Haitian Day of the Dead – First of November: for the year 2022, the party is not taken, the activities of the GEDE have not attracted crowds. Because of the different problems of the country, the groups, the people, don’t really travel.

In a special report sent to Inroads subscribers in February, and in an editorial elsewhere in this issue, I have made the case for Canada to lead an international force to deal with the severe humanitarian and security crisis in Haiti. Here I touch on some additional elements of the situation in that desperate country.

Recent developments include Joe Biden’s visit to Ottawa in March, in which he, not surprisingly, failed to persuade Prime Minister Trudeau that Canadians should lead an international mission to Haiti. (When asked, Biden said the idea of deploying an international force was “not in play at the moment” but “had not been taken off the table.”) In response to Biden’s request, Canada promised another $72.7 million USD in new aid and support and equipment for the Haitian National Police – though it is no secret that some of that will end up with the highly organized gangs that dominate the country.

In the late fall, Canada deployed two Navy ships to patrol Haitian waters. Georges Michel, a Haitian historian who helped write the nation’s 1987 constitution and one of many observers who have called for a foreign security force as – as he put it – the only way Haitians can breathe, wrote, “When Canada sent a plane and a boat to fight against the insecurity, the population laughed. We don’t have problems with the birds or the fish.”

I am frustrated not so much by the Canadian government’s reluctance to get its hands dirty, to avoid consideration of boots on the ground, to take on a difficult mission where Canadian soldiers will die. We are used to peacekeeping; in Haiti there is no peace to keep. The politicians know that there would be little support for such a mission and significant public opposition. But it is disappointing that the Canadian media have shown sparse interest – even the francophone ones of whom more might have been expected given French Canada’s traditional links to Haiti. Had they taken their responsibly of keeping their readers and viewers informed, the government would have had to justify its refusal to act in a meaningful way.

This is shortsighted, since putting one’s head in the sand does not make a problem go away. It only makes it more likely that one will be bitten in the rear. We can be sure that developments will arise that will make addressing the Haitian situation unavoidable; we just don’t know when. One argument justifying nonintervention is that intervention failed in the past. This is a cop-out. Experience teaches us where we went wrong and points to the challenges to be overcome. And the situation in Haiti is much changed since the previous intervention.

One dimension of the issue is the role of the Dominican Republic, from where Frances Boylston, who reads and writes in Spanish, and I, like informed Dominicans, closely observed the situation in Haiti from mid-December to late March.

There is a long and mainly antagonistic relationship between the two countries. Spanish is the primary language spoken in the Dominican Republic while French and Haitian Creole are spoken in Haiti. Race is another defining factor. The ethnic composition of the Dominican population is 73 per cent mixed-race, 16 per cent White and 11 per cent Black, while 95 per cent of the Haitian population is Black. While the Dominican Republic’s longtime dictator, Rafael Trujillo, was a modernizer, the Duvaliers who ruled Haiti for 30 years presided over the deterioration of the Haitian economy.

Even before the current crisis, the Dominican Republic faced a significant illegal migration dilemma, with Haitians providing cheap labour, especially on the farms and in the mines. As the title of a book on the subject put it, Haitians in the Dominican Republic were “needed but unwanted.”

This has become an acute situation in the current period, with thousands of Haitians continuously crossing the border illegally only to be deported if apprehended. It is clear from our informal discussions with Dominican politicians that, despite its being inescapable that the DR will have to cooperate with any external intervention, no one in this election year will publicly call for helping Haiti, as the DR did after the last earthquake. But privately they would add that if nothing is done, their country will see increasing violence pitting Haitians against Dominicans.

A recent report on the situation in Haiti by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights updates the numbers in the article I sent out to Inroads subscribers:

Clashes between gangs are becoming more violent and more frequent, as they try to expand their territorial control throughout the capital and other regions by targeting people living in areas controlled by rivals. Since the beginning of the year, up to 15 March, a total of 531 people were killed, 300 injured and 277 kidnapped in gang-related incidents that took place mainly in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

In the first two weeks of March alone, clashes among gangs left at least 208 killed, 164 injured and 101 kidnapped. Most of the victims were killed or injured by snipers who were reportedly randomly shooting at people in their homes or on the streets. Sexual violence is also used by gangs against women and girls to terrorize, subjugate and punish the population. Gang members frequently use sexual violence against abducted girls to pressure families to pay a ransom.

Students and teachers have been hit by stray bullets during gang confrontations and the kidnapping of parents and students in the vicinity of schools has surged, forcing many of them to close. Without the protective environment of schools, many children have been forcibly recruited by armed gangs.

People are fleeing to escape the daily danger. As of mid-March 2023, at least 160,000 people have been displaced and are in a precarious situation, staying with friends or relatives and having to share meagre resources. A quarter of those displaced live in makeshift settlements, with very limited access to basic services such as drinking water and sanitation.

Chronic instability and gang violence have contributed to surging prices and food insecurity. Half of the population does not have enough to eat, and in some areas, such as Cité Soleil, hunger has reached particularly alarming levels.

We call on the international community to urgently consider the deployment of a time-bound specialized support force under conditions that conform to international human rights laws and norms, with a comprehensive and precise action plan.

The last paragraph in the above leaves no doubt that the Office of the High Commissioner understands that there must be a military dimension to the needed international intervention. If it is to happen as it should, Canada needs to take a leading role, even though Canada has no recent experience in military intervention. Canadians are used to having troops posted far away for long periods of time – they have been in Cyprus since 1964 – but not their being engaged in violent combat. It is one thing for soldiers to look east from barracks in Riga; it is quite another to try to pacify armed gangs in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Nevertheless, it makes sense for Canada to take the lead. Indeed, its reputation as a disinterested peacekeeper makes it an obvious candidate. Canada has good relations with the countries in the region ready to support such a mission and its historical record of relations with Haiti is a mixed rather than a mainly negative one, like that of the United States.

It is clear why President Biden came to Canada. The United States, once disengaged from Ukraine, will not wait long for Canada to take responsibility.