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Haiti in-depth: A transition beset by challenges and uncertainty

‘We will have to enter this with a lot of humility.’

This is a medium shot of a demonstrator wearing a black shirt, jeans and sun glasses holds up a Haitian flag during a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry's government and insecurity. Behind him is a fire and smoke. Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters
A demonstrator holds up a Haitian flag during a protest against acting prime minister Ariel Henry's government and the country's growing insecurity in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, on 1 March 2024.

A transitional presidential council is taking shape in Haiti, even as rampant gang violence spreads into wealthy areas of the capital amid lingering divisions over the best path forward, notably over the deployment of a largely US-funded security assistance mission.

Gangs began unleashing their violence on upscale neighbourhoods of the capital, Port-au-Prince, on 18 March, leaving at least 24 people dead in the streets of Pétion-Ville, and homes looted across the communities of Laboule and Thomassin.

At a glance: Haiti plots a path out of chaos

  • After weeks of escalating gang violence, a transitional presidential council hopes to restore calm
  • It’s slated to appoint a new interim prime minister and pave the way for elections, which haven't been held since 2016
  • Gangs joined forces to call for the ouster of acting prime minister Ariel Henry, attacking police stations, the international airport, and the main seaport
  • Due to the violence, Henry was unable to return home after a trip to Kenya to shore up a security assistance mission, and remains stranded in Puerto Rico
  • Henry has pledged to resign when the formation of a transitional presidential council is complete, but the gang violence has continued to spread
  • Dozens of people have been killed this month, and humanitarian emergency assistance to 1.4 million on the brink of starvation has been massively disrupted, with health facilities forced to close
  • With the Kenyan courts and some Haitians against it, the deployment of the UN-authorised security assistance mission remains uncertain
  • But with gangs now controlling 95% of Port-au-Prince and threatening to seize the presidency, many feel there’s no alternative

In poorer areas down below, food and water have been scarce for days, while hospitals and clinics have been forced to close, even as numbers requiring urgent medical attention soar. Thousands have been displaced, while the ability of humanitarian actors to provide emergency assistance has been massively disrupted.

Haiti has been facing increased violence since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, but it surged to a whole new level on 29 February, when gang leader Jimmy Chérizier called on other gangs to join forces in a Viv Ansanm (Living Together) coalition and overthrow acting prime minister Ariel Henry. 

While Henry was abroad trying to shore up Kenya’s leadership of the UN-authorised Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission, the gangs launched coordinated assaults on government buildings (including the presidential palace), police stations, and key infrastructure, attacking the airport and taking control of the main seaport. They also freed around 4,000 inmates from two prisons. 

Henry, who remains stranded in Puerto Rico and is unable to return due to the security situation, has pledged to step down as soon as a presidential council is formed. This pledge has not placated some of the gangs, many of which have political connections.

Complicating matters is the fact that backing the deployment of thousands of foreign security forces to help quell the gangs is a prerequisite for membership on the council – a plan drawn up last week by the regional Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in conjunction with US officials, Haiti's main political groups, and key members of Haitian civil society and the diaspora.

As of early on 20 March, CARICOM was still short of one name for the council, amid fears that a continued delay could give gangs time to seize power and install their own leader.

“It's a risk,” a source familiar with the negotiations told The New Humanitarian, requesting to speak on condition of anonymity. “Gangs are in control of Port-au-Prince. The police have been fighting back, but they are handicapped by their number, the lack of equipment, of firepower, and the fact that the gangs are attacking several places at the same time. One of the intentions of the attack on the palace was for the gangs to take over the presidential palace and say that somebody will be the new person in charge of the country. That can still happen.” 

Three gang members sit together on a sidewalk in front of a bright orange door in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 11, 2024.
Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters
Gang members sit together on the street after an address to the media in Port-au-Prince by former police officer turned gang leader Jimmy Chérizier, on 11 March 2024.

Haitian stakeholders eventually agreed to form a presidential council of seven voting members and two observers (some reports suggest it may now be nine voting members). It is set to include members from three traditional political parties, a civil society group known as the Montana Accord, and representatives of the business sector. The council’s tasks will include selecting a new prime minister and preparing a roadmap towards elections, which haven’t been held since 2016. 

“To me, [the presidential council] is an opportunity for Haitians to work together while the conditions for a return to the constitutional and democratic order are created,” said Clarens Renois, general coordinator of the National Union for the Integrity and Reconciliation (UNIR) party – a member of one of the coalitions with a seat on the council. “But if there is no security that provides a safe and stable environment, it will be difficult.” 

The council faces opposition from Haitians supporting former police chief, senator, and paramilitary leader Guy Philippe, who reportedly has his eyes on the presidency. Former senator Jean-Charles Moïse, one of Philippe’s key allies, rejected CARICOM’s plan and a seat on the council, insisting they would set up a separate three-member one of their own choosing. 

‘The population has been abandoned’

Haiti's historical descent towards poverty, hunger, and unbridled insecurity has largely been determined by the intervention of foreign actors.

The Caribbean nation first fell into debt due to the billions it had to pay to France in compensation for its independence from colonial rule. Decades of dictatorship, a series of natural disasters, a long US military occupation and trade embargo further weakened the country. More recently, the deployment of a 13-year-long UN “stabilisation” mission – MINUSTAH – and US support for the unelected Henry have contributed to the upheaval.

“This is not something that began last week or last year,” explained Jake Johnston, senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, and author of “Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti”.

“This has been a long time coming… And at its core is the failure of the state to represent its population and the failure of outside actors whose intervention have helped bring this situation to its current state.”

Battered by frequent natural disasters and poverty, Haiti has experienced chronic hunger for decades, but in 2010 it was hit by a catastrophic earthquake that flattened much of the capital, killing between 100,000 and 300,000 people and leaving it more vulnerable to political corruption and mismanagement, economic malaise, and growing insecurity.

In the past few years, lower agricultural production, the COVID-19 pandemic, runaway inflation, international aid cuts, and rising gang violence, have all contributed to the worst hunger crisis in Haiti's history. According to the World Food Programme (WFP) the number of food-insecure people has tripled since 2016. Currently, 4.3 million of Haiti’s 11.6 million people face acute hunger, while 1.4 million are on the brink of starvation

Haiti has no army, and its police are overwhelmed. The rampant insecurity now hinders food distribution, even as provisions are running low or hijacked by gangs in the port.

READ MORE: Haitian police’s unheard calls for support

More than half a dozen police stations, the police academy, and the house of the national police’s general director have been sacked or torched during the last few weeks of violence. In one incident, at least six policemen were killed after unsuccessfully calling for reinforcements for two hours. Weakened and outnumbered, those who choose to keep fighting are losing the will.

The targeted attacks gangs have unleashed against the Haitian National Police (PNH) have highlighted the abysmal power imbalance between the force and their enemies.

But this is not new. For years, the National Union of Haitian Police Officers (SYNAPOHA) has continuously asked for more equipment, better training, and more resources to strengthen its operational capacity.

Outgunned and underpaid, a growing number of police officers eventually defected to the gangs or migrated to the United States through President Joe Biden’́s Humanitarian Parole Program, while recruiting new ones became harder and harder.

According to the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH), 1,663 police officers – including 152 women – left the institution last year, 48 officers were killed, and 75 wounded. As of the end of December, there were nearly 13,200 agents across the country, but according to a police official who asked to speak anonymously, only about 10,000 carried out police tasks as active agents, of which 3,300 were assigned to public security tasks throughout the country.

In January, the New Humanitarian talked to several members of the PNH to better understand what they were facing and what they thought of the deployment of a multinational security force (MSS). Although two months have passed and the security crisis has escalated, their testimonies still give a sense of what they have experienced in the past year.

“Who protects me?” – Pierrot E. (name changed for safety reasons), police officer 

“My mission as a police officer is to protect and serve… But who protects me? Who protects my family? Who is responsible for giving me the conditions to work? Police officers must feel safe and confident to ensure the safety of the population; for the moment it is not the case…The state does nothing to protect me or my family.”

“We are facing a collective failure” – Anonymous commissioner from the Metropolitan Area of Port-au-Prince

“The police are making efforts, but today it is obvious that we are facing a collective failure… We are unable to give the population the security they demand of us. Given the situation, we should have a large-scale mobilisation and heavy weapons to restore the balance of power with the gangs, but that's not what's happening. In reality, we commissioners are doing daily management, while the high command of the PNH prepares the arrival of the MSS. It is not our choice as police officers. The political authorities and the high command imposed this decision on us.” 

“We are facing an urban guerilla” – Lionel Lazarre, coordinator of the SYNAPOHA

“It's a dead end. In this particularly difficult situation, the operational capabilities of the PNH should be strengthened from a tactical, armament, and investigation point of view. We need armoured penetration vehicles, drones, and weapons we do not have. We are facing an urban guerrilla war… However, the government does not assume its responsibilities… We believe the police could deliver results if there was the political will for it.”

“The country chased me away” – Jean (name changed for safety reasons), former police officer who migrated through the Humanitarian Parole Program in 2023

“Deserting is an act of cowardice, but I accept it. I have failed as a police officer like the police institution has failed. At one point, I told myself the truth: It’s not worth sacrificing my life, coming close to death everyday for a situation that is beyond my control. Two brothers in arms fell under gang bullets before my eyes… There is no political will to resolve the situation. Our lives are worthless to the authorities. In reality, I didn't run away – the country chased me away.”

“Everything is improvised in Haiti” – Sony Saintilus, inspector of the Motorised Intervention Brigade (CBIM)

“Some people think that there is no capacity in the PNH. That is false. There are a lot of skills in the PNH; if all operations fail, it is because of a lack of planning and political will. Everything is improvised in Haiti… The arrival of the multinational force in Haiti was a decision the authorities chose rather than using the PNH’s capabilities. But I know how it worked with MINUSTAH. They had armoured vehicles, a lot of equipment; they had risk bonuses and stayed in large hotels, but during operations, we always had to enter first during operations. And all this for what result? Today, Haitian police officers need risk pay, three hot meals a day, and above all a clear safety plan to work.”

The New York Times reported that more than half of the medical facilities in Port-au-Prince and the rural Artibonite department have closed or reduced their capacity because they lack basic medical supplies and patients struggle to access them. On 16 March, UNICEF denounced the looting of 17 containers with essential items for maternal, neonatal, and child care, including resuscitators, while the UN has expressed particular concern for the risk of life-threatening complications for pregnant women with no access to healthcare. 

Mass displacement has also made access to those affected difficult, and contributed to a rise in sexual violence. According to the UN, 15,000 people were displaced from camps in just a week. Most had already been displaced and now live in makeshift camps, schools, or public buildings. Thirty-two percent of them are children and teenagers. The country has a total of 362,000 displaced people, including at least 35,000 newly displaced since the beginning of the year.

“We as humanitarian actors do not have access to those people due to fuel shortage and roadblocks,” Boby Sander, country director at Food for the Hungry, a Christian aid organisation, told The New Humanitarian. “The seaport is occupied by gangs, and warehouses have been looted. So food shortage is at our doorstep and now prices are doubling for everything.”

Sander, who is Haitian, said his organisation’s cash transfer programme, which allows people to buy food and basic items, has been disrupted by cash transport issues related to gang control and the closure of the international airport. It is trying to work around this by using cooperative banks or village banks that still have some liquidity.

Mercy Corps has also been struggling to reach the displaced. In Port-au-Prince, most people in need are in temporary camps in Carrefour Feuilles, one of the areas most affected by violence. Many were forced to leave their shelters this month. Community agents are trying to establish a database of those they managed to contact, but reaching them with actual assistance remains impossible.

Currently, Mercy Corps is still operating normally in the rural departments of Nippes and Grand’Anse, distributing seeds bought from local providers for the coming planting season. But it fears the lack of cash will soon hinder its efforts as it won't be able to pay the vendors who distribute the seeds to the community.

“People are afraid of going out because no one knows what's happening,” said Laurent Uwumuremyi, the Mercy Corps country director. “Some of my colleagues reported seeing dead bodies in the street when they tried to come to the office; it's really traumatising.”

Outside Port-au-Prince, the situation is getting worse too. Gangs control most of the Artibonite and Ouest departments, which prevents farmers from selling their products. The companies they provided have left because of insecurity, and they can’t access bigger markets because gangs charge them huge fees to use the main national roads. Local markets are saturated, and much of the production is lost.

This is a map of Haiti that shows the departments that are controlled by gangs: Artibonite and Oest. The capital, Port-au-Prince is also shown.

At the Dominican Republic border, Haitian migrants continue to be forcibly returned despite calls from the international community to stop deportations, which reached more than 4,500 people this month.

“The population has been abandoned,” said Pierre Espérance, a sociologist and the executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network in Haiti (RNDDH). “And if we have a problem, we can't call the police because they won't come. The situation is chaotic.”

Several countries, including the United States and the EU, have announced extra funding for humanitarian assistance in Haiti, and the UN is setting up an air bridge from the Dominican Republic. But even if more aid can reach the country, distributing it onwards to those affected on the ground is a huge challenge.

Most humanitarians working in international NGOs and agencies are currently being evacuated to the Dominican Republic. And many of the Haitian NGO workers who are still in the country can’t go out without risking their lives or having their supplies looted. 

Gangs with growing autonomy

Experts say Haiti’s political class is deeply divided and disconnected from a citizenry that feels trapped between supporting an elite it doesn’t trust or gang leaders who are promising to change the system and empower the Haitian people.

The CARICOM agreement, critics say, was only reached with Haitians taking part through video conferences overseen by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Unfortunately, there wasn't much room for Haitians in the decision-making. It was CARICOM that wanted a council with so many people,” said Ésperance. “It's not efficient.”

For Monique Clesca of the Montana Accord, which has a representative on the council, the transition plan isn’t perfect but everyone is going to have to compromise to make things work and move forward. The Montana Accord has been pushing Haitian-led solutions for three years and was opposed to the deployment of the MSS, which it might now have to accept.

“We will have to enter this with a lot of humility and abnegation, because if people are going to be jostling for power once they're in, it's not going to work,” Clesca told The New Humanitarian. “Saying a Haitian solution doesn't mean that we are not open to getting support. We know some of our limitations.” 

The historical links between political and business elites and the gangs are a significant concern for Clesca and others. The CARICOM agreement excludes from the council anyone who is under indictment, has been previously convicted, or is under UN sanctions, but gangs still have ways to take over, experts say.

Last week, the police managed to stop a gang assault on the presidential palace, perceived by many as an attempt to take over the presidency.

The power vacuum has allowed several notorious gang leaders and criminal figures to gain more acceptance and make opportunistic alliances.

Philippe, who was repatriated last November after spending six years in a US jail for money-laundering from drug-trafficking, called for a rebellion against Henry as early as January, triggering violent protests across the country.

Chérizier, a former police officer allegedly involved in several massacres, was behind the recent explosion of violence to oust Henry, and threatened to start a “civil war” if he returned to the country. Less vocal than Chérizier, Johnson André – better known as Izo – is considered one of the most powerful and dangerous gang leaders due to his ruthless drug and arms smuggling network.

Once financed by the elites who were keen for their muscle to secure votes, get protection against enemies, or prevent robberies in companies located near the slums, Haitian gangs now rely on extortion, kidnapping, so-called “taxes”, and arms and drug trafficking to make money.

Their growing autonomy, experts say, has now made them unmanageable and given them political ambitions of their own.

“They don't need the resources coming from the political or the business elite,” said an informed source, who would only agree to be quoted anonymously. “That's more dangerous, because they have guns and you can't control them anymore.”

Sander from Food for the Hungry said Kenya’s recent announcement that it would delay the deployment of the MSS has also played a role in feeding insecurity. “The gangs considered it a green light for them to continue their attacks,” he said.

Kenya offered to lead the mission last October, but a ruling at the end of January by the High Court prevented the deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police, arguing it was unconstitutional.

Haiti and Kenya signed a 1 March agreement to bypass the court order, but the Kenyan authorities have since paused the deployment, requesting that a fact-finding mission happens first, once Haiti's political situation is more stable. 

A number of countries, including the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Chad, and Jamaica, have offered to send personnel, with Benin pledging to send a contingent of 2,000 troops. Other countries such as the United States, Canada, France, and Spain have committed to providing financial support, training, and equipment.

Haiti’s foreign intervention ‘dilemma’

Ever since it was approved by the UN back in October, the MSS has raised mixed and often changing feelings among Haitians. While some saw no possible local fix and supported it from the beginning, others expressed fears it would give the United States another opportunity to influence Haiti's politics, as it has done often in the past.

Haitians also have fresh memories of the troubled legacy of MINUSTAH, which left behind many allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation, and was blamed for introducing a deadly cholera outbreak that claimed more than 10,000 lives.

But with gangs now controlling 95% of Port-au-Prince and the overwhelmed Haitian National Police (PNH) deserting the streets, many who were sceptical no longer see an alternative.

“There are more than 4,000 prison escapees who swell the ranks of criminals. That means that operations will be more difficult to carry out due to the rapid and continuous strengthening of the capacities of the criminal groups.”

“I will never be happy to see foreign boots in my country, but in the current situation where there is no life, where Haiti is a sort of prison, I think the MSS must come immediately to help Haitians solve the problem,” said Renois, the UNIR politician. “We can't do it with the PNH alone.”

But uncertainty around the mission still prevails. The new-found power that the gangs have gained in the past few weeks, experts say, has changed the rules of the game.

“There are more than 4,000 prison escapees who swell the ranks of criminals,” explained Haitian security expert Ricardo Germain. “That means that operations will be more difficult to carry out due to the rapid and continuous strengthening of the capacities of the criminal groups.”

Germain said the number of police and troops, the amount of equipment, and the initial $600,000 budget requested by the UN should now all be higher, and added that the intervention’s success will also depend on the willpower of Haiti’s political actors. 

The United States, which originally pledged $100 million for the mission, raised it to $300 million earlier this month, but so far Congress has refused to clear the funding. Canada has pledged $91 million, while France has chipped in about $3 million and an additional $924,000 for French and Kreyol-language training.

Many have expressed scepticism over Kenya’s leadership of the mission because of language and cultural barriers – Kenyan police don’t speak French, let alone Haitian Kreyol – and due to Kenyan police’s history of abuse.

William O’Neill, the UN’s independent expert on human rights in Haiti, stressed that the UN resolution authorising the mission includes stipulations intended to avoid the mistakes of the past, including on sexual abuse, sanitation to prevent cholera, and on human rights and accountability.

For Renois, the challenge will be to shift the country’s paradigm with outside help but with Haitians being empowered, in charge, and in control.

“Haitians don't believe in their country anymore,” he said. “They don’t believe in their leaders, with good reason in some cases. But we need to change all this. We need to restore the trust. For that, we can't have other people coming to decide for the Haitians. 

“It's a dilemma because we ask foreigners to come, but we also [don’t want them] to lead us towards a path we don't wish to take, that is humiliating for Haitians, and that has them controlling everything in the country. It's a real dilemma.”

Dumas Maçon contributed additional reporting from Port-au-Prince. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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