The US must help to restore Haiti’s fragile democracy


The assassination of the Haitian president last week by a group of foreign mercenaries is only the latest calamity to hit the Haitian people. Political upheavals and natural disasters have plagued this country for many decades now. 

Haiti’s beginnings as a nation-state are still a matter of national pride. In 1804, former African slaves defeated the mighty army of Napoleon in the very first revolution in a French colony.

Over time the Haitian experiment broke down as the military became the strongest institution and the educated elites had no interest in sharing democratic practices — or economic power — with the masses. As James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu detailed in Why Nations Fail, that is a recipe for revolution. 

The Haitian Republic became deeply indebted to American banks in the early 20th century, and in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines to occupy the country. The Haitian government signed over control to the U.S. and until the Franklin Roosevelt administration, Haiti was an American protectorate. 

Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, assumed power in 1956, and he and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, ran harsh and corrupt dictatorships until 1986. Papa Doc created his own paramilitary force called the Tontons Macoutes. They were responsible for the deaths of as many as 30,000 Haitians, and remnants of this notorious band may well be behind the assassination of President Jovenel Moise.

The military overthrew Baby Doc in 1986 and ruled the country with the promise that democratic elections would follow. A presidential election was held in 1987. I was there leading an international election observer delegation. 

All was calm when we visited the opening of polls. It didn’t last long. 

The Macoutes were intent on killing foreign observers, and word soon came to us that four journalists had been murdered. We waited nervously until word came that the U.S. government would evacuate our delegation the next day. We learned in January 1988 that university professor Leslie Manigat had been elected. Three months later he was overthrown in a military coup.

Under great pressure from the international community, the military again yielded in 1990, and a charismatic Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, won overwhelmingly in what was judged to be a free and fair election. A year later he would succumb to a military coup.

Thousands of Aristide’s supporters took to the high seas to escape in small boats seeking entry into the United States. The administration of President George H.W. Bush sent the Navy and Coast Guard to stop them, sending them to Guantanamo Bay, in part to avoid processing them as refugees.

1992 saw the election of William Clinton as president of the United States. Aristide was now living in Washington D.C., a block away from the State Department. He was still the recognized president of Haiti. 

Satellite photos showed thousands in Haiti building boats and planning to come to the U.S., believing that Clinton would allow them to enter the country. Many would lose their lives if they tried the dangerous voyage. As the leader of Clinton’s State Department transition team, I met with Aristide several times and with some difficulty finally got him to issue a statement asking his people to stay home and be patient.

Several months passed as the U.S. and the United Nations placed extraordinary pressure on the Haitian military leaders. In July 1994, a U.N. Security Council resolution authorized the use of force to restore democracy. Operation Uphold Democracy was to be launched on Sept. 19. Two days before that, a delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter convinced the coup leaders to leave the country. 

U.S. troops landed on schedule and faced no resistance. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and I accompanied Aristide back to Haiti on Oct. 15. I recall asking him to look out the window when we passed over land in Haiti. “Mr. President,” I said, “look down, there is your country.” It was an emotional moment.

Aristide served out his term, waited four years and won again in 2001. He was forced out of office by massive protests and threats on his life. He and his new family left for South Africa. At least he survived. 

As the Biden administration, the U.N. and the Organization of American States consider options, it would be wise to assess realistically what is possible when dealing with a failing state. In the absence of security, not much.

In a global forum in Busan, Korea in 2011, states like Haiti came together to advocate for a “New Deal for Fragile States.” Some dozen nations asked donors to consider their special human security needs. They, better than most, understood that violent conflict could re-emerge at any moment.

People want to be protected, to feel that the system will punish impunity, bring a commitment to social justice and encourage reconciliation among warring parties. Unless and until that happens, the normal functions of government, including the holding of elections, are just not possible.

When Aristide returned in 1994, his country was stabilized by a multilateral force. The U.S., Canada, Caribbean and Central American nations offered armed peacekeepers. A sense of security and normalcy was restored and that enabled regular governmental institutions to function.

Haiti has once again descended into the depths because of debilitating poverty, the devastation caused by a major earthquake, and now foreign mercenaries. As has happened before, gangs rule the neighborhoodsBlocked streets control the turf of warring groups. An all too familiar sight.

We will no doubt hear that helping this country find its way out of chaos is pouring good money after bad. That may be easier to say if you haven’t looked into the faces of the children of Haiti. We are talking about over 11 million human beings who live 800 miles off our shore. The nations of this hemisphere, including the United States, have both a practical interest and a moral obligation to help our neighbors help themselves.

J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He was president of the National Democratic Institute from 1985 to 1993, and served as undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.

Editor’s note: This piece was updated to reflect that Haiti’s presidential election was held in 1987 and Leslie Manigat was elected as president in January 1988.

Tags François Duvalier Haiti Jean-Bertrand Aristide Jean-Claude Duvalier Jimmy Carter Operation Uphold Democracy Presidents of Haiti Tonton Macoute

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