Haiti’s Humanitarian Crisis Reveals the Human Costs of US Interventionism

This September, U.S. border patrol agents violently seized Haitian refugees along the Rio Grande, attracting fierce criticism and international attention. Officers on horseback trotted through families, wielded their reins as whips and chased migrants carrying their meager possessions in plastic bags. After scandalizing public opinion, President Joe Biden deemed the operation “outrageous” and promised that the border agents “will pay.”

Yet behind the scenes, his administration has swiftly deported thousands of Haitians. Authorities frequently exploit Title 42 of the Public Health Services Law to expel refugees seeking asylum. “We are doing this out of a public health need,” claims Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. “It is not an immigration policy.” In practice, the legal subterfuge has allowed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to turn historic numbers of migrants away. Recently, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned in protest, denouncing the “inhumane, counterproductive” policy.

Since then, the humanitarian crisis has only deepened. Blocked from reaching the U.S., Haitians now constitute the second-largest group seeking protection in Mexico. For most, the border is simply the latest stretch in a grueling continental odyssey. Many traveled across Latin America on swollen ankles, braved discrimination and survived unspeakable adversity. And now they wait.

Observers routinely cite Haiti’s recent earthquake, grinding poverty and political upheaval for the immigration crisis, but neglect an essential factor: While U.S. officials jealously guard the Texas border, they have not hesitated to violate Haiti’s. In many ways, the immigration crisis is the latest chapter in a rolling history of U.S. interventionism.

Seizing Haiti

For over a century, the U.S. has decisively shaped Haitian affairs. Fearing political instability, Woodrow Wilson sent Marines in 1914 to relocate the Haitian National Bank’s holdings to New York. A year later, they invaded Haiti to protect the investments of Western creditors, initiating a two-decade occupation that entailed the ruthless suppression of dissent and wholesale transfer of assets to U.S. corporations.

Ultimately, the U.S. left a legacy of militarism, saddling the island with a bloated army that repeatedly intervened in politics. Haitian legislators approved the law reorganizing the military under U.S. pressure. “The constabulary shall be organized and officered by Americans,” the act crisply stated.

Racism inflamed fears of political instability, ostensibly “justifying” U.S. intervention, and indelibly shaped the occupation. Commander Smedley Butler waxed paternal, later claiming that occupiers were “trustees of a huge estate that belonged to minors.” As Butler filled the army with Haitian recruits, he called his subordinates “little chocolate soldiers” and, elsewhere, described himself as the “chief of a n***** police force.”

The U.S. Marines withdrew in 1934. But the Haitian military continued exerting preponderant influence over island politics. In 1957, the army swept François Duvalier into office through rigged elections. Until 1986, the Duvalier family retained power by creating a personal paramilitary force and turning the army into a privileged caste. As the former political prisoner Robert Duval observed, “traditionally, the army of Haiti was always the one that gave and took political power.”

U.S. military intervention returned after Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president in 1991. The Salesian priest secured national stature during the dwindling days of the Duvalier dictatorship for his advocacy for the poor. Yet his liberation theology, reformist agenda and critical independence alarmed the United States, which backed his removal in September 1991. After Aristide returned to power in 1994, the Clinton administration slipped army and paramilitary records out of the country, in order to shield officers from prosecution.

The next year, Haiti dissolved its military. Yet in early 2004, former officers poised to again oust Aristide. Their leaders included Guy Philippe, who received training from U.S. Special Forces, and Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a retired officer who previously led a CIA-backed death squad. Their main goal was to reestablish the military.

The Bush administration finished the coup with crude finesse. In February 2004, a delegation of U.S. diplomats and soldiers arrived at Aristide’s house. They warned him that rebels were coming and would slaughter his family unless he immediately boarded a U.S.-chartered plane.

Remarkably, the U.S. delegation refused to protect Aristide, despite its air of authority and abundant arms. “They had not only the force of the embassy but the Marines with them,” Congresswoman Maxine Waters explained. “They made it clear that he had to go now or he would be killed.” Indeed, the U.S. embassy obstructed his own security detail.

After hastily ushering Aristide to the airport, the delegation refused to let him board without tendering a letter of resignation. The U.S. Navy SEAL escort then held him incommunicado for nearly 24 hours, denying him access to a telephone and spiriting him out of the country. Aristide called the drama “a modern-day kidnapping.”

His overthrow signaled another turn in the spiral of militarism. While the U.S. military mission consummated the coup, the Bush administration promoted the occupation of the island. Two months later, it spearheaded the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), a formidable force of 9,000 Blue Helmets. The first independent country in Latin America became the only country in the hemisphere under foreign occupation.

While militarizing Haiti’s political crisis, the United States supported the ruling class that previously identified with the Duvalier dictatorship and bitterly resented Aristide. And both mobilized to prevent his return.

According to a secret cable, Chief Edmond Mulet of MINUSTAH “urged US legal action against Aristide to prevent the former president from gaining more traction with the Haitian population and returning.” Former U.S. Ambassador James Foley agreed in a telegram with the terse title: “Aristide Movement Must Be Stopped.”

As leftists rode the “Pink Tide” into office across Latin America, the Bush and Obama administrations deemed the “red priest” a threat to the island’s pliant ruling class and neoliberalism. Privately, a special U.S. team prepared a dossier on Aristide, scouring his past for criminal activities to sully his reputation.

And they recognized their agenda required military muscle. “A premature departure of MINUSTAH would leave the [Haitian] government … [vulnerable to] resurgent populist and anti-market economy political forces,” Ambassador Janet Sanderson warned in 2008. The occupying forces were “an indispensable tool in realizing core USG [U.S. government] policy interests in Haiti.”

Aristide returned from exile in 2011, yet the government forbade his party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating in elections. The prohibition was a backhanded tribute to the party’s influence. As the U.S. State Department privately admitted, Aristide had been the most popular politician in Haiti.

His odyssey was instructive. In 35 years, Haiti has had 20 governments. Yet as Aristide’s career demonstrates, the island’s tumultuous politics and persistent poverty are in many ways the legacy of militarism and U.S. intervention.

The Colombian Connection

While undercutting Aristide, the United States targeted the resurgent left in Latin America, most notably underwriting Plan Colombia. From 2000 to 2016, the U.S. Congress dedicated over $10 billion to eradicating drug production and guerrilla forces in Colombia.

As in Haiti, militarism distorted economic development. Colombia became the third-largest recipient of military aid, while dedicating more money to defense than any other state in South America. In eight years, the Aviation Brigade tripled the size of its air fleet. By 2014, the military had mushroomed from 20,000 to 83,000 members. The buildup was a windfall for U.S. defense contractors such as Sikorsky Aircraft, which furnished the helicopters slashing the sky, and Monsanto, which supplied the herbicide inundating the countryside.

The U.S. partnered with the Colombian conservative, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, despite intelligence suggesting he was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín [drug] cartel” and “linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the US.” Ultimately, Uribe exploited the global “war on terror” to justify operations and guarantee the support of U.S. legislators. In the process, Colombia became the “Israel” of Latin America — a conservative proxy that projected U.S. power and repressed radicalism.

Yet Plan Colombia failed to curb drug production. The country remains the largest exporter of cocaine in the world. War displaced over 10 percent of the population. And the military buildup culminated in widespread human rights abuses.

Officers systematically murdered civilians, targeting the poor and disabled to boost their kill scores: “4,000-4,500 innocent people … were assassinated in cold blood by personnel from the Colombian army throughout the country between 2002 and 2008 simply with the purpose of inflating … the combat casualty figures to give the false impression of success,” José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch reported. After slaughtering civilians, soldiers decked the cadavers in uniforms — even depositing weapons.

After signing a peace accord in 2016, the military continued its campaign of repression. The military also constructed a spy network to monitor journalists, political activists and human rights groups. During the pandemic, the chief of the UN mission warned against “an epidemic of violence against social leaders, human rights defenders, and former combatants.”

Violence climaxed during a popular uprising last spring, when security forces pumped live ammunition into demonstrations. Naked repression exposed the country’s profound militarization. Defense Minister Diego Molano invoked the recent war, insinuating that a “terrorist threat” and “criminal organizations” organized the protests.

But Plan Colombia also has an international legacy. Uribe’s followers have championed the export of military services, turning decades of war into a competitive advantage.

“Just as missions come from the United States to Tolemaida to teach you certain things, you will be able to go to other countries, and you will be much better paid, because you will have United Nations salaries to help them with their peacekeeping missions,” President Juan Manuel Santos promised the military. “That is the future of our Army.”

In 2018, Colombia became a NATO global partner to increase its international appeal. “This is a very important accord for military officials because it will allow them to win legitimacy and prestige in the world,” political scientist Mauricio Jaramillo argues. At present, they have offered military training to at least 47 countries.

Above all, Colombia became a leading exporter of mercenaries. Defense contractors and retired officers aggressively recruit, luring soldiers out of the army for higher wages. Private firms ship battle-hardened veterans to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and other conflict zones.

Unfortunately, one of them was Haiti.

The Latest Round

This summer, the two histories of interventionism intertwined. On July 7, a band of mercenaries assassinated President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti. Most were veterans of Plan Colombia, and at least seven had received training from the U.S. Their contractor, CTU Security, is a U.S. firm owned by Antonio Intriago — a friend of the Colombian president and Uribe protégé, Iván Duque.

One leader, Captain Germán Rivera García, recalled their chilling orders: “everyone had to be killed … the police, the president’s security, everything we encountered in the house.” Another participant explained that “there could be no witness.”

Following the assassination, Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph requested the U.S. and UN send troops, eliciting widespread opposition. An organization representing retired military officials encouraged Haitians to reject the “humiliation” of foreign intervention.

Yet on August 14, another earthquake gripped Haiti. In response, the U.S. sent Marines. They brought the USS Arlington, MH-60 Seahawk helicopters, P-8A Poseidon planes and other military equipment, prompting observers to doubt their humanitarian mission.

The cycle of crisis in Haiti and Colombia reveals that interventionism is not simply an event but a system. Incredibly, the United States Southern Command both trains Colombian soldiers and oversees humanitarian aid in Haiti.

As the situation deteriorates, Haitians have sought refuge in the U.S. “No destination on earth is more attractive for a Haitian,” the island daily Le Nouvelliste reports. Yet the refugees along the Texas border “all think that the USA is largely responsible for their hardship and the sad state of their country.”

The latest chapter in the history of U.S. interventionism is neither tragedy nor farce, but defies literary convention. And yet the immigration crisis is cruelly poetic. Haitians are fleeing the violence of interventionism by running to its source.

The author would like to thank Sarah Priscilla Lee of the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University for reviewing this article, which combines academic scholarship, government documents and U.S. and Latin-American news media.