The Biden administration is confronting a new and complicated foreign policy crisis as political turmoil grips Haiti following the assassination of its president.
The assassination remains shrouded in mystery, and it’s unclear who carried out or financed the killing.
Regional experts are raising alarm that the president’s murder, while extraordinary, is only one part of Haiti’s ongoing hardships that threaten a broader humanitarian crisis and possible flood of refugees into neighboring countries, including the United States.
Haiti is also contending with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlantic hurricane season and a plague of gang violence, all of which have been made worse by the country’s dysfunctional political system.
“It is a tinderbox really ready to explode,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, president and CEO of the Truman National Security Project.
Haitian authorities announced the arrest late Sunday night of Florida-based Haitian doctor Christian Emmanuel Sanon, 63, who they have determined is a chief suspect.
More than a dozen Colombian nationals with military experience and two Haitian Americans were arrested in connection with the fatal shooting attack on Haitian President Jovenel Moïse that occurred in his home outside Port-au-Prince in the early hours of July 7.
The Haitian government has requested U.S. military support to secure the country’s critical infrastructure as well as security assistance from the United Nations (U.N.). A U.S. delegation comprised of officials from various departments met with Haitian authorities and the country’s political leaders on Sunday to assess how the United States can assist.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that the request for U.S. troops is still under review by the Biden administration and has not yet been ruled out.
“This is just the beginning of our conversations,” Psaki said. “We will remain in close touch with law enforcement, with individuals in Haiti, with a range of leaders in Haiti about how we can assist and provide assistance moving forward.”
The White House has also urged the political leaders in Haiti to work together to find a path forward for a united leadership at a time when two prime ministers are claiming power.
“The people of Haiti deserve peace and security, and Haiti’s political leaders need to come together for the good of their country,” President Biden told reporters during an unrelated meeting on addressing U.S. gun violence, adding that he would have more to say about the situation later in the week.
Speed is critical for the Biden administration, said Luis Moreno, a veteran senior State Department official and former ambassador who served as deputy chief of mission to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti between 2001 and 2004.
“They’re in total chaos now, and it has the potential to go from total chaos to complete anarchy. And that’s what you’re up against,” he said.
Haiti’s acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, declared a “state of siege” for 15 days beginning last week that resulted in its borders being closed and the imposition of martial law.
If the security situation worsens in a way that overwhelms the Haitian National Police, pressure will rise on other nations to provide security assistance. If the U.S. does not send personnel on its own, it’s possible that a multinational force could be sent by the U.N. for a period of time.
The Biden administration has made clear its main line of communication is with Joseph amid confusion and controversy over the presidential line of succession. The country’s parliament has essentially been defunct for years over election delays and corruption, and Haiti’s constitution has competing versions written in Creole and French.
Days before his assassination, Moïse announced that neurosurgeon and former interior minister Ariel Henry would replace Joseph.
While Henry has said in remarks to the press that he views himself as the prime minister, regional watchers say he has made no moves to oust Joseph from his position of power, a nod to the Biden administration’s influence.
“It seems like he [Henry] was unwilling to pick a divisive and potentially dangerous fight over this anyway,” said Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer and founder and board member of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “The fact that the U.S. is coming out against him is probably going to be decisive for him.”
Over the weekend, U.S. officials from the departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security and the National Security Council met with both Joseph and Henry jointly as well as with Joseph Lambert, president of what remains of Haiti’s Senate, who was nominated by a group of senators last week for president.
“What was clear from their trip is that there is a lack of clarity about the future of political leadership,” Psaki said Monday. “That’s an important step that the people of Haiti, the different governing leaders of Haiti need to work together to determine a united path forward.”
Wazim Mowla, assistant director for the Caribbean Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center with the Atlantic Council, said that Haiti presents an opportunity for Biden to put into practice his policy push to embrace multilateralism in addressing global crises, bringing in regional stakeholders such as CARICOM, the organization of heads of government of the Caribbean Community, and the Organization of American States.
“It is an opportunity for the Biden administration to exert some sort of leadership but in a way that’s been different in the past,” Mowla said.
“It’s no secret that the international community and even the U.S. have both been passive at times when it comes to Haiti but also disorganized. This struggle for political leadership we’re seeing in Haiti right now does present a challenge for coordination between the U.S., regional and international organizations, allies in the hemisphere, and then most importantly Haitian people and Haitian stakeholders.”
The crisis in Haiti also comes at a time when Biden is trying to keep focused on his domestic agenda. He’s scheduled to deliver a speech on voting rights in Philadelphia on Tuesday while his administration tries to usher a bipartisan infrastructure package through a narrowly divided Congress and increase the uptake of coronavirus vaccinations in the U.S.
It’s also not the only foreign policy challenge Biden faces. In the same breath that he addressed the Haiti crisis on Monday, Biden offered support for the people of Cuba as protests swelled against the government of the island nation over the weekend.
The international community has sent billions in aid to Haiti over the last decade, but the funds have done little to resolve the violence, poverty and political turmoil plaguing the country.
“There is a real reluctance to engage, although there could be a prevailing humanitarian need to do so,” said Ben-Yehuda.