Opinion | Has the U.S. learned how to help Haiti?

In World

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In the same week that Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, descended into the clutches of marauding, power-hungry gangs, the Protestant Episcopal Church celebrated the life of James Holly, who was “born in the western part of Washington City, near Georgetown, October 3d, 1829” (as he described it in an 1897 biographical statement) of formerly enslaved Black parents and who would go on to become Haiti’s first Episcopal bishop.

Holly was eyewitness to the suffering and despair of 19th-century Haitians trying to forge a living in their independent Caribbean nation. He died there in 1911, having devoted his life to the work of his church. Holly’s final presentment of “wants” for his mission in 1897: construction of a parish rectory in Port-au-Prince; opening of a primary school, a dispensary and hospital in the capital; and “a training school for candidates for holy orders.”

Death ravaged many of those who arrived with him on the ship that sailed from New Haven, Conn., to Haiti on May 1, 1861, including five Holly family members who succumbed to “a destructive fever” within nine months of arrival. But key to Holly’s story is that he and his two motherless sons soldiered on with building a nation that is a far cry from the leaderless mobocracy that today keeps Haiti — with no functioning legislature and no elections in nearly a decade — the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

And no country knows that history better than the United States, which has long been a presence for ill and good in the lives of Haitians.

Who dispatched U.S. Marines into Haiti to remove $500,000 from the Haitian National Bank for “safekeeping” in New York, thereby giving Uncle Sam control over the financial institution?

Why, President Woodrow Wilson, in 1914.

Who, following the assassination of the Haitian president, ostensibly sent U.S. Marines to prevent anarchy and protect U.S. assets, but ended up with the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915, which gave the United States complete authority over Haitian finances and the right to intervene in Haiti whenever it saw fit?

Again, Wilson, whose administration also forced the election of a new pro-American Haitian president, which didn’t sit well with the Haitian populace. The unrest that followed eventually prompted the United States to train Haitians to take control of their country, giving President Franklin D. Roosevelt an opportunity to withdraw in 1934 under his Good Neighbor Policy.

The United States returned in 1994 in Operation Uphold Democracy — an undertaking involving about 20,000 troops that was designed to return to power Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had involuntarily departed office following a coup. U.S. forces joined a U.N. peacekeeping deployment that got there first in 1993 and remained until 2000.

In fact, there has never been a time in the modern day when the United States has not been involved with Haiti.

This week, in an emergency meeting in Jamaica with regional leaders, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced an additional $33 million in humanitarian assistance to Haiti, as well as an additional $100 million for the Multinational Security Support Mission that is supposed to go in and help restore some sense of peace and security for people who have known anything but for decades. The United States remains the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance to Haiti, donating nearly $146 million since fiscal 2023.

“To say that Haiti is … among the 30 poorest countries in the entire world does not adequately describe the reality. Almost 75 percent of the population live[s] under conditions of absolute poverty; this means that the overwhelming majority could not afford what is considered the minimum standard of food and non-food items.”

Those words are drawn from a statement I presented to the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, refugees and international law in June 1980 in my capacity as the U.S. executive director at the World Bank. That nearly 44-year-old congressional hearing was consumed with testimony documenting gross violations of human rights, government corruption and mismanagement, and tales of many thousands of Haitians fleeing their country — much like conditions of today.

Just as then, Haiti is a small nation that is a second thought to the rest of the world until it descends into a madness of raping and pillaging, kidnappings, killings and human degradation that a civilized world cannot afford to ignore.

It’s much like the world of Bishop Holly, whose requests for sponsorship of his efforts to establish schools, pastoral training programs and countryside medicine received many denials from the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church.

Ariel Henry, Haiti’s unelected prime minister, who’s being forced out of office by both the United States (which deems him ineffective) and the gangs (which regard him as weak and in the way) said in his resignation announcement: “Haiti wants peace. Haiti wants stability. Haiti needs to rebuild democratic institutions.”

As a desperate Holly knew more than 100 years ago, and the United States knows now: Haiti needs help — sustained, unwavering support — but not Woodrow Wilson’s way.

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Read More: Opinion | Has the U.S. learned how to help Haiti?

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