(Bloomberg Opinion) — The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise has plunged the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country even deeper into chaos. As its richest and most powerful neighbor, the U.S. should lead outside efforts to help — while being under no illusions about the limits of what’s possible.
Haiti’s dysfunction has long resisted outsiders’ efforts. The U.S. has provided more than $5 billion since 2010, making its neighbor the hemisphere’s largest per capita recipient of U.S. aid. Yet for years Haiti has moved from crisis to crisis, defying hopes of lasting improvement. Money has been spent, American troops have been deployed, and still the Haitian people have suffered. The president’s murder now threatens a renewed descent into lawlessness.
Large parts of the country are controlled by armed gangs devoted to extortion and kidnapping. The capital, Port-au-Prince, has been paralyzed by near-daily street protests against Moise, who opposition groups claim was illegally holding on to power. For his part, Moise had resorted to increasingly autocratic measures, ordering the arrest of senior law-enforcement officials he’d deemed disloyal and pushing for constitutional changes to expand executive powers and allow presidents to serve consecutive terms. New elections had been scheduled for September. Whether the vote goes ahead — and whether Haitians would accept the result if it does — is now in doubt.
The U.S. and its partners need to be realistic. They can’t solve Haiti’s problems, but they can hope to make a difference, and the U.S. in particular has good reason to try. It’s home to the largest share of the Haitian diaspora. A surge in violence could cause more Haitians to try to flee, creating a new migration crisis even as President Joe Biden’s administration is struggling to manage the influx across the U.S.’s southern border. It could also accelerate the spread of coronavirus variants, since Haiti is one of the least vaccinated countries in the world.
For the moment, confusion reigns. Exactly who was behind Moise’s killing and why remains unclear. Who’ll assume Moise’s responsibilities as head of state is uncertain, too. Moise had ruled by executive decree since dissolving Parliament in 2020, and the head of Haiti’s supreme court, next in the order of succession, died last month from Covid-19. Following the assassination, two different men claimed to be prime minister and the government’s rightful leader.
Amid this upheaval, the U.S.’s first priority should be to help the Haitian authorities investigate the assassination, by sending forensic experts to the country and sharing intelligence on foreign actors who might have been involved. Working with international partners, the Biden administration should bring together members of the current regime with representatives from opposition parties, the business community and civil-society groups to agree on an orderly transition to a caretaker government. An independent panel should be appointed to establish a new timetable for holding credible legislative and presidential elections. In the meantime, the U.S. should continue programs to train Haiti’s national police force, and direct additional aid to non-governmental groups that promote anti-corruption efforts, election security and the rule of law. Given the sensitive history of U.S. military intervention in Haiti, any additional policing should be undertaken with regional allies.
Moise’s assassination is one more dark turn for a country that has struggled to overcome its history of colonialism, dictatorship and misrule. There’s a limit to what outsiders can do, but that doesn’t mean they ought to stand aside. The immediate, achievable goal should be to help avoid an accelerating collapse. For Haiti’s sake, and their own, the U.S. and its regional partners should step up.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.