Why Haiti Turning the Corner also Chalks Up a Win for Caribbean Regionalism

The Caribbean Community's high-profile handling of this significant moment in Haiti's post-independence journey shines a light not only on the stakes for that troubled country, but also the region's associated interests.

According to some observers, Haiti is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Left unchecked—to paraphrase Enlightenment-era philosopher Immanuel Kant—prevailing national-level political discord qua dysfunction could well set the conditions “for a hell of evils to overtake [the country],” with knock-on effects for the Caribbean and beyond.          

It is a mark of just how consequential placing Haiti on an even keel is for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) that, given the context at this time, this regional grouping of 14 mostly Anglophone sovereign small states is out front on the matter.

The grouping is actively engaged in helping to stave off Haiti’s complete descent into chaos and anarchy, akin to the Hobbesian state of nature, with an eye to and stake in exercising a degree of influence on the Haiti that emerges from this dark period.  

CARICOM sees opportunity in helping to lead the charge—along with Canada, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the United Nations—regarding the way forward for Haiti. (Every step of the way, as Haitian stakeholders are integrally involved, the Haitian imprint leaves an indelible mark.)

The bloc is recognized by the international community as playing a “key role” in respect of this cause, having also garnered international acclaim for raising Haiti’s diplomatic profile in the circumstances.

At a CARICOM summit held earlier in the year, Haiti featured prominently on the agenda, and Heads of Government engaged some of Haiti’s international partners on the situation in-country vis-à-vis United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2699.

As things stand, the bloc has adopted a two-pronged strategy which—given overarching considerations—turns on directing top-level diplomatic and security-related resources to the cause in question. (The UNSC-authorized, Kenyan-led Multinational Security Support Mission in Haiti—yet to be deployed—is the cornerstone of the latter prong.)   

Only recently, and in the latest in a series of good offices-informed interventions to facilitate same, this regional grouping was instrumental in securing “the commitment to a transitional governance arrangement, which paves the way for a peaceful transition of power, continuity of governance, an action plan for near-term security, and the road to free and fair elections.”

It has been one month since this deal, which CARICOM champions, found attentive ears in Port-au-Prince and key Western capitals.   

Informed by the urgency of the situation, coupled with the sensitivities of the political imperative of shoring up a Haitian-sanctioned and pragmatic basis to help right the ship, this development is just the latest outcome of a longstanding strategy of politically and technically engaging Haiti. (Instructively, CARICOM states are rallying others to offer complementary support for democratic transition in Haiti.) The reality is that in the 22 years since Haiti’s historic accession to CARICOM, its precarity still figures prominently in the politics qua agenda of regionalism—in which leading development partners form part of the mix.   

The nature and scale of the myriad challenges that contemporary Haiti confronts are such that, as history reminds us, they have not led anywhere good. A passing reference to just two, well-known historical moments will suffice.

The unceremonious ouster, 20 years ago, of the country’s then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is notable. According to analysts, it ushered in a period that has been marked by democratic backsliding, coming on the heels of “a decade of hard-won democratic progress.” The 2010 Haiti earthquake also comes to mind, given the long shadow it cast over the country in the period since. (Those challenges were made worse by and are linked to, inter alia, UN peacekeeping gone awry in Haiti.)

The 2000s and 2010s were, to say the least, trying times for national politics in this country of nearly 12 million people. In this period, growing friction among political forces has been linked to the aforementioned couple of moments. But it is also deeply rooted in the legacies of French colonialism. To be sure, that this first Black republic has found itself in the crosshairs of (neo)imperialism also has a bearing on the fragmentation of the polity.

Yet with Haiti’s spectacular and accelerated descent into ever worsening political dysfunction, following the assassination of its President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, thus far, the 2020s may take the cake in comparison.  

Today, in a context where the de facto government has long since come under scrutiny, there is a power vacuum. Especially in urban centres, criminal gangs have opportunistically and cynically moved to fill the breach. 

Reports are that armed gangs control 80 percent of Port-au-Prince, running roughshod over elements of the ramshackle state apparatus and quotidian parts of Haitians’ lives. In this regard, the UN recently raised an alarm in respect of the scale of human rights violations in-country.

And the surge in gang violence in Port-au-Prince has resulted in tens of thousands of internally displaced Haitians, who have fled the capital. In that light, their lives have been upended still further.      

Throughout its tenure, the government of Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry has seemingly been powerless to get a handle on the increasingly dire situation. (Henry, who Moïse named to the post just days prior to his death, took office shortly after his predecessor’s demise.)

Such conditions allowed for the dark side of Haiti’s political culture to run amok, with wanton disregard for the Haitian populace’s security. And arguably, such trends stirred up a rethink regarding the government of the day.

Washington had a change of heart on supporting Henry’s government any longer; instead, making the case for political transition.

Which brings us back to the efforts of CARICOM and third parties to turn over a new leaf politically for Haiti—a goal that, presently, all concerned remain far from.      

To that end, the groundwork was laid for the resignation of embattled Prime Minister Henry, contingent “upon the establishment of a Transitional Presidential Council and the naming of an Interim Prime Minister.”   

The Outcome Declaration of CARICOM, International Partners and Haitian Stakeholders—issued pursuant to a meeting in Jamaica of regional leaders (along with third parties, among them the United States) last month—outlines the make up and responsibilities of the Council.

Driving forward implementation, thereafter, scored initial successes. The Eminent Persons Group (EPG), which represents CARICOM Heads of Government in respect of the Community’s Good Offices support in set priority areas to the Government of Haiti and Haitian stakeholders, made a difference. The EPG, comprising three former prime ministers, has fared well in its quiet diplomacy—premised on “facilitat[ing] a Haitian-led solution to the multiple crises facing the country.” (In terms of this set up, the Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Haiti and to the EPG is also in place.)

Last month, “amid factional infighting,” preliminary achievements seemed to be in jeopardy. Political forces were seemingly playing for time for political purposes relative to the management of political change, with fractious politics standing in the way of political transition as envisioned in the Outcome Declaration.  

As a result, getting the Kenyan-led international security force off the ground was deemed to be a distant proposition.

This impasse starkly exposed political forces’ belief that, at the time, playing ball would likely constrain their room to manoeuvre against opponents. (Previously, and in another context, the EPG characterized such a stance as a “zero-sum approach.”)      

Such calculus follows a pattern of political crisis-turned-political transition-turned-crisis—and so on and so forth—weighing down the domestic political process. (On a five-day visit to Haiti in September 2023, the EPG seemed to call out that phenomenon, going so far as to voice its disappointment—especially considering worsening security and humanitarian conditions on the ground at the time.)   

That dynamic engendered growing concern that, as the clock began ticking on delivering on the Outcome Declaration, incentives for division had only strengthened, not lessened.   

With the issuance of the first official statement by the Council (in which, reportedly, the signatures of eight of the nine members are affixed), there are signs of tentative steps to try to overcome partisan logjam to avert a situation of Haiti’s further freefall.

Since late February 2024—when Henry left Haiti for Kenya to firm up arrangements for the UN-backed, Kenyan-led multinational security mission—the country has been rocked by violence, whose scale invites anarchy. This has brought about “a worsening humanitarian crisis, with nearly half of the population likely facing acute food insecurity.” The UN has issued a dire warning, sparking renewed concern about the already heavy, insecurity-linked migration from Haiti. (This migration issue, though, is not new.)

As previously intimated, over the last two-plus years, Haiti was beset by acute “humanitarian, security, political, and economic crises.”         

To judge from this reality, the risks are high for Haiti. Just as important, risk arises for CARICOM. With the execution of the Outcome Declaration having suffered setbacks, CARICOM interests relative to Haiti are also endangered. Such interests—the benchmark against which regional leaders’ willingness to invest political capital on a resolution to the country’s current quagmire is measured—can be cast in the following, four-fold manner.   

First, CARICOM is guided by “the need, desire and logic of [its] Member States combining their resources—human, economic and natural—to find common solutions to development challenges so as to accelerate development, and create a viable and prosperous society.” This is the bloc’s core organizing principle (i.e its ideational foundation), whose message it carries off primarily by way of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). The flagship initiative of the Community, the CSME hinges on progressively bringing about “a single, seamless economic space.” 

This lends itself to economies of scale, a robust trading and commercial environment, regional competitiveness and growth, and more; the wider context being that regional integration is not an end in itself: It is “a means to an end of deepening Caribbean integration into the global economy.”

Despite the fact that the roll-out of the CSME is “well behind schedule” and (for several years now) Haiti has been afforded a derogation from participation in same, for both Haiti and the bloc, the former’s membership in the grouping is a win-win situation; in particular, in harnessing gains from specialization vis-à-vis the value-added chain.    

Second, the bloc’s achievements have long been framed in terms of not just its ‘deepening’ but its ‘widening’-related project. Given the grouping’s historically Anglophone territorial membership, at least in part, Haiti’s accession to CARICOM tells the story of that ‘widening’ dimension. The achievements of same may well be diminished in the absence of Haiti’s active and full participation in the regional fold, which is bedevilled by cycles of crisis.   

In short, the bloc’s high-level, frontal participation in attempts to pull Haiti back from the brink is an acknowledgement of these sorts of interests, not least because “[r]egional integration helps countries overcome divisions that impede the flow of goods, services, capital, people and ideas.”

Third, continued instability in Haiti is also a threat to regional security. Some CARICOM members are in close geographical proximity to Haiti, and debates have raged in those countries and beyond about the abysmal situation plaguing the country and the resultant, multifaceted fallout.

Migrants are one thing, but Haiti also faces challenges of a monumental scale regarding firearms and drug trafficking, whose nefarious trade has embroiled Caribbean countries in a web of insecurity. CARICOM leaders and policymakers are painfully aware of the impact of such security threats in the Caribbean region, with the attendant violence having reportedly reached crisis proportions. Notably, the UN ranks Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago as being among the ten most violent countries in the world.    

Insofar as they portend a worsening shift in the regional security landscape, Haiti’s complex security challenges are such that security imperatives partly drive CARICOM’s determined efforts to right the ship.  

Fourth, just as Kenya’s President William Ruto has partly framed his country’s pledge to tangibly support Haiti in its hour of need as a “mission for humanity,” on the face of it, the CARICOM bloc is similarly moved—but in a manner where it is looking out for one of its own.

Against this backdrop, the bloc’s stock has gone up in the international community. This demonstrates, once again, that such small states indeed punch above their weight, just as it reflects the fact that their role on the international stage has expanded since the outset of this particular Haitian crisis moment.       

In sum, the mutually supportive character of the CARICOM-Haiti relationship is key to making sense of the regional grouping’s positioning in the grand scheme of things. Seen in this light and in a context where the fundamental belief that leads the Region’s Haiti policy is that “a strong Caribbean Community needs a strong Haiti,” concerns over CARICOM overreach in attempts to stabilize Haiti notwithstanding, taking a back seat in the provision of requisite assistance would pose an even greater risk for the bloc. Simply put, this is not an option. (Moreover, Haitian’s expect CARICOM to take on the mantle of looking out for their country.)      

In practical terms, when this particular crisis-related era comes to an end—as it will—CARICOM will have to stay the course, keeping a close eye on things. Haitian politics will hopefully change for the better—but in the context of a years-long process and, along the way, attempts to secure its democratic moorings will likely be tested.

The regional grouping has invested considerable effort and resources in assisting Haiti in navigating this difficult moment. Going forward, it will be essential that this investment adapt accordingly.     

From this perspective, the case for further building out related capacity in the short-, medium- and long-term is compelling.        

Dr. Nand C. Bardouille
Dr. Nand C. Bardouille
Dr. Nand C. Bardouille is Manager of The Diplomatic Academy of the Caribbean in the Institute of International Relations (IIR), The University of the West Indies (The UWI), St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of The UWI.