Addressing Haiti’s turmoil starts with its Caribbean neighbors—and US and Canadian support

Haiti’s recent turmoil proves true the saying that “each time history repeats itself, the price goes up.” That is the unfortunate history of the first independent Caribbean state, forced from its 1804 birth to pay for its survival at a high cost, and to do so again and again in the years since. Fast forward to 2024, when the instability that has made headlines in the past few weeks sparks not-so-distant memories of Haiti’s troubled past, when US troops came in to help restore order in 1994 and 2004.

One challenge has remained constant for Haiti, however: It fades from attention just as quickly as it makes headlines. That must be stopped. The historical lack of commitment to putting Haiti on a different political and economic path—combined with the country being battered by natural disasters, in addition to the man-made ones—has meant that carving out a different trajectory for Haitians has eluded both local and international leaders. What is needed is a long-term approach, in which Caribbean leaders are in the driver’s seat along with their Haitian counterparts, while the United States and Canada help to offset the costs given the grave implications of inaction.

A window of opportunity

When Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry announced on March 12 that he will resign after a transitional presidential council is created, it opened a window of opportunity for a country battling multiple crises at once. Since Henry assumed power in 2021, following his predecessor’s assassination, Haiti has been taken hostage by fervent gang violence and political instability, plunging the country into a humanitarian crisis. With not enough food or medicine entering the country, Haitians suffer from hunger and disease.

Haiti’s problems are also no longer confined to its own borders. Haitians are emigrating in droves, and gangs that now control the island traffic firearms and drugs in the wider region. With the likelihood of further instability, Haiti’s neighbors must prepare for the repercussions of a failed state, where lawlessness will only invite other transnational criminal organizations to take advantage of the moment.

But amid this bleak outlook, the negotiated transitional presidential council gives a glimmer of hope that Haiti might see some form of stability in the coming years. Bringing the council and other potential solutions to fruition will require a sustained and collective effort from all parties across the hemisphere, including Haitian stakeholders.

The role of Caribbean countries

Caribbean leadership will be essential for coordinating regional and international support to Haiti. Central to this coordination should be the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a bloc of fourteen independent member states that already has offered an open, two-way channel of communication between regional countries and Haitian stakeholders.

For example, just prior to his trip to Nairobi earlier this month to discuss the Kenyan-led Multinational Security Support mission, the Haitian prime minister was in Guyana for CARICOM’s annual heads of government meeting. It was also the current chair of CARICOM, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali, who led a leaders’ delegation to Jamaica that, alongside US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, announced the plan for a transitional presidential council. These meetings have held a spotlight on Haiti’s crisis, keeping it top of mind for both the region and foreign officials who engage with the Caribbean. In addition, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, and several other Caribbean countries have been essential in global coordination efforts on Haiti over the past few years.

But for Caribbean countries to continue leading on Haiti in a sustained way, they need resources. Engaging in frequent diplomatic discussions and devoting security personnel are cost-intensive efforts. The region has limited local capacity within its foreign ministries, and tight budgets make frequent travel difficult. Leaders also are grappling with a variety of pressing issues, including climate change, food and energy insecurity, and rising inflation.

The role of the United States and Canada

The United States and Canada must work in tandem with the Caribbean to provide the resources needed to play an active and continued role in Haiti’s future. This includes direct aid to Haiti to help restore law and order and provide the necessary humanitarian resources the country so desperately needs. Toward that end, the United States Agency for International Development on March 15 announced twenty-five million dollars in humanitarian aid, on top of the thirty-three million dollars announced by Blinken four days earlier, further solidifying the United States’ role as Haiti’s largest humanitarian donor. On February 22, Canada announced nearly ninety-one million dollars to support Haiti.

In addition to direct support, the United States and Canada should also help to offset the cost to Caribbean countries of remaining engaged on Haiti, which is essential for the country’s future.

First, traveling to Haiti or to other international convenings is costly, particularly when unplanned. Air connectivity between Caribbean islands is limited, and most governments do not have access to private aircraft. The United States or Canada can find ways to offset these costs, making it easier for leaders to attend convenings. Short-notice meetings, such as the ministerial meeting on the margins of the Group of Twenty (G20) foreign ministers’ meeting in late February or the Jamaica meeting this past week, should be led by CARICOM governments. But the cost of participation will constrain already tight budgets.

Second, deployment of security personnel is costly, particularly over a sustained period. The United States and Canada should consider alleviating the burden of these costs, which would allow leaders to justify to their national budgets and domestic populations why they should send or increase the police and defense personnel deployed to Haiti. Countries such as Jamaica and The Bahamas have committed personnel, but both countries have their own domestic security challenges to consider, meaning sending officers abroad is unlikely to win much support at home over a longer period. 

Finally, attention on Haiti cannot distract from the numerous challenges facing the rest of the region. Over the past few years, the United States and Canada have both launched new flagship Caribbean policies, and high-level diplomatic engagements have started to move the needle on important issues, including climate change and energy security. If Caribbean nations are expected to lead, then they need assurances that their priorities will not be forgotten.

What’s clear is that there is no quick fix to Haiti’s crisis, nor is there one solution over a longer period that will stabilize the country. Haiti’s challenges are complex and deeply rooted in its postcolonial history. Any cadre of solutions will only come after frequent and consistent diplomacy and action to negotiate a way forward for Haiti. All of this requires the resources to stand up the needed attention and engagement Haiti deserves.

Jason Marczak is vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. 

Wazim Mowla is associate director and fellow of the Caribbean Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Further reading

Image: Demonstrators run away from a barricade set up to block the route of Haitian National Police officers trying to get to the scene where agents of Haiti's BSAP, an armed environmental agency that has in recent years evolved into a paramilitary body, were killed in a shootout with security forces, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, February 7, 2024. REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol