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President Biden acknowledged it was “a God-awful thing to say,” but he said it anyway. “If Haiti just quietly sunk into the Caribbean or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interest,” the longtime senator from Delaware said in a 1994 TV interview. He was justifying why he seemed so much more engaged in the turmoil afflicting the Balkans than the troubles facing this small country in America’s backyard, which the United States and its allies had just invaded to restore democratically elected leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power after a 1991 military coup. In Biden’s view, the war in Bosnia carried geopolitical relevance that Haiti — no matter its proximity to the United States or the suffering of its people — never could.

Biden’s dismissive answer echoes years later. The brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moïse this week placed Haiti at the top of global headlines and drew condemnation from the White House. But the United States’ options for action to help the country out of its spiraling crisis are limited, and Biden’s likely appetite for substantively engaging the troubled nation even smaller. For months, as my colleagues reported, Haiti watchers in the United States and a handful of Washington lawmakers urged the new Biden administration to give the country, its deteriorating security situation and its rolling constitutional crisis more attention. The administration may do so now, but only after what Biden dubbed the “heinous” killing of its president.

Numerous questions surround the murky circumstances of Moïse’s assassination and the apparent power vacuum in the country. By Thursday, Haitian authorities had arrested several people in connection with Moïse’s killing, including two U.S. citizens of Haitian descent. At least three suspects had been killed, authorities said. The chaotic aftermath of the assassination has resurfaced visions of Haiti as a benighted isle (or, to be precise, half-isle), an unlucky place ruined by generations of calamity — a reputation which would have been familiar to Biden almost three decades ago.

Haiti, we are often reminded, is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has long been crippled by political instability. “The state is a predator and the rule of law remains elusive. A narrow cartel of special interests controls most of the economy,” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady, adding that drug trafficking and gang warfare “has exploded.” The leading Spanish daily El País declared that Haiti is “on the verge of becoming the ‘Somalia of the Americas.’”

But Haiti isn’t just a country to which bad things happen. “Too often, the Caribbean nation tends to exist at a distance for many White Americans: a tropical tapestry for tales of dictators and political dysfunction, of poverty and adversity, of stories and tropes that exist in an ever-present now, ready to be deployed in fundraising materials and political campaigns,” wrote Robert Taber, a historian of Haiti at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. “These stereotypes are steeped in anti-Black racism and mask an important truth: The histories of Haiti and the United States are intertwined and reach back centuries.”

The two countries were, of course, the first independent nations of the Americas and their journeys to independence were linked. Free men of color from the French plantation colony known as Saint Domingue were part of the French expeditionary forces that supported the rebellion of the American colonies against the British. But the independent United States looked on mostly in horror when the enslaved people of Saint Domingue rose up against their enslavers and, after more than a decade of bloody conflict, declared their independence in 1804.

Even as the fledgling republic of Haiti would go on to inspire insurrections farther to the south in Latin America, the slave-owning United States opted to isolate and ignore it. The U.S. government would formally recognize Haiti as a sovereign, independent nation only in 1862. (France, for its part, recognized Haitian independence in 1825 but used gunboat diplomacy to force the island nation to pay a crippling indemnity for the White planters’ loss of “property.” It’s a debt that Haiti kept paying well into the 20th century, and which many experts believe permanently enfeebled the country’s development.)

Haiti’s very existence was a reminder not just of the lurking threat of insurrection in U.S. slave states, but of a story of hemispheric freedom that cut against the Enlightenment pretensions of the American Founding Fathers, many of whom were themselves enslavers. “U.S. commentators deprived Haitians of agency and oversimplified the complex story,” Taber said of American coverage of the Haitian Revolution in a piece for The Washington Post. “Political philosophers even reconstructed their thinking about the universality of liberty to praise the American Revolution while condemning the Haitian one.”

In the years just before his death, Frederick Douglass, the great Black orator and abolitionist, spent a two-year stint as the American consul to Haiti. In 1893, he delivered a speech at the World’s Fair in Chicago, where he championed the power of Haiti’s story. “We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today,” he said, “is largely due to the brave stand taken by the Black sons of Haiti ninety years ago. … Striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every Black man in the world.”

The decades that followed brought new traumas. The United States invaded in 1915 and would not leave until 1934 — an occupation that rivals the current American presence in Afghanistan in length and brutality. The United States intervened on the grounds that it was stabilizing a political crisis that followed the assassination of the Haitian president at the time. But it consolidated the country’s finances according to U.S. banking interests and ruthlessly suppressed local uprisings in an age of hemispheric imperialism that many Americans have forgotten.

The American influence endured through the rest of the century, coursing through three decades of dictatorship under the murderous, kleptocratic yet anti-communist Duvalier dynasty. Haiti has provided an anthology of cautionary tales of how 20th-century foreign aid and development assistance can go wrong, including a mess of failed projects that followed the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake in the country, which killed hundreds of thousands of people.

In 2010, former president Bill Clinton felt compelled to publicly apologize to Haitians for having forced the country in the 1990s to drop tariffs on U.S. agricultural imports, a move that devastated Haiti’s rice-cultivating farmers. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked,” he said. “I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did.”

Now, though, hunger is only one of the public’s concerns. “The killing of Haiti’s embattled president at his home by a group of gunmen followed months of escalating political instability and gang violence,” my colleagues reported. “Health and humanitarian organizations say the bloodshed has hamstrung efforts to combat a significant coronavirus outbreak in a country with weak health infrastructure and no access to coronavirus vaccines.”

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