US faces daunting task in relationship with Haiti

US faces daunting task in relationship with Haiti
© Getty Images

U.S. policy toward Haiti is in flux, amid chronic crises in the ravaged Caribbean nation and increasing domestic political pressure on the Biden administration to deliver a diplomatic breakthrough.

The White House and the State Department face a daunting task in Haiti as Washington seeks to disentangle itself from traditional interlocutors in the political establishment without triggering further instability in the country.

Administration officials have rhetorically recognized the need to bolster Haiti's civil society, while in practice supporting acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry, an establishment figure with de facto control of the government.

"I think it's risk. I think the risk of changing governments in a country like Haiti makes us nervous, to be honest with you," said Ambassador Daniel Foote, the former special envoy to Haiti who resigned last month over the administration's repatriations of Haitian nationals.

Foote was speaking at a House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) briefing held Thursday in response to his resignation, which he delivered in a scathing letter that accused the administration of ignoring his recommendations.

After some back and forth with the State Department, HFAC Chairman Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksPowell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief US faces daunting task in relationship with Haiti Overnight Defense & National Security — China steps up saber rattling MORE (D-N.Y.) brought Foote in for a briefing, though not for a formal hearing on the state of the bilateral relationship.

In opening the briefing, Meeks recalled how he put pressure on the Biden administration to name a special envoy to Haiti, "and was pleased to see the appointment of Ambassador Foote two months ago to that position."

"Unfortunately, Ambassador Foote's role ended last month after he resigned citing irreconcilable policy differences between himself and the Biden administration," said Meeks.

While Foote's resignation was triggered by the repatriation of about half of the nearly 15,000 Haitians who arrived last month in Del Rio, Texas, the core controversy over the U.S. role in Haiti rests on the American practice of playing kingmaker in the Caribbean country.

Henry was President Jovenel Moïse's handpicked prime minister, although Henry did not take office until after Moïse's assassination in August.

Moïse was himself the handpicked successor of former President Michel Martelly, whose inauguration was the first peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party in the history of Haiti.

The Obama administration supported Martelly's election, and the United States has since been seen to have a "thumb on the scale" supporting the Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) created by Martelly.

Questioned by Rep. Andy LevinAndrew (Andy) LevinUS faces daunting task in relationship with Haiti House appears poised to pull infrastructure vote amid stubborn stalemate Recommitting US policy toward two-state solution is the best way to further Middle East peace MORE (D-Mich.) about whether the PHTK government would remain in power without U.S. support, Foote said, "I do not believe they would survive or remain."

"The consensus, almost unanimous, outside the ruling party in Haiti is that the ruling party PHTK put Haiti where it is today and probably doesn't deserve to be part of the solution," said Foote.

The Biden administration has not shown willingness to fully step away from the PHTK or Henry, although it has shifted rhetorically from the Obama administration's explicit support of Martelly and his allies.

"What that means on the political side is not putting our thumbs on the scale and on, on the side of any one particular actor, but rather, being seen as supporting this broad dialogue," said a senior Biden administration official.

The official added that Biden himself has been the "differentiating factor" in the shift from explicit support of the governing party to "a long view [in] Haiti and trying to play a constructive, transformational role."

"That's something it doesn't lend itself to political timelines, but it's ultimately what will have us doing right by the Haitian people," said the official.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is focusing its efforts on humanitarian and vaccine aid to Haiti, in necessary collaboration with Henry's provisional government.

But two matters have blunted the effectiveness of those efforts: The Biden administration has been unwilling or unable to specify its position on the timing of elections to formally replace Moïse, and continued repatriations of Haitians to the ravaged country have stained the administration's humanitarian credentials.

Since Sept. 19, the Department of Homeland Security has sent 70 flights back to Haiti, and around 7,000 Haitians have been returned to the country.

U.S. officials say the repatriated Haitians are receiving a stipend and services like SIM cards on arrival in Haiti, but that aid -- which some activists say has not been forthcoming -- pales in comparison to the cost of repatriating the Del Rio Haitians.

According to Jesse Franzblau, senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice Center, DHS documents show that the federal government paid up to $15 million to private prison company GEO Group to operate the flights.

On Friday, 15 Democratic senators led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWhy is Trump undermining his administration's historic China policies? Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Democrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates MORE (N.J.) and Majority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerDemocratic frustration with Sinema rises Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race Guns Down America's leader says Biden 'has simply not done enough' on gun control MORE (D-N.Y.) called on the Biden administration to establish a reintegration program for repatriated Haitians, and access to the asylum process for all Haitians arriving in the United States.

“Ensuring the integrity of U.S. borders is of utmost importance, and is not incompatible with the fundamental duty to respect the dignity, humanity, and rights of all individuals seeking entry to the United States,” wrote the senators.

While there is debate among advocates and civil society groups as to the role that the U.S. Haitian diaspora should play in defining the country's political future, there is a relatively broad consensus that Haitian communities in the United States are well-prepared to integrate newcomers into their ranks.

“Over the course of our lifetimes, our Haitian brothers and sisters have endured dictatorships, constitutional crises, food insecurity, pandemics, natural disasters, forced displacement, the assassination of their President, and the criminal takeover of their communities. Their resilience is unparalleled and our communities in the United States have flourished as a result of the presence of Haitian immigrants and their American children,” wrote the senators.

And many Haitian civil society leaders -- including in the U.S. diaspora -- have put their weight behind the creation of a transitional commission formed by non-governmental organizations to chart a political path ahead for the country.

For the commission to succeed, say its proponents, the Biden administration would have to follow through on its rhetoric of taking the U.S. thumb off the scale in Haiti's political process.

"The United States continues to bolster a Haitian regime that has dismantled democratic institutions and has not held elections, leaving only 11 elected representatives in office throughout a country of 11 million people," wrote Pierre Espérance, executive director of Haiti's National Human Rights Defense Network.