By James Stavridis
For decades, Haiti has struggled to avoid tumbling into deeply challenging conditions. It has been repeatedly beset by poor leadership, dictatorships, and natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, which are often followed by outbreaks of disease.
Today, the nation of more than 11 million people seems to have reached a nadir. After the assassination of the president in 2021, civil order has essentially been neutered. The shaky parliament is no match for the nation’s large, heavily armed gangs. Kidnapping, rape, murder and drug dealing have soared, with crime rates doubling in a year. Port-au-Prince, the capital, is among the most dangerous cities in the Americas. Tragically, all this is occurring in a nation that is the second-oldest free republic in the hemisphere (having won its independence from France in 1804).
As the security situation continues to deteriorate, many international observers are calling for a new United Nations stabilization and security mission, similar to the one in place from 2004 to 2017. Is it time to send the blue helmets back to Haiti?
I know Haiti well. As commander of U.S. Southern Command from 2006 to 2009, I visited often and studied the history, culture and language of the nation, which is the poorest in the Americas and among the least affluent in the world. Nearly 60% live in abject poverty, including 4 million children. I speak French, and learned a bit of the official language, Creole. Haitians told me then that they were grateful for our assistance and engagement — or at least, they were initially.
In my many visits, I spent significant time with the U.N. mission leaders. Known as the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), it was composed of roughly 5,000 U.N. forces, half military and half police. The military component was mostly Brazilian, and typically a Brazilian Army 3-star general was the overall commander. Chile was also a major contributor, as were Argentina and several other South American nations. Soldiers from Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka also provided major contingents. Many police officers from India and Pakistan were also engaged. In total, more than 50 nations participated (roughly the number who sent troops to Afghanistan). Of note, the U.S. — which was of course deeply committed in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the period of the mandate — did not contribute significant forces.
On the positive side of the ledger, the U.N. troops brought a modicum of stability to Haitian society, reducing violence and increasing access to food and school. But sadly, the mission earned a mixed reputation in Haiti. One critical reason was a severe outbreak of cholera — which killed tens of thousands of Haitians — that has been credibly traced to the water systems installed to support the U.N. troops. There were also multiple reports of criminal acts by the U.N. troops, including raids, rape, kidnapping, illegal detention and extrajudicial executions.
I remember the Brazilian 3-star Gen. Carlos dos Santos Cruz telling me how challenging it was operating with so many nations in the U.N. mission, and that the deep underlying poverty of Haitian society made it difficult to create longer-term stability. Later, when I went on to command the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, I gained a better appreciation of the challenges he faced during those years. These are large, complex missions conducted under extreme duress.
Yet letting Haiti continue to drift into gang-run anarchy is not a viable solution. Nor does Haiti currently possess the capacity to overcome its challenges without outside intervention.
A new U.N. mission, using the extensive lessons learned from the first MINUSTAH experience, seems necessary. Obviously, this must be done with the permission of the current government, and the best approach would be to constitute the force as much as possible from the Americas.
By partnering with the Organization of American States, the U.N. could provide regional command and control as it did in MINUSTAH. This time, given that the demands of Afghanistan and Iraq are gone, U.S. engagement — even leadership — is mandatory. We should remember the Haitian refugees who came to the U.S. in the 1980s on boatlifts, who ultimately numbered more than a hundred thousand. The U.S. has a strong interest in a stable Haiti with reasonable internal security and a shot at economic development.
The new mission should probably be scaled at roughly 5,000 personnel, divided between military and law enforcement. Their headquarters and bivouacs will have to be scrupulously constructed and maintained to avoid any hint of repeating the cholera experience. The lessons of the first mission should be incorporated into their charter, as well as what the international community has learned subsequently in Afghanistan (where the Provincial Reconstruction Teams offer some ideas worth considering).
There is no quick or easy fix to the challenges facing Haiti. But it is a neighbor in desperate need, and if the U.S. can lead an improved U.N. mission — this time with U.S. personnel — it would be in our interests to help Haiti get back on its feet.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A retired U.S. Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, he is vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group.