With Biden visit to Canada, U.S. will seek commitment on leading a Haiti security force

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Biden administration officials are pressing their Canadian counterparts to make a decision on whether Ottawa will lead a multinational force into Haiti to assist the crisis-racked Caribbean nation in its battle against gang control, U.S. and diplomatic sources said.

They are hoping that a visit to Canada by President Joe Biden next week will settle months of debate over the matter.

In October, the United States proposed a resolution at the United Nations Security Council — with the support of the U.N. secretary-general and the Haitian government — for the deployment of a rapid-action, multinational force to Haiti to help the country’s embattled police break the stranglehold of armed gangs spreading across the country.

At the time, State Department officials said they were confident that a country would step up to lead the initiative by November. And in January, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Canada had “expressed interest in taking on a leadership role.”

A U.S. official familiar with the matter told McClatchy and the Miami Herald that the resolution was drafted on the hope and expectation that Canada would lead the effort.

But as Haiti’s security crisis worsens with hospitals forced to cease operations due to escalating violence and kidnappings and with police abandoning their posts in the face of deadly gang attacks, Canada has yet to make any public commitment to do so. Instead, the country’s leaders — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has personally engaged with Caribbean leaders on the topic — have been casting doubts in private discussions and in press interviews.

During a meeting with members of the 15-member Caribbean Community, CARICOM, in the Bahamas last month, Trudeau stopped short of agreeing to deploy his military. Instead, he announced a slate of new Canadian government support, including the deployment of two warships off the coast of Port-au-Prince, and more sanctions against those his government believes are contributing to the destabilization.

Meanwhile, in interviews over the past few months, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, has said past military interventions into Haiti have failed to bring long-term stability and last week Chief of the Defense Staff Wayne Eyre said he’s concerned about whether his Canadian armed forces have the capacity to lead such an intervention.

“By transporting Haitian-purchased armored vehicles, conducting patrol aircraft overflights, and now, deploying two maritime coastal defense vessels, we will continue to step up with important contributions to Haiti’s security,” a spokesperson for Canada’s minister of national defense told the Herald. “Security assistance is one of four pillars of Canada’s whole-of-government response to the crisis in Haiti, which also includes diplomacy, sanctions, and humanitarian and development assistance.”

READ MORE: Digicel chief says cellphone company is struggling in Haiti but not suffering like population

Canadian officials have sent several delegations to Port-au-Prince to look into the question of deploying troops. Trudeau also spoke with Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness about the situation in Haiti ahead of Holness’ recent visit to the country where he headed a CARICOM delegation after leaders opted to follow Trudeau’s example and focus not on deployment but supporting the Haiti National Police.

On Monday, during a public hearing in the Saint-Michel district of Montreal, Trudeau said he believes the best way to restore stability in Haiti “is first to sanction the elites to tell them that they can no longer finance gangs [or] political instability.”

Since last fall, Canada has blacklisted 17 Haitian nationals, including several former politicians, by freezing their assets and preventing them from visiting. The United States, in turn, has issued only financial sanctions against five individuals, four of them former Haitian parliamentarians, while slapping nearly 50 individuals, including their family members, with visa bans. The United States and the European Union, Trudeau said, must do “much more.”

“The United States started to impose more sanctions. We need them to do a lot more. We need Europe, France, to do more,” Trudeau said according to La Presse, the French-language digital newspaper in Montreal.

Henri-Paul Normandin, a former Canadian ambassador to Haiti and fellow with the German Marshall Fund, a Washington public policy think tank, said while he doesn’t know what will happen when Biden and Trudeau meet, the latter faces a dilemma on the question of deploying boots into Haiti.

“My reading of all this is that the initial political enthusiasm to do this first, and secondly, the desire to do something that would be helpful for Haiti. was then contrasted with the cold facts and risks when this was more thoroughly analyzed,” Normandin said. “When we look at the reality, it is much more complicated.”

To begin, he said, there is a fundamental question of what the chances of success would be. Given the current war zone-like terrain — gangs are raping women and children, and using the population for target practice in once-peaceful farming communities — what would be the rules of engagement of such a force?

A woman and her daughter walk past a barricade that was set up by police officers amid civil disturbances in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.
A woman and her daughter walk past a barricade that was set up by police officers amid civil disturbances in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

“There are lots of questions, and just like with a war, you know when you get in, but you do not know when you can go out,” said Normandin, who has also served as ambassador and deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. “So back to the key question, would Canada, even with the support of other countries, be able to achieve success? And even more important, would Canada and the others be able to achieve success that is sustainable? Again, the answers are far from obvious.”

Just like in Haiti and in the United States, Canadians are divided about the question of foreign troop deployment, though a recent survey shows that Haitians are increasingly supportive of the idea with around 70% in the country backing the creation of an international force to assist their police. Normandin said there’s lot of goodwill toward Haiti in Canada but that there are also domestic political risks for Trudeau. The prime minister is currently dealing with his own controversy at home over allegations that Beijing interfered with Canada’s 2019 and 2021 elections.

“When can we use force?” said Normandin, who isn’t privy to any of the government’s internal discussions. “Secondly, what about the risks, the operational risks and the political risks? If some operation goes bad, and civilians are killed, then what happens? There are legal questions as well: If this multinational force contributes to arresting people, what do you do with them?”

Two U.S. officials told McClatchy that during the visit Biden and his team plan to express a sense of “urgency” to settle on the composition of a force. One official acknowledged Canada’s concerns with its capacity to lead such a force, but questioned whether any other party was more equipped than Ottawa to take the mission on.

Several Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, have previously expressed their willingness to participate in a multinational force, as have some African nations. In that regard, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who was in the Bahamas last month along with Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, was expected to raise the concerns about Haiti with French President Emmanuel Macron when the two met on Friday, a source told the Herald. Though France, like Canada and the United States, provides training and funding to the Haiti National Police, the European nation has been largely absent from the discussions about troop deployment.

Experts say the makeup of any deployment to Haiti would require a large country with adequate logistical capabilities and military assets.

From the outset of the conversation over foreign intervention, the Biden administration has ruled out the possibility of leading the multilateral force itself, citing Washington’s long, messy history with force deployments in Haiti. Sullivan noted that the United States has had multiple experiences with military operations in Haiti and that the administration is looking for “a solution that does not involve a major U.S. military operation in Haiti.”

In 1915, when Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was hacked to death on the streets of Port-au-Prince by a mob, the United States quickly intervened and took control of Haiti’s political and financial interests. The resulting 19-year occupation along with the United States’ heavy-handedness in Haiti’s domestic affairs, including recent elections, have repeatedly been cited by critics of foreign intervention and have fed into the administration’s reluctance.

Barricades block a Port-au-Prince street, the result of gang violence in the Haitian capital.
Barricades block a Port-au-Prince street, the result of gang violence in the Haitian capital.

Should the response from Canada be a definitive “no” or still a non-commitment, Washington will need to decide its next steps, Haiti observers say. Does it deploy its own soldiers? Or does it allow the situation to destabilize so much that Haiti becomes a regional threat and there is no choice but to send in another large-scale United Nations peacekeeping mission that the international community has said, until now, it wants to avoid?

During a visit last week to Port-au-Prince, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols received an earful from members of the foreign diplomatic corps about the degradation of the security environment. Armed groups were now moving into previously peaceful communities, kidnappings were skyrocketing and police were overwhelmed. Even the country’s prisons are being targeted by gangs, which over the weekend sought to take control of the women’s prison just north of the capital in the rural town of Carbaret before police reinforcements were sent.

Nichols, who flew to Haiti to see where Haitians leaders are on forging a broader political consensus on governing the country in the absence of elections or any elected leader after the high-profile July 7, 2021, assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, was in listening mode and offered no new revelations. He did, however, make it clear that with confusion over whether the United States was working through third parties to address the ongoing crises, the only person authorized to speak on behalf of the United States is Chargé d’Affaires Eric Stromayer.

“We continue our collaboration with our international partners to build the framework for a possible multi-national force to provide security and stability,” Nichols later said at a press conference in reference to the Haitian government’s request for such a force. “We recognize that the Haitian national police needs support to address severe insecurity in Haiti.”

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, said in a statement that the president’s trip to Ottawa on March 23 and 24 would include discussions on regional challenges, including “instability in Haiti.”

A National Security Council official said that, while in Mexico in January, Biden and Trudeau “committed to continue collaboration on this, and the two leaders will discuss the situation in Haiti when they meet again this month in Ottawa.”

“The United States remains committed to providing assistance to the people of Haiti while also holding accountable those responsible for undermining Haiti’s stability,” the official said. “We remain in coordination with partners on next steps to address urgent security needs in Haiti, including support to the Haitian national police.”