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Haiti’s present political crisis coincides with the imminent wind-down of the UN Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH), deployed in 2004 to provide a basic level of security and consolidate Haitian democracy. Latin American countries have made a significant contribution to the mission, but it has not been enough: Haiti has been unable to strengthen democratic institutions and alleviate a critical economic and social situation. As countries initiate the withdrawal of MINUSTAH in the short term, Latin America has to renew its commitment to its poorest and most troubled country.

A Latin American-Led Mission Coming to an End

When MINUSTAH was created back in 2004, it was praised as an example of regional cooperation. Indeed, it likely prevented an impending civil war, as Haiti plunged into a chaos that forced President Jean Bertrand Aristide to leave power. For the first time in history, and with Washington’s encouragement, Latin American countries took up the leadership of a UN mission in their region: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile have provided 85 percent of the military and police officers. Further, a Brazilian general has led the military component of MINUSTAH since its creation, and several Latin Americans have been in charge of its civilian work as well.

However, the mission was never intended to be permanent and was extended beyond original plans to cope with the aftermath of the destructive 2010 earthquake. The Security Council renewed MINUSTAH for one more year last October, but then-Minister of Defense of Brazil Jacques Wagner announced that most countries—including his—expect to withdraw all troops by the end of 2016. Uruguay has already taken steps in this direction by reducing its contingent from 700 to 250 in 2015.

Local support for the mission has eroded significantly since 2004, and many Haitians perceive MINUSTAH as an occupying force. The relationship with the Haitian people deteriorated further because of accusations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, and after Nepali troops brought cholera to the country. This unpopularity,  Latin America’s traditional rejection of foreign interventions, and rising budget constraints have increased pressures on regional governments to wind-down the mission.

Given that MINUSTAH will be reduced in the near future while Haiti’s multiple crises persist, this is a good time to analyze what regional countries can do to help Haiti build basic institutions and provide public services to its people. To be sure, Latin American countries are facing serious economic and social problems of their own, but they can offer assistance based on their own experiences and challenges.

Pervasive Poverty And Institutional Weakness

It is useful to begin with a brief overview of the current situation. Haiti—the first Latin American nation to declare independence, in 1804—is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $820, less than one-tenth of the Latin American average of roughly $9000. According to the World Bank, 60 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, and life expectancy stands at 62 years, much lower than the 74 years of Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole. The nation is also one of the most unequal in the world: the wealthiest 20 percent of the population accounts for 62 percent of the income. The little progress the country had made since 2004 was set back during the 2010 earthquake, one of the deadliest in history, which leveled most buildings in the capital of Port-au-Prince and killed more than 150,000 people, leaving at least 1.5 million homeless. Six years later, tens of thousands of displaced Haitians still live in camps, without access to sanitation and other public services.

Even before the earthquake the country was known as “the NGO republic.” According to a 2011 report  by the UN Special Representative for Haiti, of the $2.4 billion donated after the earthquake, only 1 percent was channeled through the Haitian state. The remaining 99 was given to international organizations, foreign governments, and NGOs. International donors argue that they decided to bypass the Haitian state because they do not trust its leaders, and they probably have a point, given widespread indications of corruption. This is, however, a vicious cycle: the provision of public services through non-state entities only perpetuates the weakness and lack of legitimacy of the Haitian state.

Even though one of the central mandates of MINUSTAH is to support the consolidation of democracy in Haiti, every Haitian election since 2006 has been marred with irregularities, accusations of fraud, violent clashes, and postponements. In each of these instances, the international community—especially the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS)—has pressured Haitian authorities to reach ad-hoc agreements to avoid institutional collapse, but at a grave cost: for most Haitians, election results only reflect the will of international donors, not theirs. In fact, electoral participation has been decreasing since the 2006 elections—the first after the fall of President Aristide in 2004—and is now lower than 25% on average.  

The October 2015 presidential elections were no different. Opposition candidate Jude Celestin accused the government of fraud to benefit Jovenel Moise, Martelly’s handpicked successor, and refused to participate in the second round. Although preliminary results showed Moise in first place, an independent commission named by Martelly himself found that the vote was plagued with irregularities. Under growing tension and violent clashes between protestors and the police, the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP in French) postponed the elections several times, before deciding to cancel them.

After negotiations with representatives from the OAS and the US government, Martelly agreed to leave power at the end of his constitutional 5-year term. Therefore, for the second time in 12 years Haiti has a provisional government, in office until a new president is elected. The runoff election is scheduled to take place on April 24, but opposition forces have criticized the creation of the caretaker administration, accusing the international community of imposing its will on Haiti once again. They refuse to accept the new elections until the results of the previous one have been fully reviewed.

A Renewed Role for Latin America 

Among hemispheric nations, so far the United States has devoted by far the most resources and diplomatic effort to Haiti, albeit with mixed results. A combination of miscommunication, impatience, and lack of respect for Haitian autonomy has plagued Washington´s policy in the country. Canada has also been engaged in Haiti through a strong cooperation program that has delivered more than $1 billion since the 2010 earthquake. In June 2015, the Canadian government launched a long-term engagement strategy in Haiti, as part of a global effort to raise its profile as a major provider of international aid.

In contrast, Latin America has not presented a coordinated strategy for Haiti. On the contrary, its role has been limited to sending troops to MINUSTAH and launching a series of scattered bilateral cooperation programs in Haiti. In other words, the region has been content with a secondary role, accepting Washington’s preeminence. The sole exception is Venezuela, which has funded reconstruction projects and provides subsidized oil under its Petrocaribe regional initiative. Venezuela’s current economic collapse poses questions about the durability of its assistance.

The first step to revamp Latin America’s role in Haiti would be to start giving the country the attention it deserves. For instance, Haiti was mentioned only once in the 82-paragraph-long declaration of the January 2016 summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean (CELAC), and only to urge the need for dialogue and restraint. This lack of involvement contradicts the numerous regional proclamations in favor of south-south cooperation, autonomous development and Latin American solidarity. Within their limited resources and capabilities, countries from Latin American and the Caribbean should better coordinate their initiatives in Haiti and set the bases for long-term cooperation with the Haitian state.

In addition, participating Latin American countries must ensure that the withdrawal of MINUSTAH is carried on gradually and in a coordinated way with the next elected government of Haiti. Even if progress has been limited, the UN mission is an important source of stability and security in the country. MINUSTAH cannot be extended forever, but withdrawing all troops hastily could plunge Haiti into anarchy. At the very least, the police component of the mission should stay in Haiti until local security forces can guarantee a minimum of stability.

Despite severe social and economic problems, almost all countries in the region have stable—even if imperfect—democracies, where peaceful elections take place and results are respected. Countries like Mexico and Ecuador have launched programs to assist Haiti in electoral matters, but a broader regional effort should focus on building a Permanent Electoral Council, an independent commission contemplated in the 1987 Haitian Constitution but never created.

Another critical area is agricultural development, since 40 percent of the Haitian population still lives in rural areas. Latin American public and private sectors have vast experience in fostering agricultural competitiveness, improving yields and incorporating technology. Former US President Bill Clinton has acknowledged that trade liberalization promoted by Washington has badly hurt Haiti, which now imports over 80% of its rice from subsidized US producers. Latin America could be part of the solution, expanding and bringing more coherence to current efforts to improve Haitian agriculture.

The region should also do more to alleviate the crisis between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Thousands of Haitians work and live in the neighboring country but are exploited and harassed. This has long been the case, but the situation became critical after the Dominican Constitutional Court stripped people of Haitian origin of their Dominican citizenship, even when they have been living there for generations. Thousands are being forced to leave the Dominican Republic for Haiti, a country they barely know and which is ill-prepared to receive them. The region should do more to monitor and protect the human rights situation of people of Haitian origin in the Dominican Republic, assist Haiti in receiving those who have already been expelled, and demand that the Dominican government present a viable legal pathway to protect those who lost their nationality overnight.

To be sure, increasing and coordinating regional assistance to Haiti will require new institutional frameworks and leadership. The OAS is unlikely to take this role because its strong stance in favor of conducting elections despite all obstacles has created tensions with local political actors. A special commission inside CELAC, on the contrary, could be more effective. This agency would ensure that regional initiatives in Haiti follow a coherent plan and reinforce each other.  It will also need to find effective partners within the bureaucracy to strengthen state institutions. Current members of MINUSTAH—especially Brazil, Argentina and Chile—have vast experience in Haiti, and should take a leading role in promoting a larger regional role in the country even after the end of the mission.

These and other steps should be part of a Latin American long-term strategy in Haiti, which will require resources and political commitment. No one is expecting Latin America to rescue Haiti; that can only be done by Haitians themselves. But 12 years ago, countries in the region stepped up when Haiti was in need. The challenge now is to build from that experience and stand by the Haitian people as they work to break a tragic cycle of political instability and economic distress.