The chaos in Haiti never ends. A week after exiled Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry submitted his resignation—allowing for a new government to accept the deployment of a U.N.-approved security force to restore order to the Caribbean nation and help facilitate elections—backdoor deals by a transitional council resulted in the April 30 naming of a new prime minister, Fritz Bélizaire. The announcement provoked a new round of violence by the country’s gangs at the same time that the Biden administration approved a $60 million military aid package to help the country curb criminal violence.

Back in March, Washington reiterated that it would not send troops to Haiti after a series of “frantic” diplomatic exchanges suggested a possible emergency deployment of U.S. special forces to help restore order. Instead, Kenya has pledged to lead the aforementioned international security force, replacing the last peacekeeping mission in the country, which departed in 2019 after fifteen years there. Yet only two years after the mission left, President Jovenel Moïse was brutally murdered in his home in front of his family, inciting the round of crises that has ravaged the country since then.

The U.N. has labeled conditions in Haiti “cataclysmic” in large part because of paramilitary groups that control about 80 percent of the capital, Port-au-Prince, eroding democratic institutions and intensifying violence. These gangs—the most infamous of which is led by a man named “Barbecue”—have attacked several prisons, a key seaport, police stations, and medical centers; they’ve kidnapped or killed thousands of people, raped women and children, and forced hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes. Almost half of the country’s population of 11.5 million faces acute hunger.

Then again, as bad as things currently are in Haiti, where about 59 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, none of this is particularly new. There are simply bad years and worse years in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. One might place 2010 in the “worst” category—that year an earthquake killed at least 220,000 people. Yet also bad was 2004, when a coup d’etat caused many civilian deaths, many of which were the result of extrajudicial killings by police forces. Before that, a 1991 coup resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Haitians.

Indeed, Haiti was impoverished and ridden by violence when the English author Graham Greene first visited there in 1954. He returned several times, until his 1966 novel The Comedians portrayed the island nation in such a notoriously negative light that its dictatorial president, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, banned Greene from the country. Greene’s writing about Haiti encapsulates the Western, and particularly American, understanding of and response to the dysfunctional nation, as relevant (if depressing) today as it was more than a half century ago.

Prior to the publication of The Comedians, Greene dabbled in journalistic reporting on Haiti. In his 1963 Sunday Telegraph article “Nightmare Republic,” he describes the country as mired in poverty, decrepitude, violence, and terror. “Everyone is some sort of prisoner in Port-au-Prince,” he writes. “It is impossible to exaggerate the poverty of Haiti.”

In the 2005 introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, Paul Theroux bluntly notes that The Comedians is not one of Greene’s best works of fiction. “Graham Greene clucked about the abuses in Haiti, wrote outraged letters to newspapers on Haitian subjects, and even a piece of journalism; but the ‘nightmare republic,’ as he called it, was perfect for him,” Theroux writes cynically. “As a traveler, he greatly preferred nightmare republics to healthy democracies.”

Greene, unlike many current foreign policy “experts,” was forthright about his superficial knowledge of Haiti. In a 1968 interview with V. S. Naipaul following the publication of the book, he acknowledged: “I feel that my knowledge of Haitian life and manners was surface.” It is a novel not so much about the plight of Haiti as it is about Westerners making a mess of their lives, with Haiti serving as a dramatic backdrop. Thus the irony: though Greene’s inability to seriously contend with Haiti and its culture represents a literary failure, the Western characters he describes therein often mirror the naïve, cocksure wonks who believe the proper application of liberal democratic norms will finally solve the Haitian predicament.

Like most of Greene’s novels that not-so-subtly tend towards autobiography, marital infidelity is a major theme in The Comedians. The protagonist, an English expat who runs a decrepit, once popular hotel, is cuckolding the wife of a foreign diplomat. Greene argues that the love affair belonged exclusively to the dark and forbidding Port-au-Prince. Theroux, however, argues: “By asserting that the failing love affair is suited to the crumbling of Haiti he is romanticizing their selfishness while at the same time belittling the plight of the millions of Haitians.” The armed rebellion that the story periodically mentions—and, somewhat awkwardly, is supposed to operate as the crisis driving the narrative—seems mere window dressing, showing the effect of Haiti’s problems on Europeans and Americans more than the reality of those problems themselves.

One especially absurd American couple—progressives who naïvely plan to transform the island into a vegetarian, pacifist paradise—serves as Greene’s means of mocking those “citizens of the world” who think they can fix the third world through the technocratic application of the right ideological model, guided, of course, by enlightened, benevolent Western expertise. These benighted Americans, like all the Westerners in Haiti, are participating in a farce of their own making, while terror looms all around—hence the novel’s title. Greene is heavy-handed in helping the reader perceive that message, at one point having a character ask: “Are you and I both comedians?”

Its literary missteps aside, in many respects, The Comedians portrays a Haiti that seems indistinguishable from what it is today. It is, in Theroux’s words, “deforested, slum-ridden, tyrannized, exploited, disgraced, divided and at war with itself, and a horror to the people who live there.” Greene’s fictionalized version of Duvalier’s Tonton Macoute, whose members operate as the personal armed goons of the dictator, appears as dangerous and diabolical as the gangs that dominate the island now.

There is a certain despairing, shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude to The Comedians. The protagonist at one point admits that “somewhere years ago I had forgotten how to be involved in anything.” Whether it is the protagonist or Greene speaking, this comment seems to allude to Haiti: any attempt to fix this God-forsaken half of Hispaniola will ultimately be frustrated. Nothing in the country ever changes. It is a perennial nightmare for its inhabitants as much as it is a symbol provoking American fear and morbid curiosity—and fleeting wonkish foreign policy proposals. Just as Greene saw mostly himself and his own concerns in Haiti because he possessed only a shallow understanding of the country—and thus produced a mediocre work of fiction—outsiders who attempt to fix Haiti and transform it into a liberal Caribbean democracy seem only able to see their own interests, concerns, or aspirations.

And that, more or less, has been Haiti’s fate since the violent slave revolt that began more than 230 years ago, despite U.S. military intervention in 1915–1934 and again in 1994. U.S. foreign policy towards Haiti in recent years has been more focused on containment, trying, and often failing, to keep thousands of Haitian refugees from illegally entering American borders. Foreign policy experts all seem to know, whatever paeans they may sing to the latest chance for the nation to embrace democratic norms, that this has been, and likely will be for generations to come, a failing state. The more realistic ones know that another peacekeeping mission and round of elections are unlikely to solve generations of political dysfunction and chaotic violence.

“I’m still in the country because I have hope,” a Haitian film director recently told the Washington Post. “We can’t all leave the country. We have a moral responsibility to genuine reconstruction. If we all give up, what will happen to the country? Do we hand the keys over to Uncle Sam?” And as much as Greene’s depiction of Haiti may be superficial, the English author perceived that the nation’s problems are far too complicated for America to resolve. Towards the end of The Comedians, a Haitian opines: “Our problems won’t be solved by the [U.S.] Marines.”