No One Wants to Help Haiti
But one thing will get America to help
Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021, Haiti has been steering towards disaster. But this last month, Haiti has stepped on the accelerator. It likely needs outside help to put it back on course, but the international community is acting like the bystander witnessing a fight who, instead of helping, whips out his phone and starts recording a TikTok.
While a lot has happened this last year, the current crisis began in September when Prime Minister Ariel Henry—who is not only the unelected leader of Haiti because the government has failed to replace President Moise but is also one of the leading suspects in orchestrating the assassination—announced an end to fuel subsidies. As any economist will tell you, subsidies will lead to shortages, and there was a thriving black market in gasoline. Ending subsidies means ending the black market. So the profiteers started financing protests.
On top of that, Haiti's gangs, who were already gaining significant power while the state did nothing, asserted even greater power. They have blocked access to ports and fuel sources. They are restricting traffic through neighborhoods. Their threat is so large that many Haitians refuse to leave their homes and the country is on lockdown.
And what's happening as a result? Hospitals don't have fuel to run their generators. Haiti can't run its water treatment plants, so cholera is resurging. Many Haitians can't get food and are going hungry. It's an unquestionable humanitarian crisis.
So where is the international community?
As Jacqueline Charles reports, "A proposal by the United States encouraging the rapid deployment of an international military force to Haiti is on the verge of failure after no country volunteered to contribute troops."
Why isn't anyone doing anything? It's because intervening in Haiti is all costs and no benefits. And, frankly, there is only one thing that will pull us in.
What are the costs of intervention? Besides the actual fiscal costs of mobilizing troops and committing to a long-run occupation no one is interested in, the biggest cost is that this is a guaranteed public relations disaster. There's just no way to avoid it.
What will it take to establish stability in Haiti? Someone has to show the gangs that they are not in charge. That's going to require at minimum a threat of violence, but more likely actual violence.
In the 1915 occupation, the Marines also had to establish stability by threatening paramilitary groups. And they were less hesitant to make such threats. In fact, many were celebrated for their violence. One of the Marines' most inhumane acts was not only killing insurgent leader Charlemagne Peralte, but then nailing his corpse to a door and distributing pictures to towns housing insurgent groups. When this news reached America, it was treated like the latest pulp adventure book. “Passengers arriving yesterday from Haiti...had a thrilling story to tell about the slaying of the Haitian bandit Charlemangue [sic]" (NYT 7 Dec 1919).
Thankfully, we are not as bloodthirsty as we were a century ago. Headlines where American soldiers kill Haitian gang leaders are not going to play well. And what if Americans start dying in Haiti? People will reasonably question why American troops are in Haiti in the first place.
Nobody wants to get dragged into a fight that is an inevitable PR disaster. Clearly, sometimes we do. But that happens when there are at least a possibility that the US will benefit. In this case, there are no benefits.
If Haiti was a national security threat, maybe the US would intervene. In fact, that's what motivated the 1915 occupation. Haiti was in a similar political predicament, with coups changing the president roughly every 6 months. The US didn't care much, except that the world was going to war with Germany, and Germany had a major presence in Haiti. Since Haiti was in a strategically critical spot—not just close to the US but close to the newly opened Panama Canal—the US was interested in pushing out the Germans. It also helped that some American business interests thought they could make some money in Haiti, which gave the US government domestic support landing Marines in Haiti.
But Haiti is not a national security threat. So why would the US intervene? Indeed, the only country that sees instability in Haiti as a national security threat is the Dominican Republic. Unsurprisingly, the DR is the most motivated to help Haiti! It recently sent diesel fuel to Haitian hospitals because it is not interested in receiving Haitian refugees.
Now, if China says it's stepping in to help, you can bet that the US will be interested. But until then, there's only one thing that will trigger a sense of urgency in the US.
Here's a startling statistic: in 1994, approximately 21,000 refugees left Haiti in two months. To DC, this looked like the tip of the iceberg, because it was rumored that there were another 300,000 ready to come over. This refugee crisis made Haiti a high political priority and led to the interventions we saw in the 90s.
With how bad things are in Haiti, why aren't we seeing Haitians fleeing the country? Well, a year ago we saw about 30,000 Haitians show up on the Texas border, but they were coming from Chile, so it didn't appear like a refugee crisis. Where are the boat people?
It turns out, there's plenty, but the US Coast Guard has gotten really good at intercepting them. In the fiscal year of 2020, the Coast Guard stopped 418 Haitians. In FY2021, it had jumped to 1,527. And Between Oct 1, 2021 and June 1, 2022, the Coast Guard stopped 5,390. There is a refugee crisis, but we're not paying much attention because we're stopping them before they reach the US.
The single greatest thing that will prompt the US to act in Haiti is if Haitians start showing up in the US by the thousands. As long as Haitians stay in Haiti, DC doesn't see this as a US problem. But when refugees come, it becomes a tricky political problem. Especially to Democrats going into the 2024 election cycle, where the two leading Republican contenders are courting strong anti-immigrant sentiments. A refugee crisis would be so much fuel on the Republican fire that it could solve Haiti's diesel shortages.
Understanding this, the Biden administration might act before an actual refugee crisis. Biden could follow the playbook from his VP days and step in if there's a credible threat that refugees will come. One of the reasons the Obama administration was willing to commit to big aid after the 2010 earthquake was to get ahead of refugee aftershocks.
If the pressure to leave keeps building, it will hasten American troops. Otherwise, America sees very little benefit intervening.
I don't know what the right play is here. I wish there was an easy way America could come in and help, whether through direct support or (even better) a Haitian-led solution. And I wish that a humanitarian crisis was enough to light a fire under us. But right now there is no urgency in DC to provide any support.
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Dear Mr. Palsson,
I have struggled to understand the concept that
You shared that "subsidies will lead to shortages, and there was a thriving black market in gasoline."
I can't see how the subsidies led to shortages in Haiti.
Could you help non-exinomist understand?