Last December, Senator John Hickenlooper wrote to President Biden expressing grave concern about the “calamitous state of insecurity coupled with a spiraling humanitarian crisis” in Haiti. He and other Senators said “many Haitians believe that [Prime Minister] Henry has no interest in leading Haiti closer to democracy and stability, particularly given his close affiliation with the [PHTK political party], which has a history of using gangs as a tool of repression.”

Three months later, the unelected and unpopular Prime Minister Ariel Henry was forced to resign after an alliance of gangs turned on him, violence shut down the capital city and the US pulled its support from him.

In his letter, Hickenlooper called on the Biden administration to engage with a civil society-led process to create a transitional government that could hold free and fair elections. The US has belatedly gotten behind that idea, and on April 12 a Transitional Presidential Council was established.

The Council will face tremendous challenges neutralizing the gangs, restoring security, addressing widespread hunger and lack of basic services, and beginning to rebuild a democracy that has been systematically dismantled over the past ten years.

From our experience and knowledge of the country we have seen that Haitians are capable, when allowed, to come together to solve crises. In 1804, Haitians rose up and overthrew Napoleon’s army to end slavery and became the first independent black republic in the world. They have built effective grassroots organizations, microfinance programs and improved their communities against all odds.

But far too often, Haitians have had to deal with foreign interference in their affairs. In 2021, when the President was assassinated, there was no constitutional path forward, because elections hadn’t been held for years. The US, France and others stepped in and backed Ariel Henry as Prime Minister. This support effectively blocked a proposal for a transitional government to lay the groundwork for fair elections which had been put forward by an unprecedented coalition of unions, human rights, religious groups and associations of farmers and professionals.

The results have been disastrous. Under Henry’s government, chaos has descended as gangs have taken over 90% of Port-au-Prince, the capital city. Thousands have been killed or kidnapped, and hundreds of thousands displaced. According to the United Nations, four million people – almost half the population – face “acute food insecurity” and one million of them are a step away from famine.

The US now has the opportunity to learn from its mistakes and not repeat them. We hope that the Biden administration abandons the status quo and listens to members of Congress, religious, human rights and economic development groups along with unions and the Haitian diaspora who are calling for a change.

Photo credit: Steven Depolo on Unsplash

The administration can support the new Council without dictating conditions. Allow the Haitian people to first install a transitional government with the engagement of a broad swath of civil society, and then let them seek whatever international assistance they need in a transparent fashion.

The US has pushed for a Kenyan-led Multinational Security Support Mission and pledged $300 Million for it. But many Haitians worry that the foreign forces won’t speak French or Creole, and about Amnesty International reports of human rights abuses by the Kenyan police forces. They don’t want a repeat of past foreign military interventions which have resulted in human rights violations and the deadly introduction of cholera to the country. Now, the Council will need to decide whether and on what terms this multinational force can help neutralize the gangs, and the US should respect its decision and Haiti’s sovereignty.

As Senator Hickenlooper has urged, President Biden should strengthen sanctions against Haitian elites and officials responsible for colluding with, supporting and financing the gangs. Very importantly, the Senator also asked what additional steps will be taken to stem the flow of arms to the gangs from the US. “It is shocking that despite the horrific situation on the ground, arms keep still pouring in. I appeal for a more effective implementation of the arms embargo,” the UN human rights commissioner, Volker Turk, said recently.

Additionally, US economic and humanitarian aid should focus on Haitian-led organizations and initiatives. Too often in the past, it has prioritized US consultants and agribusiness at the expense
of the Haitian people. Until such time as Haiti has had sufficient calm and security to allow legitimate elections and rebuild a durable democratic government, the US must stop deporting
Haitians to a country that is so unsafe that we’ve evacuated our own citizens. Instead, President Biden should expand Temporary Protected Status for Haitians who have fled Haiti and sought refuge here and extend TPS upon expiration in August 2024.

The crisis facing them can seem overwhelming, but the Haitian people have overcome daunting challenges in the past. They deserve to be able to determine their own future, without foreign interference – for a change.

Judith Bauduy lived in Haiti and has extended family there. Helen McDermott has been to Haiti
several times to teach music.