and business opportunities cannot be overstated, but it is also insufficient, in and of itself, to generating true economic advances.

The country’s unequal economic policies further undermine efforts to provide aid and even the value of remittances. Though Haiti’s economy is largely dollarized in a de facto sense — international transactions are mostly denominated in dollars — most of the population lacks banking access and therefore is constrained to using Haiti’s national currency, the gourde.101 Aid might be sent to the government in dollars, but employees are often paid in gourde. Likewise, remittances sent in dollars to family members are most often paid out by an intermediary service and in gourde.102 The Haitian government has even taken action to minimize payments in dollars, as it runs low on dollar reserves in light of the continued devaluation of the gourde against the dollar.103 The end result is simple: Foreign aid and remittances might seek to improve daily life, but the majority of Haitians use a currency that has devalued against the dollar and significantly reduced purchasing power.

An Economy in All Our Dreams

The pessimism that pervades discussions of Haiti often leads to generalizations and an inability to see promise.104 Nonetheless, inclusion of Haiti as a priority in the U.S. Global Fragility Act105 provides an avenue for a more holistic approach and, at the same time, trade preference programs such as the HOPE and HELP acts106 have demonstrated the ability of U.S. trade preferences to lead to surges in foreign direct investment.107 Expanding trade preferences, and making them permanent to ensure investor confidence, could represent a path to demonstrate U.S. commitment to a growing economy and a growing trade partner.

Given global competition with China, alongside the global fragility demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no surprise that American talk of near-shoring companies’ production — with emphasis on Mexico and Central America108 — abounds. It is surprising then to find that the United States is not a significant source of foreign direct investment for Haiti.109 At the same time, the promise exists. For example, CODEVI, one of Haiti’s largest free trade zones,110 is operated by the Dominican “Grupo-M” and serves as one of Haiti’s largest formal employers.111 Haiti’s economy need not be condemned by its poor security situation. Instead, the United States should look to expand trade preference programs, improve tax and business regulation, and apply the philosophy of near-shoring to build a lasting trade partner and mitigate the enormous trade imbalances that serve as a brake on Haiti’s social development.

A Path Forward

The potential intervention approved by the United Nations ignores the most significant lesson learned from the past century of interventions in Haiti: the lesson of scale. In less violent times, the U.N. mission managed with troop levels as low as 6,000, but any attempt to intervene in the context of significant violence has historically required a significantly larger troop footprint — as large as 20,000 or more soldiers, police, and peacekeepers. Even then, troops were often constrained to limited security patrols and fortified garrisons. Nor does a larger intervention provide a real path to success absent a deeper understanding of Haitian politics. The Achilles’ heel of contemporary interventions has been that interventions have habitually failed to connect with civil society and have instead propped up regimes willing to use gangs and extortion to focus on self-enrichment at the expense of long-term security and development.

Haiti needs to take a more ambitious approach to economic development and restoring a participatory democracy, and to begin this approach international actors like the United States and the United Nations need to join it. Long-term improvements in the Haitian economy will not be accomplished simply by restoring security or via a few small reforms. Economic growth based on the export of commodities and low value-added items is always a challenging path and certainly one made more challenging by both the security situation and the history of extraction-based engagement between Haiti and the global economy. Attributing Haiti’s economic challenges to either the 2010 earthquake or the current security situation miscasts history. It ignores Haiti’s colonial experience, the deleterious effects of trade imbalances and debt, and the devastating impact of trade embargoes in the wake of the 1991 coup.

Interventions that perpetuate the current structure of Haitian political leadership will only continue to promote democratic backsliding and preserve self-enriching regimes that do not fundamentally work to improve the long-term prospects for the Haitian people.

A full-spectrum approach to economic aid to Haiti should focus on an approach that leverages the limited successes that exist and make concerted efforts to reduce abject poverty. At the international level, that means continuing efforts to restructure debt and promote free trade. At the bilateral, U.S.-Haitian level, it means conditioning aid on business sector reform and transparency to eliminate unneeded barriers to market entry while making permanent and expanding trade agreements like the HOPE and HELP acts. Efforts like micro-financing and other related small-scale credit initiatives have proven useful in developing countries, but the current de facto dollarization of the Haitian economy and the disparate treatment it engenders for those without banking access is an impediment that should be corrected. No amount of export-driven economics will help when businesses that export products for dollars pay their employees in ever further devalued gourde. International aid donors to the Haitian government — governmental and non-governmental — have a role to play in ensuring that the transfer of aid dollars translates to true wealth and purchasing power for the Haitian people.

Military and security-focused interventions riddle the long and troubled history of one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world. They have produced no significant improvement for the people of Haiti in more than two centuries. If anything, the history of recent interventions should provide the most somber and realistic perspective; much larger interventions — in much better economic and security conditions — failed to achieve lasting results. Similarly, an intervention that sprints towards establishing elections will be insufficient — holding democratic elections is not an end state in and of itself. Elections will be neither free nor fair when voter turnout is a small fraction of the population and when candidates’ policy positions are neither communicated nor fully developed. The former requires improved security conditions and an engaged civil society. The latter requires serious candidates with both concrete policy proposals and teams prepared to carry them out. Interventions that perpetuate the current structure of Haitian political leadership will only continue to promote democratic backsliding and preserve self-enriching regimes that do not fundamentally work to improve the long-term prospects for the Haitian people.

Powerful gangs are not the root cause of Haiti’s challenges but rather the outcome of problems that preceded today’s security conditions. If anything, current global economic conditions are exacerbating the dire situation in Haiti as the purchasing power of the Haitian gourde continues to fall.112 Given that the Multinational Security Support Mission still has no planned date to arrive in Haiti, change cannot wait for the security situation to stabilize. Even with the support of a security intervention, though, the underlying causes of Haiti’s economic situation necessitate action while a multinational force works with the Haitian National Police to restore security. Security alone will not fix the problem and could reinforce the failed system.

Without significant reforms — of which many will run counter to the interests of the elites who depend on weak institutions to retain power and wealth — a military intervention will produce no sustainable results, adding another chapter to the long book of failed attempts at stabilizing Haiti. The “right” intervention in Haiti will instead involve economic engagement — particularly expansion of free trade regimes, inclusion in near-shoring initiatives, and debt forgiveness — alongside determined initiatives to better link Haitian civil society to institutions and regimes that have structured accountability to the Haitian people.


Ian Murray is an active-duty colonel in the U.S. Army and a regional specialist focusing on Latin America. His writings have appeared in the Foreign Area Officer Journal, and he currently serves as the director of the Americas Studies Program at the U.S. Army War College.

Chris Bernotavicius is an active-duty commander in the U.S. Navy and a regional specialist focusing on Latin America. His writing has appeared in War on the Rocks, West Point’s Modern War Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Defense360 site, and other forums.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.


Image: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr (CC BY 2.5 DEED) (cropped)



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