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Why the US will help African police take on gangs in a Caribbean nation

As a multinational security mission led by Kenya prepares to deploy to Haiti, the United States will aid in the provision of funding, training and equipment to support international police combat rising gang violence and instability in the Caribbean nation.

“The United States stands ready to support a Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission in Haiti by working with Congress to provide $100 million in funding and up to $100 million in enabling in-kind support,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told Newsweek. “The U.S. government is working with the international community to provide equipment, training, and assistance to meet mission requirements, subject to vetting and oversight.”

The remarks came days after the United Nations Security Council was able to secure a rare resolution to approve the Multinational Security Support mission in response to pleas from Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, whose nation has been consumed in a deepening spiral of security and economic challenges.

“The U.S. government remains deeply concerned by the widespread gang violence in Haiti,” the State Department spokesperson said, “and we believe the MSS mission is necessary to address this issue and improve security and long-term stability in the country.”

But the mission is set to face serious challenges, and it has already begun to raise concerns, both within Haiti and abroad.

In Kenya, opposition lawmakers have demanded that the deployment first be ratified by parliament before it is approved, raising concerns for both the safety of the personnel being sent to Haiti as well as national security priorities at home. The East African nation has dealt with its own share of non-state actor violence, including brazen attacks by Islamist groups such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab, based in neighboring Somalia.

As for Haiti, which prides itself as home to the world’s only successful slave rebellion that expelled French colonists at the dawn of the 18th century, any foreign intervention is often met with suspicion.

A Troubled Legacy of Foreign Intervention

“Generally speaking, Haitians have never seen foreign interventions, of any kind, as an honorable thing,” Fritznel D. Octave, a veteran Haitian journalist who recently authored a book on the country’s history from its 1804 revolution to current challenges, told Newsweek.

“Most Haitians consider foreign police or military presence on national soil as an insult to the heroes of independence who shed blood, sweat, and tears to give them that land, more importantly their liberty, freedom, natural rights, and self-determination,” he added. “Additionally, the legacy of foreign interventions is considered as a heady burden on the country.”

And while the upcoming deployment is not a U.N. action, the international body also has also cultivated a difficult legacy in Haiti in recent years.

The last foreign mission to be deployed to the country, the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), was widely accused of inadvertently causing a deadly cholera outbreak that killed nearly 10,000 people nationwide. The peacekeepers departed Haiti in 2017 and were followed by the scaled-down U.N. Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), which itself ended in 2019 and was replaced with the current U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH).

A U.N. spokesperson told Newsweek that “the UN, including its special political mission in Haiti (BINUH) will fully support the new Multinational Security Support mission” and that “what that support will look like in detail will depend in part on what the MSS defines as its needs.”

“This should take shape in the coming days and weeks,” the U.N. spokesperson added.

Octave said that “many Haitians are against such a decision because they strongly fear that history will repeat itself” when it comes to the past experience with the initial U.N. deployment.

Still, he argued that MINUSTAH did manage to bring some sense of stability when it arrived in 2004 in the chaotic wake of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ousting at the hands of a rebel paramilitary group, his second ousting in just under 25 years.

The upcoming mission, Octave asserted, could also “quickly help Haitian authorities regain control from gangs, re-establish order, security, and calm throughout the country” while at the same time helping national police to “provide a safe and secured climate for Haiti to be able to conduct elections for the renewal of the democratic institutions.”

He warned, however, that “foreign presence often creates a sense of dependence without much support in terms of professional training, materials, and equipment to the national police.” He also argued that the absence of U.S. personnel may actually undermine the mission as “Haitians traditionally do not cultivate a great deal of respect for foreign forces other than U.S. military or police forces.”

The United States Under Scrutiny

Washington too has a complex history of intervention in Haiti.

In 1915, after just over a century of Haitian independence from France, the U.S. invaded and occupied the country for two decades under the stated mission of restoring economic and political stability. The U.S. military again intervened in 1994, this time after securing U.N. Security Council support, to defeat a military coup that overthrew Aristide three years earlier.

Washington has also been accused of covert meddling in Haitian politics over the past 30 years. These include allegations that it supported the rebellion to overthrow Aristide the second time around in 2004 and that it even had a hand in the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, whose assailants, apparently working with a Florida-based investment agency owned by a Haitian-born businessman, identified themselves as personnel of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The DEA and other U.S. government bodies have vehemently denied any connection to the ousting or killing of any Haitian leaders.

U.S. officials have, however, acknowledged the existence of the rampant smuggling of weapons from the U.S. to Haiti. This influx has fueled the rise of well-armed gangs now in control of parts of the capital and expanding elsewhere in the country.

“What we’re seeing right now in Haiti is a manifestation of failed U.S. policy,” Johanna Leblanc, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based Adomi Advisory Group, told Newsweek.

On top of the lasting impact of U.S. military interventions, Leblanc, who has previously advised both U.S. lawmakers and Haitian government officials on foreign policy, traced a history of how Washington’s economic policies have affected Haiti, from trade measures that devastated the country’s rice industry in the 1990s to ongoing systemic issues with foreign aid that rarely benefitted the long-term interests of the Haitian people.

As such, she said the current international effort to aid Haiti has to adopt “a holistic approach for it to work.”

“We can’t just focus on insecurity,” Leblanc said, “but it needs to need be combined with economic opportunities in the country so that people can go back to work and then we can restore some kind of normalcy in the country.”

Battling “Gangsterization”

Factors both domestic and external have played key roles in fomenting the conditions under which Haitians are currently suffering.

The U.N. has acknowledged the need for more comprehensive solutions.

“The greatest concern at the moment is that without support to Haiti from the international community, gang violence and instability will continue to deteriorate,” the U.N. spokesperson said. “At the same time, as the Security Council states in its resolution, there is a need for broader efforts beyond the work of the MSS mission to sustainably address the root causes of gang violence.”

“This violence emanates from political, institutional, and socio-economic instability,” they added. “That’s why the Council reiterated its call to the international community, including international financial institutions, to enhance support for long-term economic, social and institutional development in Haiti even after its stability is restored.”

Octave also spoke to the depth of Haiti’s underlying issues that would need to be addressed to effect substantive change.

“Haiti’s current economic and security plight are deeply rooted into a long legacy of unresolved socio-political, cultural, and economic conflicts among Haitians,” Octave said. “These internal conflicts have resulted from the will of a tiny minority of the elites to oppose any form of progressive change in favor of the large majority of Haitians.”

“In that context, and amid a permanent state of power struggles,” he added, “foreign actors have exploited the situation by influencing generations of bad leaders to implement policies that have made Haiti weaker but benefited the minority and foreign interests alike.”

This has led to what he called “the gangsterization of Haiti,” which he said “is the symptom of a disease: the permanent fight among factions of stakeholders for control over the destiny of the impoverished and damned majority.”

A Lack of Will

Leblanc as well pointed to the role of “oligarchs and political elites” in Haiti who are “working with the gangs on the ground” to commit atrocities with relative impunity in the face of an embattled police force.

“We did not have to get to where we are in Haiti if there was a political will on the part of the Haitian government and international partners, as well as the existing government and even previously under President Moïse,” she said. “We’ve seen the insecurity has just been getting worse and worse and worse over time, but it could have been stopped.”

She asserted that Washington had to crack down on both the flow of weapons to Haiti as well as the access by gangs to financial markets abroad. She also called on lawmakers to show the same kind of attention to the Haitian people they have shown to support Ukraine in its efforts to resist Russia amid the ongoing conflict in Eastern Europe.

“At the end of the day, the people of Haiti are incredibly resilient, but I think they are tired,” Leblanc said. “It’s really time for the world to stand by the people of Haiti and really focus on trade and investments.”

“Obviously, the security issue has to be addressed,” she added, “but it is imperative that the U.S. Congress put out legislation that will bring about economic stability in the country, just like we have done incredibly well at supporting the people of Ukraine during this war with Russia.”

Newsweek reached out to the Haitian Embassy to the United States, the Haitian Foreign Ministry, the Kenyan Embassy to the United States, the Kenyan Foreign Ministry, and the Kenyan Defense Ministry for comment.

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