By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)
(Thursday, September 23rd, 2021) The abrupt resignation of the US Special Envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, came like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. It was as unexpected as it was unprecedented.
The public resignation and sharp responses from officials of the State Department, including, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman who, only two days before, met CARICOM Foreign Ministers virtually, indicated a deep division in the principal foreign relations agency of the US.
Foote had himself served as Deputy Secretary of State and those, like me, who have interacted with him know him to be a suave and likeable man and a persuasive diplomat. He had assumed the post of Special Envoy to Haiti only two months ago amid a constitutional, political, and humanitarian crisis in Haiti.
From all accounts that I heard from groups within Haiti, Foote had quickly connected with the various factions and was apparently well-liked. These groups also knew that Foote and the US Ambassador to Haiti, Michele Sison, had differences of opinion on the strategy the US should employ in Haiti to achieve its objectives. From statements reported in both the New York Times and Miami Herald, it appears that Sison’s point of view commanded more support than Foote’s. Deputy Secretary Sherman told Miami Herald reporters that Sison is “an excellent ambassador”, adding “We have tremendous faith in her and in her leadership”.
Whether or not it is the lack of establishment support for his opinion on US strategy in Haiti that caused Foote to resign, the reason he gave for doing so, in his letter to US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is one that has resonated throughout the Caribbean and the black community in the US. “I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs in control of daily life”.
On any objective grounds, the large-scale deportation of Haitians from Texas by the plane loads that are continuing, is inhumane. The Haitians have genuine fear for their lives but they are being round-up like cattle and deported without a hearing. Were these events taking place in any other country in the hemisphere, a complaint against US authorities would already have been lodged at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and demands would have been made for a special session of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) to make a declaration against it.
But nothing has been said in the OAS and nothing brought before the IACHR, and the likelihood of anything being done is remote. Even if a few CARICOM countries were minded to do so, garnering wider support from a sufficient number of other OAS member states would be near impossible.
Silence and inaction do not change the distressing situation which has been exacerbated by photographs of the Haitian refugees being hunted including by a border guard on horseback wielding what looks like either a whip or a lasso as he pursues an unarmed and clearly terrified man. The photograph elicited statements of lamentation from both President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, but the deportations continue, in the full display of their harshness.
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has also been silent, so far, about this affair. In part, the reason for this is the archaic way in which CARICOM makes decisions and authorises public statements. The organization waits for a member state, meaning the government, to draw a matter to its attention, and to discuss it with the head of government or a designee present, before it will say anything. The last time CARICOM made an immediate statement concerning Haiti, apart from condemning the assassination of Jovenel Moïse, was well after the event had occurred.
In all this, the government of Haiti has not brought the matter to the attention of CARICOM, nor has it sought any support for a statement, calling on the US authorities to adopt a more tolerant or humane approach to the problem. Indeed, every approach initiated by CARICOM to be helpful to Haiti in its continuing crises has either been ignored or rebuffed.
So, when the question is asked: where is CARICOM in all this? The answer is that CARICOM’s decision-making process is archaic and centred on the presumed necessity to involve the government of the country concerned, and, in this situation, there is unlikely to be any CARICOM response any time soon.
This does not stop individual governments and organizations from stating their own positions. And they should. Right now, the Haitians, who are being herded in Texas and deported to fearsome conditions, need a champion not to justify their illegal entry to the US or to demand that they be allowed to remain, but to treat them compassionately, give them a right to a hearing, and provide them basic humane conditions until they can be accepted or deported in an orderly fashion.
Foote’s public resignation gave a rare insight into the workings of the US government when he said: “Our policy approach to Haiti remains deeply flawed, and my recommendations have been ignored and dismissed, when not edited to project a narrative different from my own”. The last observation deserves a sharp intake of breath.
In the meantime, little or nothing is being done about the conditions in Haiti that are creating refugees and illegal immigrants. The notion that Presidential and other elections can be held any time soon in a country run by gangs with people living in fear, and that such elections will be free and fair, is “deeply flawed”. So too is the idea that once elections are held, those who have dictated to Haiti for years, even by deciding their leaders, can simply walk away – Foote’s resignation notwithstanding.
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