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The history of U.S. intervention in Haiti is stopping U.S. officials from intervening

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The humanitarian situation in Haiti is growing dire. Gangs have been blocking aid and fuel supplies. Cholera is making a comeback. And the man who has been leading Haiti since the last president was assassinated a year ago is asking for foreign intervention. But the history of U.S. interventions there is giving many in Washington pause, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. officials say it would be premature to talk about U.S. boots on the ground in Haiti, but a U.S. Coast Guard cutter is patrolling offshore, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been talking to regional players about how to stabilize the country.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: We have to look at what steps are necessary to effectively support the Haitian National Police and whether there are other things the international community can do to help Haiti provide security effectively for itself.

KELEMEN: There is reason to be wary, says Robert Fatton, a professor at the University of Virginia. There's a centuries-old history of foreign meddling in Haiti, and none of it led to anything good.

ROBERT FATTON: Haitians, when they look at the record of foreign interventions, are not too enthusiastic about them. On the other hand, the situation is very critical.

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KELEMEN: The World Food Program is sharing footage of looted gas stations and Haitians lining up outside banks. Country Director Jean-Martin Bauer says the country is at a standstill.

JEAN-MARTIN BAUER: Schools are closed. Hospitals are closed. And farmers are having trouble bringing their goods to the market. This is aggravating a very fragile food security situation.

KELEMEN: The World Food Programme says nearly half of Haiti's population is facing acute hunger. Professor Fatton says it's as bad as he's seen it. And now, he says, Haiti's prime minister is asking for help.

FATTON: And this is one of the paradoxes because you hear the Haitians always talking about an independent and sovereign Haiti. But once they are in the government and things are not going well, they are calling for such an intervention.

KELEMEN: The U.S. says it is considering the prime minister's request for help, but writer Jonathan Katz points out that this government was not elected, and he criticizes the U.S. for backing what he calls a democratic vacuum in Haiti since the last president was assassinated.

JONATHAN KATZ: You could have military force come in and, you know, knock down the barricades and kill some of the gang members and, you know, send others into hiding. But what does that do to the central problem, which is that Haiti currently doesn't have a functioning democracy. It doesn't have a representative government.

KELEMEN: Katz, author of the book "Gangsters Of Capitalism," says there's no easy fixes. Even the U.N. has a bad reputation in Haiti because peacekeepers brought cholera to the island over a decade ago.

KATZ: One of the big things the United Nations could do and the United Nations members could do would be to make good on their promises to make restitution to the Haitian people for having brought a cholera epidemic that killed 10,000 people and is now emerging again.

KELEMEN: The U.N. Security Council meets Monday on Haiti. And so far, the U.S. says it's mostly just pushing for sanctions against criminal gangs and their financial backers. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM EVIAN SONG, "CAROLINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
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.