For years, the United States has adopted a wary tolerance of Haiti, batting aside the horror of kidnappings, murders and gang warfare. The more convenient strategy generally seemed to be backing whichever government was in power and supplying endless amounts of foreign aid.
Donald Trump supported President Jovenel Moïse mainly because Mr. Moïse supported a campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. And in February, the Biden administration accepted Mr. Moïse’s tenuous argument that he still had another year to serve despite opposition calls for his departure and large street protests. Mr. Moïse, though initially elected to a five-year term due to end in 2021, did not take office until 2017, thus his claim to an extra year as president.
There had appeared to be a tacit understanding during Mr. Moïse’s rule: Haiti is turbulent and difficult, a bomb waiting to explode in the hands of anyone who attempts to defuse it. After all, why should Mr. Biden take on the unrewarding task of “fixing” Haiti when there was already an elected president in office who could bear the brunt of criticism about the deteriorating political situation there?
But the assassination of Mr. Moïse on Wednesday will now force a reluctant administration to focus more carefully on the next steps it wants to take concerning Haiti. There are no simple options.
The killing has destroyed the Biden administration’s hopes (however far-fetched) for a peaceful transfer of power with elections presided over by Mr. Moïse. But that’s not to say that Haiti’s future is entirely up to the United States nor should it be. When the United States has stepped in, Haitians have ended up worse off. When President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was killed by an angry crowd in 1915, U.S. Navy ships lay on the Haitian coast waiting to quell unrest to keep Haiti stable for American business interests there. In the wake of the killing, U.S. Marines occupied Haiti and remained there for 19 years.
U.S. interventions didn’t stop there. In 1986, the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier (and his father before him) fell to a combination of popular unrest in Haiti and political maneuvering by Washington. The country managed to hold its first free and fair elections in 1990, in which Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former liberation-theology priest, was elected. Three years after Mr. Aristide was removed in a coup, the Clinton administration reinstated him.
Haiti was never able to shake off the foreign yoke, except, one might argue, during the darkest days of the Duvalier regime. Over the years it has been at the mercy of the United States, of course, and of the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the Organization of American States and the United Nations, which deployed a peacekeeping force there from 2004 until 2017. Yet Haiti has ended up just as poor and unstable as ever, if not more so. And the country never truly recovered from a devastating earthquake in 2010.
Drug cartels and their Haitian connections have also played a damaging role. Observers say that much of the violence in recent years has stemmed from turf wars between street gangs operating in a largely lawless environment.
The presidential mandate of Mr. Moïse itself was iffy, to say the least. Only 21 percent of the electorate voted in that election. Nevertheless, it was easier for the United States and other parties to tolerate Mr. Moïse and wait for the next elections, no matter how flawed they were likely to be, than to deal with a void created by his assassination.
President Biden has called Mr. Moïse’s killing “very worrisome.” But Haiti was very worrisome even before the killing. Now the United States is confronted by an even murkier situation there: no leader, no legislature, a justice system in disarray, a nonfunctioning and dispirited police and army, and gangs roaming the streets. It’s not clear what will emerge from the vacuum at the top — perhaps a new strongman or, less likely, an interim government.
Despite that precariousness, the United States has still called for elections before the end of the year. But it’s hard to imagine how elections can proceed in an atmosphere of security and freedom, leading to a truly democratically elected president and legislature. As it stands, two men are claiming the role of prime minister, accentuating the sense of instability.
Haiti’s problems cannot be solved by U.S. intervention. The United States no longer has the standing, the stomach or even the desire to impose its vision on Haiti. The best option right now for the United States is to wait and watch and listen not just to the usual suspects but to a broad new generation of Haitian democrats who can responsibly begin to move toward a more workable Haitian polity.
Haiti still needs the cooperation of international friends who pay attention to the character and the goals of those to whom they extend financial and political support, rather than choosing a convenient candidate in a quickie election, with the catastrophic results for the country that we’ve seen in the past.
A majority of Haitians want to build back their institutions and return to a normal life: schools, clinics and businesses opening again, a plan to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, produce markets functioning and safe streets free from the threat of armed gangs. This is the best of all possible outcomes for Haiti — but sadly, it’s improbable, at least in the near future.
Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier and Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti, among other books. She is a Guggenheim fellow and teaches in the Literary Journalism Program at the University of California, Irvine.