Where to in Haiti: New Principles of Engagement

Report Americas

Where to in Haiti: New Principles of Engagement

March 10, 2004 4 min read
Stephen Johnson
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Stephen served as a Senior Policy Analyst.

To date, U.S. interventions in Haiti have never been successful. The objective has always been to stabilize an unstable nation with a poorly educated populace and no social contract. The means of achieving stability has either been to take over the state or to back a popular leader-temporary fixes at best. If it is in America's interest to become involved this time, the most durable solution will lie between those extremes and will support the development of public institutions and an educated citizenry to maintain them.



In two decades of occupation from 1915 to 1934, the United States did virtually everything in Haiti. Through a Marine general acting as High Commissioner, it cleaned up foreign debts, built physical infrastructure like roads and public sanitation, and trained a professional security force. Meanwhile, Haitians served in government as figureheads.


When resentment grew against U.S. occupation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pulled back U.S. Marines without any provision to support what U.S. forces had built. Infrastructure crumbled and, despite elections, succeeding leaders became increasingly dictatorial in the absence of institutions to support better governance. And when the Duvalier Family came to power in 1957, they replaced the professional army with loyalist bullies called the Tontons Macoutes.


In 1994, President Bill Clinton took a different approach. His administration put its faith in a charismatic but flawed leader and pursued a quick exit strategy. Elected in 1990, deposed in 1991, and then restored by the United States in 1994, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a fiery parish priest with little experience in politics and none in government. He ruled by inciting street mobs to attack his opponents and often worked against the U.S. and international community's development agenda.


As he became increasingly dictatorial and resistant to advice, the United States and international partners began withholding assistance, which had accounted for 70 percent of the government's budget. Increasing violence and corruption repelled foreign investment, and Haiti's wobbly economy shriveled.


Starting over

Pressured by advancing rebel groups he had helped create and denied another bailout by the United States, France, and the Caribbean Community, Aristide resigned on February 29, 2004, and accepted safe passage for himself and his family to the Central African Republic. Following an agenda recommended to Aristide by the 15-member Caribbean Community, Haiti's leaders have been organizing an interim government to manage national affairs until elections bring in a new slate of public servants.


In advancing this process, the United States and its international partners would do well to consider lessons from past experience:  

  • Don't do Haitians' jobs for them. The occupation begun under President Wilson unraveled because few local leaders adopted democratic ideals and were not prepared to maintain and defend them. Haitians from all sectors and classes must be encouraged to become stakeholders in a democratic society.
  • Support institutions, not personalities. Congress and lobbyists pressured the Clinton Administration into backing the controversial, undemocratic Aristide to the point of invading Haiti in 1994 to restore him to office. Aristide interpreted this action as a license to govern autocratically. His behavior blocked the effective development of democratic institutions and squandered hundreds of millions of dollars. Absent the rule of law and checks and balances, an elected president does not constitute a democracy. U.S. benefactors should have conditioned Aristide's return with clear constraints on his authority. Future efforts in Haiti should focus on clear goals, not charisma.   
  • Peacekeepers should disarm both sides. Haiti has always been an armed camp. Today, weapons are in the hands of Aristide loyalists and the rebels who pressured him to resign. For Haiti's police force to keep peace in relative safety, they must not face threats from large, armed crowds.
  • Intervention and assistance has to be focused and coordinated. During the 1990s, some 300 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operated in Haiti, often at cross-purposes. Haiti can't absorb competing recommendations from neighboring countries and multilateral organizations until it can stand on its feet. The United States and international community must develop a coordinating mechanism to present a unified face to Haiti's interim and follow-on governments.
  • Education and citizenship must be priorities. Political and economic progress are not possible unless a broad range of citizens understand their relation to the state and have minimal skills to make a living. Without an understanding of their rights and responsibilities, they will not know what to expect from public servants nor be able to serve in office themselves. Support for broad, public education must be ongoing.
  • Sustain efforts over a long period-at least a decade or two. An educated democracy needs time to develop. Old habits need time to be extinguished. For its part, the United States should not hand over leadership of peacekeeping activities until after elections. The Organization of American States should supervise those elections and continue doing so until a durable electoral infrastructure is established. A multilateral donor commission should oversee financial support to ensure accountability and consonance between donor and Haitian government goals.
  • Don't extend more loans. For now, Haiti needs an allowance, not a credit card. Grants would be better for a nation so impoverished and unable to repay. At the same time, donors should enforce accountability. They should audit the Lavalas Party government to find out where money and resources disappeared and to avoid repeating mistakes. U.S. law enforcement agencies should investigate any links between Haiti's telecommunications industry, money laundering, and Aristide's lobbying activities in Washington.


Haiti's importance to the United States may be minimal compared to those of major trading partners or those of countries that pose a significant threat. Nevertheless, Haiti's stability is crucial to the fragile Caribbean community of democracies, and Haiti should not be home to a failed or hostile state. Modest, sustained influence and support for democratic and market institutions make more sense than periodic, costly bailouts.


Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Stephen Johnson

Former Senior Policy Analyst