Joe Biden was in Canada last week for his first official visit as United States president. He was expected to request a Canadian-led intervention to “stabilize” Haiti to tackle the escalating widespread gang violence, political instability, and a cholera outbreak.
In his address to Canada's parliament, Biden said the US and Canada are “working with officials” in the country to “tackle the crises.”
This follows recent calls for armed foreign intervention by the unelected Haitian prime minister and acting president Ariel Henry. Last year, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres proposed countries send “a rapid action force” to help Haiti's police remove a threat posed by powerful armed gangs that have seized control of large portions of Port-au-Prince.
Complicating this is Canada’s past interventions that have undermined democracy in Haiti. “Stabilize” is diplomatic doublespeak that conceals a long history by both Canada and the US in destabilizing Haiti and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. The unlivable conditions have made Haiti a country “on the precipice of anarchy,” and has forced many to flee and seek asylum.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and military officials have been reluctant to increase Canadian involvement in the situation (Trudeau had already announced sending two naval vessels to Haiti last month), partly because the government is prioritizing their involvement in the war in Ukraine. Still, Canada should resist American pressure to intervene in Haiti.
President Biden clearly indicates policing role for Haiti - Americans had been interested in Canada running a mission. CAF basically doesn’t have capacity… but lots of hints about RCMP possible role.— Mercedes Stephenson (@MercedesGlobal) March 24, 2023
While the calls for foreign intervention, both by Haitian elites and North American diplomats, are framed in attempts to protect Haitians from further cycles of violence, Haitians have urged against these plans in protests that left one woman dead.
The demonstrators are deeply aware of the long history of foreign intervention in Haitian affairs, which have been structural in bringing Haiti to its current state.
In fact, much of the politics of Haiti are still decided by foreign powers, notably the members of a “Core Group” of diplomats from Global North countries, including Canada, the US, France, Brazil, and Germany, along with representatives from the UN, the European Union, and the Organization of American States (OAS). The group’s encouragements empowered Henry to govern Haiti following former President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination on July 7, 2021.
Other calls for non-intervention in Haitian affairs have been previously raised by anti-imperialist organizations such as the Black Alliance for Peace in the US and by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute. Canada should heed their call and stop backing Henry and other Haitian elites perpetuating Haiti’s hardships.
Successive coups and Haiti’s crisis
The US has directly intervened in Haiti countless times, and even militarily occupied the country for 19 years between 1915 and 1934 to support American corporate interests.
The occupation eliminated barriers to American investments, such as removing a constitutional clause that barred foreign property ownership, framed as an effort to “democratize” the country, but which was an obvious gift to American businessmen.
The US also backed the nearly 30-year-long dictatorships of the father and son presidents-for-life François and Jean-Claude Duvalier between 1957 and 1986 in support of their staunch anti-communism crusade.
In opposition to the Duvaliers, the progressive Lavalas movement crystallized around the charismatic figure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who eventually became the country’s first democratically elected leader in 1990. While the Haitian army launched coups against Aristide and created the infamous FRAPH far-right death squad, which killed impoverished supporters of Aristide with the help of US intelligence, Aristide ultimately succeeded at disbanding the corrupt army.
He was re-elected in 2000 with another decisive mandate that gave him the momentum to make bold claims, such as calling on France to pay back the debt it had extorted from Haiti as repayment for the loss of colonial slave plantations, or increasing the minimum wage.
Canada is not a neutral observer in the Haitian political sphere. When it became clear that Aristide was here to stay and create the conditions for improving living standards in Haiti in a way that would hurt Canadian interests, it became a leading force in regime change efforts in Haiti.
In 2003, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien organized the initially secret Ottawa initiative on Haiti, which brought together foreign powers with interests in Haiti (often referred to as the “international community”) to coordinate ahead of Aristide’s ouster. By February 2004, the coup was in motion, Aristide was kidnapped by heavily armed US marines and forced onto a plane to the Central African Republic while Canadian troops “secured” locations around Port-au-Prince, including the airport. The coup led to another wave of violent reprisals against supporters of Aristide and the imposition of new neoliberal economic restructuring programs. What was once the Ottawa initiative is now the Core Group, which continues to call the shots in Haiti.
Just before Biden’s address to Parliament last week, Chrétien was asked about Canada’s role in Haiti going forward. He told reporters “I think we should do something. It's very important but it's better to know exactly what will happen after we agree. You're running the risk to be alone there.”
An impulse to intervene?
As distressing news of a worsening situation continues to overwhelm coverage of Haiti in Canadian media, a Canadian-led intervention — particularly one framed as an effort to “stabilize” the country and root out the gangs — is an inappropriate response.
However, whether interest in Haitian troubles is genuine or not, intervention in Haiti is rooted in imperialism, and the Core Group has no legitimacy in intervening in Haiti. This is particularly true for Canada as documents demonstrating its participation in the 2004 coup continue to leak.
Additionally, the type of media coverage given to Haiti in Canadian media often serves to reinforce racist tropes, which render Haitians incapable of governing themselves, reminiscent of the colonial civilizing mission, thus proving pretext and justification for intervention.
The truth is that Haiti has never been allowed to develop an organic political landscape free from the interventions of the US, Canada, or France. The successive coups, invasions, and occupations of Haiti are structural reasons for today’s crisis in Haiti. A new intervention in Haiti will not solve the crisis but will only complicate Haitian problems.
Canada should listen to Haitians and avoid further intervention in Haiti. Trudeau himself has said that past interventions have not resolved the crisis in Haiti. He forgot to add that Canada was not a passive actor but a determined imperialist power in Haiti.
It’s safe to assume that when Canada is battling its own fears of Chinese meddling in its electoral process, avoiding interfering in other countries’ affairs would be a foregone conclusion. However, Canadian corporate interests, particularly in the textile industry, have benefitted from an unstable, impoverished Haiti, which serves as a cheap source of labour.
As prime minister and acting president of Haiti Ariel Henry gained power after the assassination of Jovenel Moïse’s nearly two years ago with the support of the Core Group, and has yet to organize elections (although these are supposed to happen at a still undefined time this year), his calls for military intervention should be seen as an attempt to entrench his current position and not a genuine call for the benefit of the average Haitian.
If Canada really wanted to help the people of Haiti, it could expedite the application process for Haitian refugee claims.