Foreign Interventions in Haiti: A Brief History

Kenyan police officers are soon heading to Haiti with a daunting mission: help restore order to a country where killings and kidnappings are so rampant that hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and where, for years, it has been too dangerous to hold elections.

It is hardly the first time that an international force has gone to Haiti in the name of law and order. Or the second. Or even the third.

For the past century, soldiers from around the world — including the United States — have deployed to, and even invaded, Haiti.

In the past 30 years, the United Nations has launched at least six peacekeeping missions to Haiti. International soldiers have restored overthrown presidents, eased them out and helped train the Haitian National Police. But they have also left bleak legacies of sexual exploitation, civilian casualties and deadly disease.

Here’s a look at some of the international interventions in Haiti.

Yes. More than once.

The United States invaded Haiti in 1915, after the assassination of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam of Haiti that year, and stayed for nearly 20 years, one of the longest occupations in American history.

President Woodrow Wilson ordered the invasion in the name of preventing anarchy, but even U.S. government historians acknowledge that the deployment was more aimed at protecting U.S. assets in the area and keeping Germans at bay.

German merchants dominated commerce to Haiti and, at the time, were considered the United States’ chief rival in the Caribbean.

The Americans seized control of Haiti’s central bank and created a labor force akin to slavery. Americans oversaw the building of roads and hospitals, using the forced labor of poor Haitians. The United States installed puppet presidents and rewrote Haiti’s Constitution to give foreigners the right to own land.

As the Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat put it: “Call it gunboat diplomacy or a banana war, but this occupation was never meant — as the Americans professed — to spread democracy, especially given that certain democratic freedoms were not even available to the United States’ own Black citizens at the time.”

Americans also established a security force known as the gendarmerie, which later evolved into the Haitian Army.

When strikes and riots broke out in Haiti, U.S. Marines opened fire on protesters, killing 12 Haitians. On the heels of that massacre, Wilson appointed a commission to study the withdrawal from Haiti, and the occupation ended in 1934.

Americans went back 60 years later with a mission that they called Operation Uphold Democracy.

In 1994, three years after the Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a military coup, President Bill Clinton ordered more than 20,000 troops to Haiti. The U.S. troops were met by cheers from masses of Haitians who supported Mr. Aristide, who was popular in low-income communities. He was restored to power and finished his term.

In 2004, the United States, Canada and France created the Multinational Interim Force, which deployed to Haiti when Mr. Aristide, who had been elected a second time, was forced out again.

The United Nations has sent several missions to Haiti, each with its own unpronounceable acronym.

The U.N. said its 1993 mission, known as UNMIH, helped to create an atmosphere conducive to elections and assisted in the formation training and support of the new police force.

Several more missions followed, but none as long-lasting and notorious as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, which lasted from 2004 to 2017.

After rebel forces had succeeded in toppling Mr. Aristide’s second presidency, and a few months after he left for exile, the U.N. Security Council authorized MINUSTAH to address armed conflicts that had spread to several Haitian cities.

The mission was supposed to support the transitional government by establishing a stable environment that would allow for elections and the delivery of international aid. The peacekeeping force the U.N. maintained in Haiti swelled at times to as many as 13,000 members.

The U.N. credited the force with helping the nation through a series of natural disasters, including a devastating 2010 earthquake, which the Haitian government says killed 316,000 people, including 102 MINUSTAH members.

The U.N. also noted that its mission had led to a reduction in homicides and political violence. In the U.N.’s telling, 15,000 police officers were trained, and kidnappings decreased by 95 percent.

“Thirteen years after the arrival of MINUSTAH, political violence has significantly diminished and immediate threats from armed gangs, whose origins are rooted in social and political divisions, have been significantly reduced,” António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, wrote in a 2017 final report.

But he conceded that “many clear accomplishments aside,” cholera and sexual abuse by members of the U.N. force had cast a shadow over the agency’s relationship with the Haitian people.

At least 10,000 people died of cholera, which was introduced to the country through poor sanitation at a U.N. camp for Nepalese soldiers. Although the U.N. apologized, families of the sick and dead were never compensated.

The U.N. raised only 5 percent of the $400 million promised to help victims and build cholera treatment centers.

“It was quite shameful,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a human rights lawyer who represented victims in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the U.N.

Soldiers sent to poor neighborhoods to root out gangs were also accused of several episodes of excessive force that left civilians dead. In some operations, the U.N. tore through grenades and tens of thousands of bullets.

“There’s real reason to be very concerned of what this Kenya mission is going to look like from a civilian casualty perspective,” Ms. Lindstrom said.

The U.N. is still grappling with the aftermath of the hundreds of children that soldiers fathered and abandoned in Haiti. In addition, in 2007, the U.N. announced it had sent back home 108 Sri Lankan soldiers who had sexually exploited minors.

Asked whether the mission was considered a success, the U.N. said in a statement that the deployment had “stabilized the country when it was on the brink of collapse, with deep polarization and political instability, a dysfunctional police force, and an almost nonexistent state authority.”

The U.N.’s support in vetting, recruiting and training Haitian police helped the, force grow from 2,500 officers to more than 15,000, the U.N. said.

“MINUSTAH opened space for political and democratic processes to take place, including the organization of electoral processes,” the statement said.

Still, experts worry that the troubled legacies of past interventions are simply repeating.

“None of these interventions have been beneficial to Haiti,” said Francois Pierre-Louis, chair of the Queens College political science department, who was a member of Mr. Aristide’s cabinet.

“I am against intervention by principle,” he added. “You have to let people be held responsible for their actions. Let them fail so they own the process.”

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