Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. He has published two books on Haiti.
Haiti is in big trouble. As a geopolitical problem, it obviously ranks below the war in Ukraine, the internal conflict in Myanmar, and China’s threats to Taiwan, but no nation has collapsed so completely as Haiti. It has always been the most perilously poor, abused, dangerously corrupt failed state in the Western Hemisphere, but now it has no real government, its 12 million people are frantically insecure, and thousands of migrants flee daily to other parts of the Americas.
When U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked last week, they understandably failed to find a sure way to fix Haiti. Mr. Biden is busy with Ukraine, Russia, and Taiwan. Mr. Trudeau is wisely reluctant to become saddled with solving Haiti’s problems; Canada is deploying two naval vessels to patrol its waters and contributing materiel to Haiti’s police. But Mr. Trudeau – and one can scarcely blame him – hardly wants to become responsible for restoring Haiti’s sanity and its people’s safety.
Nevertheless, something must be done and Canada should help. The people of Haiti cannot continue to survive without the outside assistance that acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry, its only civilian governmental authority, has pleaded for. The Responsibility to Protect, a principle established by Canada and later adopted by the United Nations, means that Haiti’s plight demands external assistance. The UN could and should make Haiti a ward of the world body, putting it under UN trusteeship for five or 10 years until its own government can be restored.
Such an arrangement would be unprecedented. But there may be no other way to free Haiti from the grip of criminal gangs.
Gangs rule the capital city of Port-au-Prince and much of the countryside. There are said to be more than 200 gangs roaming Port-au-Prince and other cities, but a series of five or six gangs vie for control in the capital, corralling people in the slums and raiding more upscale areas in the hills above the city.
Gang members ride around town as if they owned it, overwhelming, threatening and co-opting what is left of Haiti’s outgunned and out-financed national police force and small army.
The gangs loot, kidnap for ransom, extort, and compel what is left of Mr. Henry’s governmental associates to cower in their homes and offices. Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century described this manner of life as “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Gangs control electricity generation and pumped water. They control the streets. They murder indiscriminately every day in the slums.
In addition to stripping what little cash is available in Haiti, and fighting viciously for “territory” (as in some North American big cities), gangs and their leaders profit by trafficking cocaine and heroin from Colombia and marijuana from Jamaica northward toward Florida and beyond. Much of this drug smuggling began in the 1990s, when landing strips in Haiti’s interior became convenient stopping places en route north.
It is since the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse by hired hands in 2021, however, that gang combat and violence have consumed Haiti.
There have been no elections, and the terms of the previously existing governmental functionaries all expired. Only Mr. Henry is left, and he has neither the funds, the personnel, nor the legitimacy to right Haiti’s sinking ship.
That is why in October, in despair and in danger, he pleaded with the world to come to his aid. He asked for military assistance that would restore some measure of security and allow Haiti to rebuild its administration.
The international community should heed his call. That would mean installing new outside managers to run and resuscitate Haiti, controlling its revenue stream and employing contributions from UN members to rebuild and administer the state. But even before newcomers could attempt to restore the governing mechanisms of the state, the gangs would have to be subdued. Those external security forces would have to be tough-minded, strong and incorruptible. Perhaps the Brazilian army, which provided peacekeepers from Haiti in 2004 to 2017, could return.
With some other force regaining order, French-speaking Canadians might then be able to restore the government to working order. Some or all of those Canadians could be from the Haitian diaspora that has settled in Montreal and other parts of Canada. What would be required would be committed and tough-minded administrators, with corporate as well as government experience.
There is no time to spare. Haiti will fall deeper into the inner circles of hell if the UN and North Americans fail to respond to the hemisphere’s most urgent security issue.