A former special envoy in the Biden administration is warning that the president’s approach to Haiti could further destabilize the already fragile Caribbean nation.
Under Biden, the U.S. has expelled more than 14,000 Haitians since September while avoiding any major policy announcements regarding the country.
While top State Department and White House officials have visited the country to shore up political stability, the policy of expulsions led to the resignation of Special Envoy for Haiti Daniel Foote in September.
“Desperate people without anything being reintroduced into a city with tens of thousands of displaced people already from the gangs — recipe for disaster,” Foote told The Hill Monday, referring to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
In the past year, Haiti has gone through a devastating earthquake, a constitutional crisis, the assassination of a sitting president, an attempt on the acting prime minister’s life and the forced return of scores of Haitians from the U.S.
In September, around 15,000 Haitians amassed under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, after crossing the Rio Grande.
The political scandal that ensued prompted the Biden administration to slap a “Title 42” designation on Haitians at the border, allowing the feds to quickly expel Haitians under the guise of sanitary protections related to the pandemic.
Those expulsions have continued in the form of near-daily flights to Haiti — 131 since the Del Rio incident, according to statistics distributed by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Foote, whose assignment was to advise the State Department on peace and stability in Haiti, found out about the repatriations while watching the news. He announced his resignation shortly thereafter, frustrated both by the destabilizing effect of the repatriations and by his inability to sway the Biden administration’s policies on Haiti’s evolving political landscape.
In July, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated amid a constitutional crisis partly of his own creation, shortly after appointing Ariel Henry as the incoming prime minister.
After a short interlude under then-acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph, Henry became the new acting leader with the support of the so-called core group, a group of foreign diplomats including the U.S. ambassador.
U.S. support for Henry irked many Haiti observers, including Foote, who saw in the move reflections of past instances of failed American diplomacy in the country.
“It became clear to me that the United States was just going to back Ariel Henry unless he died or something. That they were just behind him and they had put all their chips behind him,” Foote said.
“And so I was like, you know what, I am not going to change this from the inside. Nobody’s listening. The only way — and probably even this won’t change it — but I can keep the dream alive. The only way I can keep alive is if I just go nuclear. You know, make the world see what’s going on,” he added.
Foote in October testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, telling legislators that Haitian civil society groups are ready to rebuild Haiti’s political institutions, but that Haitians are unlikely to accept a path forward that includes Henry.
Given Haiti’s constitutional vacuum, the country’s political future depends on broad accords between civil society and political actors to create a path forward to rebuild basic political institutions.
Foote and many other Haiti observers view what’s known as the Montana Accord as a viable path forward, although not without obstacles.
Montana proposes a transitional council to rebuild institutions, which includes many civil society and political actors, but excludes those with clear ties to criminal gangs, and sectors of the ruling party that support Henry.
Henry, who has yet to announce a formal date for elections, has proposed his competing political accord.
“The biggest mistake the administration to making right now is they are demanding a unanimous solution in Haiti. They are demanding that everybody merges their accords, including — and they’ve been explicit about this — the Ariel Henry accord,” Foote told The Hill.
Foote’s testimony was lauded by key Democrats in the committee, including Chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), Rep. Andy Levin (Mich.) and Rep. Juan Vargas (Calif.).
Those members were also quick to criticize the Biden administration’s treatment of the Del Rio Haitians.
“I have to say that I was horrified with what I saw our country do to the Haitian migrants, the immigrants that arrived in Del Rio, Texas,” Vargas said.
“I thought it was a terrible overreaction by the administration, and frankly I don’t see any other way to describe this than racism,” he added.
Political observers have watched, befuddled, as the Biden administration scuttles its relationship with the Haitian diaspora. Before the Del Rio incident, Biden had scored points with the demographic by expanding the Temporary Protected Status program, allowing all Haitians in the U.S. before July 29 to stay and work in the country.
That move protected more than 150,000 Haitians from deportation, and eased potential pressure on the Caribbean country, which has demonstrated little to no capacity to repatriate its diaspora.
The rift between the administration and Haitian communities could have electoral consequences, particularly in Florida, where a large part of the Haitian American community has settled.
That rift is also growing broader as the administration’s expulsions continue to put pressure on Haiti’s meager-to-nonexistent humanitarian services, further disrupting the potential for a political solution in the country.
“Haiti is starting to bear resemblance to places like Somalia, except there’s no religious [extremism],” Foote said.
“The gang control over over Haiti in Port-au-Prince rivals [Islamist insurgent group al-] Shabaab’s control over much of Somalia,” he added.