When it comes to Haiti, President Joe Biden’s instincts are right: The best the United States can do is to do as little as possible — and, if possible, a bit less.
What the U.S. owes Haiti is what it’s already giving: legal and forensic aid to investigate last week’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Two Haitian Americans reportedly participated in carrying out the plot. Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian-born doctor based in Florida, has been arrested in Haiti on allegations that he ordered the assassination to make himself president. Former Colombian soldiers suspected of belonging to the hit squad had been hired by CTU Security, a firm based near Miami and run by a Venezuelan émigré.
But if U.S. authorities can help Haiti establish the facts about Moïse’s murder, they cannot help the country change the facts that led up to it — the endemic corruption, rampant lawlessness and institutional decay that have long crippled Haiti, and that make nearly every form of foreign assistance not only useless but also harmful.
That starts with the military intervention that the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, requested of Washington. The U.S. has a history of sending troops to Haiti, from the long occupation begun by Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton’s invasion on behalf of the demagogic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide to briefer intercessions by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
With the exception of the last of these — a limited humanitarian operation in the wake of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake — none of the interventions left Haiti better off. Worse have been deployments of U.N. peacekeepers, whose shameful contributions included child sex abuse and a cholera epidemic that killed thousands.
An American military intervention now would not serve a humanitarian purpose. Nor would it serve a law-and-order purpose, unless Americans want the 82nd Airborne to police gang warfare in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
What it would do is serve the political purposes of Joseph, who has effectively declared martial law even though his own claim on power is contested by the man Moïse appointed to take Joseph’s place just before his death. No U.S. interest would be served by getting in the middle of this. No Haitian interest would be served, either.
The usual alternative to military assistance is development aid. In Haiti’s case, this is even more destructive.
Following the 2010 earthquake, pundits and economists proposed multibillion-dollar aid packages for Haiti (though some of us demurred). Ultimately, some $9 billion in aid and another $2 billion worth of oil arrived. Billions were embezzled and wasted. Both Moïse and his predecessor, Michel Martelly, ruled autocratically and were widely suspected of corruption. A recent story by my colleagues Dan Bilefsky and Catherine Porter, reported from a leafy residential area in Montreal, gives a clear picture of where some of this aid may have ended up.
The problems aren’t all on the Haitian side. In 2016, Yamiche Alcindor painted a devastating portrait in The New York Times of the work Bill and Hillary Clinton had done in the country. “Fewer than half the jobs promised at the industrial park, built after 366 farmers were evicted from their lands, have materialized,” Alcindor wrote of one Clinton-supported project. “Many millions of dollars earmarked for relief efforts have yet to be spent. Mrs. Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham has turned up in business ventures on the island, setting off speculation about insider deals.”
Yet the question of whether the greater share of blame lies with the donor or the recipient misses the larger point: Aid to Haiti fosters dependence, invites embezzlement, enervates the institutions of state and civil society, discourages local initiatives, misdirects capital to donor-favored schemes, enriches the well-connected and enrages everyone else.
It’s also degrading. Treating people as helpless has a bad way of making them so.
What could help? The best way for Haiti to cease being an “aid state” is to stop the flow of aid, except during humanitarian emergencies. That also means cutting off the spigot to Beltway firms through which the USAID funnels much of the aid.
A humbler effort — to help impoverished and dispossessed Haitians acquire legal title to their property — would go further to establish a basis for prosperity than another Clinton-financed industrial park. A dedicated anti-corruption effort in Canada, the U.S. and France to track down the ill-gotten gains of Haiti’s political class would also be a useful way of punishing their predatory behavior and encouraging political reform.
But the greatest gift the Biden administration can give the people of Haiti is to stop trying to save them. The unassisted success of the Haitian diaspora shows how talented, enterprising, creative and resourceful ordinary Haitians are when left to their own initiative. What Haitians at home need is the faith that they, too, can be successful captains of their fate, when freed from the clutches of those who would kill them with kindness.