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Nations consider sending troops to Haiti, despite troubled past foreign intervention

Demonstrators carry a coffin covered with American, Canadian and French flags and pictures of politicians as they protest on Jean-Jacques Dessalines Day in Port-au-Prince on Monday. Haitians protest against their prime minister and foreign countries as the nation celebrates the 216th anniversary of the assassination of Dessalines, a Haitian independence hero and founding father.
Richard Pierrin
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AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators carry a coffin covered with American, Canadian and French flags and pictures of politicians as they protest on Jean-Jacques Dessalines Day in Port-au-Prince on Monday. Haitians protest against their prime minister and foreign countries as the nation celebrates the 216th anniversary of the assassination of Dessalines, a Haitian independence hero and founding father.

Updated October 21, 2022 at 2:29 PM ET

The United Nations Security Council is considering an international intervention in Haiti to open up aid corridors and resolve what the U.N. secretary-general calls "an absolutely nightmarish situation."

Armed gangs have blocked the main fuel terminal in the capital since last month and severed access to aid routes. The country has been wracked by weeks of unrest, with many taking to the street protesting against higher fuel and food prices, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Nearly half the population faces acute hunger. And now the country faces an outbreak of cholera.

In response to this spiraling crisis, Henry has asked the international community to intervene with a "specialized armed force." But the request has been met with horror by many in Haiti, who are more than familiar with the checkered history of foreign intervention and occupation.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry arrives at the Champ de Mars, adjacent to the National Palace, to lay a wreath for the anniversary of the death of the leader of the Haitian revolution Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Port-au-Prince on Monday.
Richard Pierrin / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry arrives at the Champ de Mars, adjacent to the National Palace, to lay a wreath for the anniversary of the death of the leader of the Haitian revolution Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Port-au-Prince on Monday.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution to hit a powerful Haitian gang leader with sanctions, a measure proposed by the United States and Mexico.

"We are sending a clear message to the bad actors that are holding Haiti hostage: The international community will not stand idly by while you wreak havoc on the Haitian people," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.

But the U.S. and Mexico also drafted another Security Council resolution that proposes "a limited, carefully scoped, non-U.N. mission led by a partner country with the deep, necessary experience required for such an effort to be effective," the U.S. ambassador said at a council briefing on Monday.

"If there was ever a moment to come to the aid of Haitians in dire need, it is now," she said.

Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. is considering how to support such a mission. Privately, administration officials are sounding cautious about U.S. boots on the ground and say diplomats are talking to countries in the region that could take the lead in a limited operation. So far, some officials including in the Bahamas and Guyana are reported to have voiced support for the proposal.

All 15 members of the Security Council approved the sanctions resolution on Friday, following some delay on the vote. But diplomats say it will take more time to iron out plans for a possible armed intervention.

Last weekend, the U.S. and Canada sent equipment including armored vehicles to help Haitian police fight a powerful gang.

But the prospect of sending a new foreign military force to Haiti raises concerns for those familiar with the failures of past interventions there.

"You could have a military force come in and knock down the barricades and kill some of the gang members," explains writer Jonathan M. Katz, who has written about Haiti.

Protesters calling for the resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry run after police fired tear gas to disperse them in the Delmas area of Port-au-Prince on Oct. 10.
Odelyn Joseph / AP
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AP
Protesters calling for the resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry run after police fired tear gas to disperse them in the Delmas area of Port-au-Prince on Oct. 10.

But he says this will not resolve the country's central problem, "which is that Haiti currently doesn't have a functioning democracy. It doesn't have a representative government."

Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World came to save Haiti and left behind a disaster, criticizes the U.S. for backing a "democratic vacuum" in Haiti since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021 and not supporting a plan to restore democracy, set out by a broad group of Haitians known as the Montana group.

The U.N. wants a Haitian-led solution but also foreign armed action

The head of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti Helen La Lime says she supports a Haitian-led political solution. But so far, she says, that is "elusive and on its own is no longer sufficient to address the current crisis."

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called for "armed action" to free up the port and to allow for a humanitarian corridor.

The U.N. would not be in the lead, however, given its track record in Haiti. U.N. peacekeepers brought cholera to the island over a decade ago, causing an outbreak that killed thousands of people.

Theophil Gilot holds his son, Alexendro Gilot, who is treated for cholera in a facility in Cabaret, Haiti, on Nov. 24, 2010. In December 2016, then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized for the U.N.'s role in a cholera outbreak, saying peacekeepers were the most likely source.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Theophil Gilot holds his son, Alexendro Gilot, who is treated for cholera in a facility in Cabaret, Haiti, on Nov. 24, 2010. In December 2016, then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized for the U.N.'s role in a cholera outbreak, saying peacekeepers were the most likely source.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said the U.N. Security Council should consider its role differently from the past. "To be clear, we are keenly aware of the history of international intervention in Haiti and specifically of concerns about the council authorizing a response that could lead to an open-ended peacekeeping role," she said.

Many in the U.S. are also wary of Washington's history of occupation and intervention in the Caribbean nation. In 1915, the U.S. invaded Haiti and occupied it for nearly two decades, ostensibly in an effort to restore order. But it left behind chaos.

U.S. Marines and their Haitian guides in Haiti in 1919.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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Getty Images
U.S. Marines and their Haitian guides in Haiti in 1919.

Then in Operation "Uphold Democracy" in 1994, President Bill Clinton sent in more than 20,000 troops to restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after a 1991 military coup.

Robert Fatton, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, says Haitians know the poor record of foreign interventions and are not enthusiastic about them.

"On the other hand, the situation is very critical," he says. An international force could help to establish some semblance of order. But he adds, "the big question is what happens afterwards."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.