Juliette Kayyem

How can US help Haitians rebuild Haiti, not flee it?

A demonstrator shows a marked election ballot during a protest against the November election results in Port-au-Prince. A demonstrator shows a marked election ballot during a protest against the November election results in Port-au-Prince. (Associated Press)
By Juliette Kayyem
January 12, 2011

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JUST A few days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year, federal officials — as well as state and local counterparts in Florida — began to prepare for a potential mass migration of Haitians into the United States. Sixteen Coast Guard cutters were deployed to the shores of Haiti to patrol for signs of a major exodus of people. The message was clear: the United States would support Haiti in the humanitarian efforts to aid those injured and harmed, but did not want Haitians to flee the country.

Haitians never did hit the waters en masse. As the United States assesses its continuing commitment to Haiti one year after 230,000 people were killed, strategy should focus on one basic objective: keeping Haitians committed to Haiti. This is especially important given the widespread rioting that occurred after November’s contested elections.

A mass migration would only add more misery. Boats, especially handmade ones, are inherently dangerous; the waters are cold and unruly, the route unpredictable. Migrants, especially children, are at tremendous risk. And if thousands of Haitians seek refuge in the waters, only three options are immediately available to US authorities: Return them to Haiti, detain them in holding facilities in the United States as immigration rules and requirements are processed, or, as happened to nearly 34,000 Haitians after the 1991 coup, hold them at the naval facility in Guantanamo Bay. On this anniversary, the question today ought to be: How does the United States continue to help Haitians rebuild Haiti — rather than flee it?

The focus so far has predominantly been on humanitarian efforts. And they are no small part of the equation; The intense federal response in the weeks and months after the earthquake — coupled with an equal commitment by Americans (one in every two US households contributed in money or services in the immediate aftermath of the devastation) — was critical. Certainly, more needs to be done.

But humanitarian efforts are not the whole of it.

The last major Haitian exodus was not related to poverty, health, education, or a natural disaster. It was, as mass migrations so often are, related to politics. The 1991 military coup deposing Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, resulted in civil unrest and armed rebellion. Haitian migration went from a mere trickle to over 60,000 cases from 1991 to 1994, when Aristide returned to power due to American intervention. And in the decades since, for all of Haiti’s problems, it has been a country whose citizens believe in it.

Haiti is no fluke in this regard. In recent history, due in no small measure to international humanitarian intervention, populations have remained incredibly resilient to natural disasters. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Pakistan flooding resulted in tremendous death and devastation, but no major civilian exodus.

So while the one-year anniversary will likely be characterized (unfairly, in many respects) by how little seems to have progressed, and how devastated the nation still seems to be, the key fact is that America’s interest in Haiti today is as much about the election politics as it is about food and shelter.

That Haiti was committed to free and fair general and presidential elections in November is a promising sign. It may be as much a commitment to democracy as it is a commitment to a functioning government. Simply put, Haiti is not a failed state. But there is a tangible risk to the recovery from the uncertainty now surrounding Haiti’s politics.

The allegations of fraud that have surrounded the elections, and have ultimately resulted in protests, recounts, chaos, and delays, could threaten the post-earthquake truce Haitians seem to have made with their government. This is why, embedded in the budget for humanitarian assistance to Haiti, the United States is also supporting the elections themselves, including technical assistance, the procurement of election materials and ballot boxes, and domestic and international observers for post-electoral developments.

January is not the relevant month to judge Haiti. Sometime this spring, after a report from the Organization of American States on the contested preliminary results is finalized and reviewed, a run-off election will be held. If the process is accepted as fair and legitimate, then Haitians will have confidence in the government that will hold power during its long reconstruction phase.

Success, in this regard, may be measured by the number of boats in the ocean.

Juliette Kayyem, former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts, most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.