The United States is hosting the Summit of the Americas next month in Los Angeles. The gathering of heads of state has occurred roughly every three years since its first meeting, the last to be held in the US, in 1994. Much of the focus this time has been on who won’t be there. US officials have stated they do not intend to invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela. But there has been less attention to who will be attending — namely, the de facto leader of Haiti, a country that has been without a head of state since President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination last July.
The decision to invite Dr. Ariel Henry, Haiti’s acting prime minister, reveals the hypocrisy at the core of US foreign policy in the region, and, on the other hand, Latin American and Caribbean governments’ massive blind spot for the deteriorating situation in Haiti, a situation in which the US and the entire region are complicit.
“I think the president has been very clear about the presence of countries that by their actions do not respect democracy — they will not receive invitations,” the State Department’s top official for the Western Hemisphere said last month. The decision to invite Henry undercuts this message and makes clear that the exclusions are not about the defense of human rights or democracy. They are about hegemony.
The last elections in Haiti occurred in 2016; less than 20 percent of registered voters participated, or were allowed to. Moïse won the presidency with the votes of only about 5 percent of the population. For comparison’s sake, those figures for both Ortega and Maduro are greater than 20 percent. If your response is that you don’t trust those numbers, or have concerns about the conditions in which those elections took place, well, you are simply admitting that you haven’t been paying attention to Haiti.
In 2020, the terms of almost all of parliament and every single local official expired, leaving Moïse to rule by decree. At the time, the secretary general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, traveled to Haiti and appeared alongside President Moïse, making clear that for the OAS this was no problem. Then last summer, Moïse — who many legal scholars argued had overstayed his mandate, but who nevertheless had the backing of the US and OAS — was assassinated. Today, the only elected officials in the entire country still in office are 10 senators, and together they do not even have a quorum to legislate.
But the collapse of Haiti’s democracy did not occur in a vacuum, and it’s not just US and OAS leadership with blood on their hands. In 2004, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a US-backed coup d’etat. Almost no government in the hemisphere denounced it. On the ground in Haiti, US troops were quickly replaced by a United Nations “peacekeeping” mission, MINUSTAH, to help consolidate the president’s ouster.
American diplomats described the mission as “an indispensable tool” in carrying out US policy, but, just as importantly, noted that without such a mission the US would “be getting far less help from our hemispheric … partners in managing Haiti.” Latin American countries were placed in the lead; Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Guatemala all contributed troops, while Brazil’s military was in charge of the mission.
This foreign intervention only accelerated following the devastating 2010 earthquake, when billions in foreign aid were used as leverage for political control. Later that year, amid a fatally flawed electoral process with more than a million still displaced, the OAS was asked to review the results. Without a full recount or any statistical analysis, the OAS recommended changing the election results. The US and other donors threatened to withhold critical financial assistance unless the government acquiesced, and a Trumpian right-wing musician, Michel Martelly, was ushered into the presidency. Once again, this blatant violation of Haiti’s sovereignty transpired without pushback from the region.
All of this brings us to the political rise of Ariel Henry. At Martelly’s urging, Henry was appointed by presidential decree just days before the assassination, but had yet to take office. Instead, power initially remained in the hands of the prime minister at the time, Claude Joseph. But, about a week later, the “Core Group,” a de facto fourth branch of government that formed after the 2004 coup, composed entirely of foreign diplomats, swung their support to Henry. Within days, he became prime minister. It was not democracy that led to Henry assuming power, but the deleterious intervention of foreign powers.
Those same actors continue to prop up Henry’s feeble government, despite the prime minister’s links to Moïse’s assassination. One of the principal suspects is a long-time confidante of Henry, and phone records show the two spoke more than a dozen times in the lead-up to the assassination, and then again at 4 a.m., just hours after the brutal crime. Henry, however, has refused to answer questions about what he knew, and when. Instead, he fired the prosecutor who called him to testify, and has undermined the judges assigned to the case — the fourth judge was just removed from the case after denouncing the government for failing to provide him with protection and for “delivering” him and his family to “the assassins.”
After more than nine months in office, Henry has been unable to cobble together a coalition capable of leading the country and moving forward with new elections. He has refused to give up power, or to negotiate with political opponents, including the historic coalition of civil society organizations that have come together around a common agenda to move the country back toward sovereign democracy. In the meantime, groups of armed civilians, often backed by corrupt police and government officials, have led a campaign of terror across Port-au-Prince, displacing thousands and killing dozens.
Progressive leaders throughout the hemisphere have pushed back on the US decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Argentina, which holds the presidency of CELAC — a regional grouping that, unlike the OAS, does not include the US and Canada — has condemned the decision, as has the Grupo de Puebla, which boasts a large membership of current and former government officials. CARICOM has said their members are considering a boycott of the summit if Cuba is not invited, as have the presidents of Bolivia and Honduras. Most outspoken has been Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “I will insist to President Biden that no country in the Americas be excluded from next month’s summit,” Obrador said in early May.
Obrador is right to do so, and the same principle should apply to Haiti. Excluding Henry from the summit is not an answer, but regional leaders should have clear eyes as they shake his hand in Los Angeles this June, and would do well to remember their history lessons.
The reality is that Latin America owes a tremendous debt to Haiti, which, following its successful slave revolt against the French in 1804, provided protection, monies, and munitions to Simón Bolívar in his own independence fight with Spain. And yet, throughout the twenty-first century, Latin America has often served as a willing accomplice to US neocolonialism in Haiti. It is long past time for that to end.