Bursting your bubble: Haiti just can’t catch a break
In 1804, a group of formerly enslaved people emerged victorious against the tyranny of French colonists in Haiti, making history as the first nation in the Americas to abolish slavery. However, the victory proved to be bitterly pyrrhic. A bitter France forced Haiti to pay 112 million francs in reparations to their own enslavers under persistent threat of an invasion, leaving Haiti in crippling debt. Though the United States finally recognized Haiti’s independence in 1862, economic sanctions, incessant political instability and the Cold War (not to mention a U.S. occupation from 1915-34 following the assassination of the Haitian president) left Haiti dependent on foreign aid in the form of food and medical supplies.
Around the turn of the 21st century, amid a coup d’etat that overthrew democratically-elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the U.S. and United Nations decided to rebrand its interventions in the nation as humanitarian aid. From 2004 to 2017, the U.N. operated a peacekeeping mission in Haiti, codenamed MINUSTAH, which Haitians have accused of introducing cholera and abetting widespread sexual abuse.
As of Tuesday, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is again calling for deployment of specialized forces in Haiti to take down the ongoing gang violence brutalizing the country. The UN announced Tuesday that 187 people have been killed in the past 11 days amid the political turmoil following the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
On Wednesday, I phoned Niels Frenzen, clinical professor of law and director of the Immigration Clinic at the Gould School of Law, to discuss the history of U.S.-Haiti relations and the potential impacts of another foreign intervention should it occur. Frenzen, who has been teaching at USC since 2000, previously served as the supervising attorney at the Haitian Refugee Center, a “Haitian refugee-founded and Haitian refugee-run” organization based in Miami.
“Very few Haitians’ asylum claims were successful,” Frenzen recalled from his work at the HRC. “Back in the day — I can’t remember what the approval rate was for Haitian asylum applications, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of less than 2%.” As of 2021, Haitian migrants still have the lowest asylum approval rate since 2018, at just under 5%.
The particular racism historically directed at Haiti was precisely due to the U.S.’ fear of similar uprisings in their own country inspired by the Haitian Revolution, uprooting a system that massively benefited white plantation owners.
“Haiti was already seen as a threat to the United States from day one of Haitian independence,” Frenzen told me. “One can never overstate the role that race has played, in that [Haiti] is a predominantly Black country, and has suffered because of institutional racism — [which] is so much a part of the American experience.”
Such racism has manifested, and continues to manifest, in the U.S.’ response to Haitian migrants seeking asylum. The (senior) Bush administration in 1991 refused to grant asylum to migrants fleeing that year’s coup d’etat — which saw the deposition of Aristide — claiming their applications were on the basis of “economic conditions” and not political persecution. Former President Donald Trump, followed by his successor Joe Biden, used the coronavirus pandemic “as an excuse to prevent people from pursuing asylum in the United States,” Frenzen told me, enacting Title 42 expulsions to prevent migrants’ entry into the U.S.
In some cases, the imagery is hardly abstract: As recently as September 2021, video footage emerged of Border Patrol officers on horseback appearing, to some, to whip Haitian migrants as they crossed the Rio Grande. A nine-month federal investigation concluded that agents did not use whips but did maneuver their horses dangerously around the migrants and used denigrating language.
As for foreign interventions in Haiti itself, Frenzen told me that while he believed in the concept of “humanitarian intervention by force,” he still had his doubts about how exactly it would be executed.
“The United Nations and the U.S. and Canada, among other countries, have been talking about renewed intervention of some sort in Haiti, and that has been done,” Frenzen said. “It has been done for over 100 years, on several occasions, and nothing good comes of it… There aren’t many good options — if any good options — that are on the table,” he told me.
But Haiti is stuck — ruined by “humanitarian” efforts that are really just covers for exploitation, yet, having been crippled by said efforts, ironically reliant on them to survive. By the end of our conversation, neither Frenzen nor I had any confidence in yet another military intervention changing Haiti for the better, should it actually take place.
“What would the United States — or, what would an international force do?” Frenzen said. “It’s not a situation where we have two armies fighting one another and we’re talking about putting peacekeepers … it’s just unclear what a military force would do, other than to go in and kill people. Is that the stated objective? To go in eliminating gangs by killing and locking them up?”
Even the U.S. is doubtful about doing it all over again; opinion after opinion from former ambassadors to Haiti beg the international community not to make the same mistakes it did over 20 years ago. James B. Foley, ex-U.S. ambassador to Haiti, wrote for The Atlantic that “the chances of success for a Haitian government that emerges from elections will still depend on the willingness of the U.S. and its partners to invest the resources required to build state institutions and address Haiti’s overwhelming needs.” Whether the U.S. will be so willing remains to be seen, especially when, as Frenzen told me, its only interests are “keeping Haitians in Haiti” and — to a lesser extent — keeping communism out.
Haiti is a test. The U.S. has had a significant racial reckoning in the past few years; it only took some 60 years after the civil rights movement and a nauseating amount of Black people to be murdered for it to happen, but nonetheless, it’s here. And yes, there was police reform, Black Lives Matter Plaza, Democratic congressmembers kneeling and wearing Ghanaian kente cloth and a San Francisco city-appointed committee proposing $5 million each in reparations to eligible Black adults. But how we respond to Haiti’s crisis — how, if at all, we help rebuild a nation whose very foundations are in Black power and resistance — will tell us if we’ve actually learned anything since then.