There are few good times to be a Haitian, but hurricane season is especially demanding. The storms add a Sisyphus element to the distressed island, periodically blowing away what little progress is made. Unpopular as the idea may be in Washington, it’s time to push Haiti over the hump of instability so that it can begin to recover properly.
Prizes await America upon a successful nation-building operation.
Naturally the Haitian people would have to approve of such a mission. President Rene Preval is on record for telling UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “if the Haitian people were asked if they wanted the UN forces to leave they would say yes.” However, the United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti (MINUSTAH) only functions as peacekeepers and distributes emergency aid. It’s a band aid on a gaping wound - intensive surgery requires a nation-building force. Not only is America the only actor capable of delivering this force, it’s also the most obligated.
America’s history on the island is too deep to recite; Dr. Paul Farmer, a long time Haitian activist, has needed multiple books to detail America’s unsavory foreign policy. Occupation from 1915 to 1934 exchanged infrastructure development for slave labor. Though publicly opposing the Duvalier dictatorship from 1957 to 1986, America continued exploiting Haitians for their cheap labor. Coups in 1991 and 2004, both overthrowing then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, have US fingerprints on them. Colin Powell and Scott McClellan, among others, decried reports that America forcefully removed Aristide from power. Both have since expressed remorse for lying for the Bush administration and anger for being lied to.
Gérard Latortue was installed as prime minister while still in America and left office in 2006 with a suspect human rights record. Why does America hesitate to rebuild but not exploit? In the politest terms America owes Haiti.
Haiti is certainly dangerous, but its armed gangs are unlikely to generate the systematic insurgency found in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia. A greater challenge lies in impression management. America’s history is still fresh in Haitian minds so a different entry is required. Radical as this sounds, America would ask to come in. The purpose of repaying Haitians for past errors must be explicitly stated. The mission would be explained in detail to the government and people before it began; it may even be put to a national referendum. Clauses should be drafted in the UN to expel US forces if they fail to meet their objectives. These measures would reduce anti-American sentiment.
Turning negatives into positives is a mandatory skill, and America must realize that Haiti is a gift in disguise. Nation-building will form the bulk of US military operations in the next century and, judging by Iraq and Afghanistan, America still has much to learn. Rebuilding Haiti would produce textbooks of lessons and provide invaluable experience to the military in a closer and less hostile environment than current American areas of operations. Haiti is a nation-building university.
Like many counterinsurgencies 80% of the Haitian population lives below the poverty line, 54% in abject poverty. Correcting this affliction would take first priority and requires integrated initiatives. Like Afghan opium, Iraqi religious division, and Somali pirates, Haiti provides a unique security challenge - deforestation, estimated at 98%. Villages are more vulnerable to floods and soil erosion lowers the overall productivity of the land by destroying dams, roads, and crop fields. Haiti’s environmental crisis is made all the worse as 66% of Haitians depend on the agricultural sector.
Similar to Afghanistan, America must develop innovative solutions to provide economic opportunity. Government and USAID efforts to re-grow the forests have fell flat from lack of funding, so America would infuse the mission with billions of dollars. An army of well-paid tree planters must work with a host of environmental planners and engineers in conjunction with the local population. Alternatives to charcoal must be introduced to limit logging, with solar cookers being one of many answers. Haiti must become the forefront of the reforestation movement.
Outside of agriculture are standard schools, hospitals, and roads; Haiti needs all three. Those working on the environment must be trained in other technical skills in their free time. An overdue gun buyback program presents a challenge America will find in most insurgencies. One fundamental goal in Haiti is breaking America’s habit of over-funding military operations and under-funding civil projects. Not only are economic, social, and environmental programs cheaper than supporting military operations, they’re more conducive to stability. They should form the majority of a nation-building budget.
Though US military focus would shift from destruction to regeneration, military training is still be gained. Haiti’s terrain is a counterinsurgency environment. As in Afghanistan’s mountains, bulky armored vehicles become less useful in the jungle. Most of Haiti is crisscrossed by shoddy roads and beaten paths that require foot travel. Moving around the island would be good training for US troops looking to get a feel for the insurgent; the best counterinsurgents move like insurgents, shades of Kaibiles. Haiti provides the US military an opportunity to embed itself within a local population, while urban gangs mimic urban warfare.
The cost of nation-building in Haiti is unlikely to run higher than a traditional insurgency. Most of the population isn’t targeted by militants - disease, starvation, and unemployment are the main demons and cheaper to combat. 40,000 American troops, in addition to 9,000 UN peacekeepers, would be more productive in Haiti than Afghanistan, and few are likely to die if they behave properly. Supply lines will also be cheaper and easier to maintain, and the exit closer. A bonus: air-strikes are probably unnecessary
A final prize awaits America, were it to restore life to Haiti. Successful nation-building would greatly enhance America’s standing in the world. Future candidates for nation-building will be more confident if America has a record of success. President Obama is well-received, but America as a whole is still distrusted in many countries. Assisting Haiti would truly announce a new America.