Guest Column
Tampa Bay has a stake in Haiti’s unrest. Here’s why. | Column
Writing from personal experience, we have ideas on what should happen.
Haitians carry goods from the Dominican Republic at the border with Haiti last month.
Haitians carry goods from the Dominican Republic at the border with Haiti last month. [ RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP | Getty Images North America ]
Published Jan. 14, 2023|Updated Jan. 15, 2023

Haiti is in crisis. The anarchy — and gang-related violence of killing, kidnapping and rape — is almost unimaginable. And, yet, it’s easy to write off Haiti as a distant issue when Tampa Bay faces so many problems of its own, literally close to home.

But whether motivated by altruism, enlightened self-interest or a bit of both, Tampa Bay residents should join the call for immediate steps to stem these gross inhumanities. If Floridians ignore Haiti and the current humanitarian crisis continues unabated, history could soon be writing yet another chapter in Haiti’s complex history of episodic maritime mass migration to Florida. At that point, the problem would no longer be merely 900 miles away from Tampa Bay — still no farther than Washington, D.C. — but literally on our shores.

Mark Schlakman
Mark Schlakman

We write from personal experience. Haiti prompted our paths to cross initially during the late ‘90s. One of us, Susie, co-founded and operates HaitiChildren, a non-profit that provides a home, medical support and schooling for abandoned children in Haiti. The other, Mark, lives in Tallahassee, has traveled to Haiti numerous times, served within the U.S. State Department at the outset of the George W. Bush administration after serving as a senior adviser within the Clinton White House, and previously as special counsel to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Susie Krabacher
Susie Krabacher [ Provided ]

Recent history has not been kind to Haiti. Shock waves reverberated in 2021 when its president was assassinated. Not long afterward, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake resulted in thousands of deaths. The BBC reports more than 1,100 kidnappings last year just through September, nearly 1,500 people killed, seriously injured or disappeared recently. Thousands more were forced to flee internally, including at least 700 unaccompanied children. Disruptive fuel shortages got even worse after gangs blocked access to the main oil depot amid a major cholera outbreak. Haitian police stormed that depot to restore some level of fuel supplies. But civilians confronting gang blockades are subject to kidnapping and torture.

U.N. officials recently embraced calls from within Haiti, including its interim government, for an international humanitarian intervention, after reporting in-country gangs’ increasing use of sexual violence as a weapon. The objective? To use force to restore at least some semblance of civil society right now.

Last fall, the U.S. representative to the United Nations said the U.S. and Mexican governments are coordinating to lay some of the diplomatic groundwork for military intervention, which might not involve U.S. forces nor be a U.N. operation per se but would coordinate with it. Last month, seven U.S. senators, including the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, signed a letter to President Joe Biden characterizing what is unfolding in Haiti as a human tragedy and asserted that more must be done.

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They urged the president to fill the vacant post of U.S. ambassador to Haiti. They also urged immediate appointment of a senior U.S. diplomatic representative to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. That person needs to be someone with gravitas in Haiti — and internationally. An ideal diplomat would be in the mold of the late William Lacy Swing, ambassador to Haiti in the ‘90s during an earlier chaotic period.

On New Year’s Day Haiti’s interim government announced establishment of a high transition council to facilitate Haiti’s future elections. This is encouraging, but any future elections would also require restoring a reasonable level of security. (New Year’s also coincided with Haiti’s Independence Day from France in 1804.)

Several days later, Biden announced that his administration is taking steps to address unlawful migration at the U.S. border with Mexico, strengthen lawful immigration and support refugee protection and asylum processes for people fleeing persecution. We are concerned, however, that Biden’s proposal doesn’t seem to factor in how the chaos in Haiti makes it hard to orderly process the people fleeing such extreme levels of persecution and horrific gang violence.

This week in Mexico, Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador discussed instability in Haiti amid regularly scheduled trilateral meetings that addressed a range of other issues.

It is popular to suggest that any resolution of the crisis in Haiti has to result from a Haitian solution, that is, if it is to be sustainable. We agree, but we also add that it will have to comport with international human rights frameworks. But although the answer is a “Haitian solution,” that doesn’t mean the people of Haiti must find the answer on their own. We can — and should — help.

Susie Krabacher is an internationally recognized philanthropist who is CEO and co-founder of HaitiChildren. Mark Schlakman is senior program director for Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.