Foote's resignation letter, annotated

Over the weekend I had an op-ed in the Washington Post about the Biden administration’s wave of deportations to Haiti and how it flies in the face of the United States’s historic responsibilities to its neighboring republic. In it, I cited the resignation letter of Daniel Foote, who resigned as Biden’s special envoy for Haiti in the middle of the crisis.

The letter is worth reading in detail. To those who know America’s sordid history in the Black Republic, it packs a wallop. It brings to mind the late U.S. ambassador Alvin Adams, who in the 1990s convinced a U.S.-backed military ruler to resign, paving the way for Haiti’s first free presidential election in decades. Adams became known for his bold use of a Haitian proverb, “boruik chaje pa kanpe”—a loaded donkey cannot stand still—by which he meant that Haitian democracy had too much momentum to be deterred, by the military regime or its supporters in Washington. For the rest of his career, Adams was known as Ambassador Bourik Chaje.

Foote’s letter has the potential to be a similar landmark. Here it is in its entirety, with my annotations:

The Honorable Antony Blinken
Secretary of State
U.S. Secretary of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

September 22, 2021 

Dear Secretary Blinken,1 

With deep disappointment and apologies to those seeking crucial changes, I resign from my position as Special Envoy for Haiti, effective immediately. I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands2 of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants3 to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs4 in control of daily life. 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.5 

The people of Haiti, mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances6, simply cannot support the forced infusion of thousands of returned migrants lacking food, shelter, and money without additional, avoidable human tragedy. The collapsed state is unable to provide security or basic services, and more refugees will fuel further desperation and crime.7 Surging migration to our borders will only grow as we add to Haiti's unacceptable misery.8 

Haitians need immediate assistance to restore the government's ability to neutralize the gangs and restore order through the national police. They need a true agreement across society and political actors, with international support, to chart a timely path to the democratic selection of their next president and parliament.9 They need humanitarian assistance, money to deliver COVID vaccines and so many other things. 

But what our Haitian friends really want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering10 and favored candidates but with genuine support for that course. I do not believe that Haiti can enjoy stability until her citizens have the dignity of truly choosing their own leaders fairly and acceptably. 

Last week, the U.S. and other embassies in Port-au-Prince issued another public statement of support by for the unelected, de facto Prime Minister Dr. Ariel Henry11 as interim leader of Haiti, and have continued to tout his political agreement over another broader, earlier accord shepherded by civil society. The hubris that makes us believe we should pick the winner—again12—is impressive. This cycle of international political interventions in Haiti has consistently produced catastrophic results.13 More negative impacts to Haiti will have calamitous consequences not only in Haiti, but in the U.S. and our neighbors in the hemisphere.

Sincerely, 

Daniel Foote

Cc: 14

The Honorable T. Nuland, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
The Honorable B. Nichols, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs
The Honorable K. Merten, Acting Director General
The Honorable Gregory Meeks, Chairman, U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee
The Honorable Andy Levin, Member, U.S. House of Representatives

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1

Secretary Blinken’s involvement with Haiti dates back at least 1994, when he wrote several of President Clinton’s remarks in the lead-up to that year’s U.S. invasion of Haiti, in his capacity as a speechwriter for the National Security Council.

2

According to the Department of Homeland Security, at least 4,000 of the migrants who set up camp in Del Rio, Texas, have been deported to Haiti. Thousands more await their fate in U.S. government custody. But the Biden administration had already been carrying out deportations to Haiti throughout 2021, in contradiction of its own policy that Haiti could not handle returns due to “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources … exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The situation was only made worse by the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July and the August earthquake in southwestern Haiti that killed at least 2,200 people. Hundreds of human-rights organizations signed a letter before the Del Rio crisis, in late August, imploring the administration to stop deportations, which cause “additional harm to and pressure on an already-overburdened country.”

3

Not the preferred nomenclature but a key distinction. Most of those being deported from the U.S.-Mexico border have not lived in Haiti for years, but most recently in South America, where they moved seeking opportunity in the wake of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Some are children who do not have Haitian citizenship, but rather hold passports from Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela. This puts a further burden on their families, who can almost certainly not afford to move back to their childrens’ countries of citizenship and would have to undergo a complicated and expensive process of getting their children papers in Haiti.

4

For instance, the State Department recently alerted: “Since September 2, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince has observed increased violent gang and kidnapping activity throughout the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area,” and “restricted its staff from non-official travel” in certain areas. These areas included all of downtown Port-au-Prince, the road leading to and from the international airport (where deportees arrive), and all the areas one would have to pass through to drive anywhere else in the country from the capital including the neighborhoods of Martissant and Cite Soleil and the neighboring cities of Croix-des-Bouquets and Carrefour.

5

This is perhaps the most intriguing statement in Foote’s letter. To my knowledge, no one has reported out the specific examples of “editing” that the ex-special envoy was referring to. If you know what he’s talking about, you can contact me at katzonearth@gmail.com or via Signal at +1-540-999-8238.

For what it is worth, State Department spokesman Ned Price disputed Foote’s account, saying in a prepared statement: “There have been multiple senior-level policy conversations on Haiti, where all proposals, including those led by Special Envoy Foote, were fully considered in a rigorous and transparent policy process. Some of those proposals were determined to be harmful to our commitment to the promotion of democracy in Haiti and were rejected during the policy process. For him to say his proposals were ignored is simply false.” Price did not address Foote’s allegation that his recommendations were altered.

6

Haiti’s most influential gang at present is led by former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, who forged close ties with the slain President Moïse and his allies. Gangsters allied with the Haitian government are also suspected of involvement in a spate of political massacres, as detailed in an April report from Harvard Law School.

7

As the head of Haiti’s immigration office told the New York Times on Sept. 19: “The Haitian state is not really able to receive these deportees … Will we have all those logistics? Will we have enough to feed these people?”

8

It is notable that even in a letter protesting the administration’s anti-immigrant policy, Foote still feels the need to warn of the only consequence Americans on the whole will be sure to pay attention to: the threat of more immigration from Haiti.

9

These two sentences are presumably a reference to the CRSHC, a broad-based commission of Haitian civil society organizations with an extremely long name that laid out a road map for a transitional government in the wake of the presidential assassination. (Days before Moïse’s murder, his constitutional successor, the head of Haiti’s supreme court, died of COVID-19.) The U.S. government, which as Foote notes really holds the reins of power in Haiti, has so far ignored the commission and its pact in favor of, as Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) has said, “propping up … the de facto government of [Prime Minister] Ariel Henry.” Foote has more on that upcoming.

10

This was the boldest part of Foote’s letter. I can’t remember a U.S. diplomat speaking this candidly about foreign—which I, and most others, read as specifically American—influence in Haitian politics. There are countless examples that could be described as “puppeteering” over the last century, from the puppet presidencies under the U.S. occupation of 1915-1934 to the CIA’s role in the 1991 coup that overthrew the pro-poor presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. More recently, it includes the election that brought Moïse’s faction to power. That would be the post-quake election of 2010-2011, in which Hillary Clinton, in her role as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, flew to Port-au-Prince to pressure then-President René Préval to throw his party’s candidate out of a second-round runoff in favor of the pro-American-investment pop star Michel Martelly. Three successive administrations—Obama, Trump, and Biden—looked the other way as Martelly and his chosen successor, Moïse, oversaw a wave of corruption and repression reminiscent of the Duvalier dictatorship. It is going too far to call Haiti’s current leaders puppets of the United States, but, as Foote is signaling, you cannot understand Haitian politics without understanding the ways in which the U.S. keeps its thumb on the scale.

11

Henry is treated as if he is Haiti’s leader (he addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations via a remote feed this week). But the 71-year-old neurosurgeon, who was a leader of the U.S.-backed movement that opposed Aristide in the lead up to his second overthrow in 2004, has no electoral legitimacy. Moïse nominated him to serve as his prime minister (the number-two position in Haiti) two days before his assassination, but no ratification vote took place (nor could have, as Moïse had allowed parliament to lapse without allowing for new elections to be held). He owes his position to one fact: that on July 17, the “Core Group”—made up of the U.S., Brazilian, French, EU, German, and Spanish ambassadors to Haiti, as well as representatives of the OAS and UN—called on him to form a new government. As Foote notes, this is contrary to the recommendations of the CRSHC.

12

This “again” is a blaring siren. An amazing thing for a U.S. diplomat to say.

13

See: Haiti in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

14

Several of the officials copied on the letter have notable past experience in Haiti. Brian Nichols directed the State Department’s Office of Caribbean Affairs from 2004 to 2007, beginning in the year of the second coup against Aristide, and was part of the negotiations that set up the U.N. peacekeeping mission that remained until 2017. Ken Merten was U.S. ambassador to Port-au-Prince during the 2010 earthquake.