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An expert weighs in on the crisis in Haiti

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First this hour, here's what's happening in Haiti. The capital, Port-au-Prince, is under the control of gangs. Those gangs and many Haitians want the prime minister, Ariel Henry, to resign. Now, Henry is not in Haiti. He's been traveling. He has not been able to reenter. Amid the violence, U.S. Marines airlifted some staff from the U.S. Embassy this weekend, and they are increasing security for those who remain. So how can this be resolved and what role should the U.S. play? Questions we're going to put now to Daniel Foote, who is former U.S. special envoy to Haiti. Welcome.

DANIEL FOOTE: Thank you.

KELLY: So I'll mention that the window that you were special envoy to Haiti was a momentous time. This was 2021. The president was assassinated. Ariel Henry was sworn in as prime minister. That was July of 2021, and the U.S. backed him. I want to start there. I know you disagreed with that decision. We're going to get to that. But why did the U.S. think backing Ariel Henry was a good move at the time?

FOOTE: I believe Ariel Henry sold to the U.S. ambassador in Haiti at the time and the U.N. ambassador his role as prime minister over the acting prime minister, who was a younger man, and Haitian sovereignty was important to this guy, and rightfully so. I believe Ariel Henry promised the U.S. that he'd be compliant and do whatever the U.S. asked him to.

KELLY: You disagreed, I mentioned, with the decision to back Henry, to the point that you resigned your post in part over that. Why?

FOOTE: Correct. That was the biggest reason I resigned my post. I had worked on the post-earthquake reconstruction of Haiti and the planning for that. And I was struck because there were no Haitians in the room. And here we are 14 years later, and that great $5.1 billion effort failed miserably because the Haitians weren't in there. So I believe it's time for the Haitians to self-determine their political future. If we don't enable this at this point in time, you're going to continue the cycle of intervention, propped-up puppet government leading to a long period of erosion and ending in a horrendous humanitarian catastrophe like we're in today.

KELLY: So to make sure I understand, did you have a particular beef with Ariel Henry or the fact that you felt this was not who - it was clear the Haitian people were choosing and they should choose?

FOOTE: It wasn't with the individual. It was the arrogance and the hubris that the United States and the international community thought that they could anoint another Haitian leader and be successful. And clearly, they were not successful doing it. Ariel Henry lied to them and accomplished nothing. And Haiti is much worse today, 2 1/2 years after my resignation, than it was when President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in July of '21. Ariel Henry is finished in Haiti. The Haitians do not want him. And if he goes back, he will not survive. And I'm not talking survive as prime minister. I'm talking survive with his heart beating.

KELLY: Our reporter, Eyder Peralta, is next door in the Dominican Republic, the other country on this island. He has been reporting that jockeying for the position to lead the country is already underway. Who might emerge to lead?

FOOTE: Well, it shouldn't be a horse race for power right now. Haitians need to come together, as they did in the wake of the assassination, and forge a political consensus so that there's a social contract between the people and the transitional government. Right now, CARICOM, the U.S., U.N. and OAS are in Kingston, Jamaica, meeting on this, where I fear they're going to try to force a power-sharing agreement amongst the Haitian leading partners, which won't work because they will sign it, and then they will spend the next two years jockeying and fighting to be in power. The Haitians will and can come together for Haiti. And the key to this whole thing is eventual elections are trusted by the Haitian population.

KELLY: I was going to say, though, it sounds like conditions on the ground are nowhere near where you could hold a legitimate election right now.

FOOTE: No they aren't. They certainly aren't. Two-and-a-half years ago, it was the same. But the complicating factor now is the gangs have a voice. Whether we like it or not, the Haitians will need to have some sort of national dialogue and talk about reconciliation. What do the gangs want? Because we need the gangs to, you know, reopen the airport once Henry resigns and open the port and cooperate with the rebuilding of Haiti. So what do they want?

And then, what do the people want? That needs to be a piece of this. It can't just be the international community doing what we've done since 1804 under the Jeffersonian adage, these dumb, Black people cannot govern themselves, which is so far from the truth that we've seen the international...

KELLY: Can I just - I'm sorry, but just it's so hard to hear you say those words. Can I just push back a little bit? I mean, what should the U.S. do here, in your view? What is the right move?

FOOTE: Empower the Haitian civil society and opposition political parties.

KELLY: How do you do that with the violent - we're looking at photos of bodies in the streets.

FOOTE: Mary Louise, two weeks ago, nobody cared about Haiti. Now, just because the prime minister has not been able to return and the gangs have closed the airport so he can't return, it's worse. But it's not a hundred times worse. It's not 10 times worse. It's marginally worse. We need to give the Haitians time and space to get this right. And if we don't let them set up political base, we're going to send in a intervening military or security force that could well wind up fighting the very people it's being sent to protect. Let's let the Haitians have a chance to mess up Haiti for once. The international community has messed it up beyond recognition countless times. I guarantee the Haitians mess it up less than the Americans.

KELLY: Daniel Foote, former U.S. special envoy to Haiti. Ambassador Foote, thank you.

FOOTE: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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