Joe Biden came to office with a few expected foreign challenges in mind: the response to the COVID pandemic, a way to deal with Russia, the issue of climate change, and of course the concerning rise of China as a global competitor to the United States. However, the Biden White House is facing a new, chaotic, and potentially unsolvable foreign policy riddle far closer to home: the unfurling crisis in Haiti.
Earlier this week, the Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was murdered at his own home by a large group of mercenaries, some of which are Colombian or American nationals, in a move that has astonished the world and has worsened the already precarious political situation in Haiti.
The assassination of a president would be a significant blow to the stability of any country, however, Haiti is the last ingredient for a political storm. Moïse was an already controversial president, who had disbanded Parliament last year and with the opposition saying that he was occupying the president past his term.
To add fuel to the fire, the succession line in Haiti is murky. The Prime Minister’s office (which would be the natural successor) is claimed by two different politicians, and there is no way that the legislature could solve the issue as it stands practically inactive. Finally, the supreme court chief justice, the last public officer who could have some sort of legitimate claim died a few days ago of COVID-19.
In other words, Haiti is currently facing a potential power vacuum, as the country reels from the COVID pandemic, and with dozens of paramilitary criminal groups roaming the streets of the capital. Definitely not the best recipe for a country that already suffers from a perpetual economic crisis and turbulent history.
The Biden administration has openly condemned the magnicide, calling it a “heinous act” and Secretary Blinken talked to Claude Joseph, who is the Prime Minister who currently appears to have ensured the obedience of the Haitian police (Haiti does not have an army) and is de facto acting as the head of government of the country.
The U.S has authorized the deployment of FBI agents and DHS agents to aid Haitian authorities in the investigation of Moïses’ murder. However, it appears that just sending a commission to investigate what happened will not be enough, as Haitian authorities have already asked the U.S government to send troops to guard key infrastructure in the country.
Will the U.S send troops to Haiti?
The Haitian interim Prime Minister already made an official request for the U.S to deploy troops in key areas of the city, with Joseph saying to AP that “We definitely need assistance and we’ve asked our international partners for help”.
One minister portrayed the situation in a more dramatic way, with him also saying to AP that “What do we do? Do we let the country fall into chaos? (…) We’re not asking for the occupation of the country. We’re asking for small troops to assist and help us. … As long as we are weak, I think we will need our neighbors”.
As of today, the Biden administration has yet to announce any decision regarding Haiti’s interim government request for boots on the ground. However, the growing chaos in Haiti will soon need a direct response by the United States and its neighbors, as further destabilization in Haiti could bring more negative effects for the rest of the region.
This would not be the first time that the U.S has had any type of military presence in Haiti. Americans were heavily involved in a military invasion at the beginning of the 20th century which eventually lasted almost twenty years, after a similar scenario to that of today: the murder of a president and the ensuing chaos in the streets of Port au Prince.
More recently President Bill Clinton authorized the U.S Military to deploy its assets in the country in the hopes of restoring Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after he was deposed in a military coup.
Haiti also went through a long UN peacekeeping operation after another coup in 2004, this mission also had a role to play after the devastating 2010 earthquake, although it was scarred by a flurry of human rights violation allegations and ended in 2017.
Biden began his presidency shifting his gears to tackle issues of global competition with foreign powers like China and Russia, while also commanding a hasty retreat from Afghanistan which has left much of the country in a vulnerable situation against the Taliban insurgency. However, While troops in Afghanistan are retreating and China rises as a rival, the situation in Haiti will bring the White House a challenge that is far closer to home.