This was a week like any other in contemporary Haiti—arguably somewhat worse. Early Tuesday morning, the respected and outspoken journalist Roberson Alphonse—who writes for Le Nouvelliste, a daily newspaper in Port-au-Prince, and also works for Radio Majik9—was fired on as he arrived at the radio station. He barely escaped with his life. At least five journalists have been killed since January; no one has been arrested or prosecuted in those killings. While Alphonse was under attack in the Delmas section of the capital, not far away in the craftsmen’s Village de Noailles, at Croix-des-Bouquets, two gangs continued their war over territory, shooting indiscriminately, burning houses and places of worship, and destroying a historic artists’ colony where characteristic Haitian cut-metal artworks are made for export all over the world; so far 15 people have been killed and at least 200 displaced there. No police presence has been detected as the assault continues.
This is a crisis moment for Haiti, and not only because of the spiking gang violence—much of it supported at various times by a smattering of powerful business and political interests—which is destroying the country’s ability to function and to continue as an ongoing community and culture. Haiti’s ruler, de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry, effectively selected for the job by the Biden administration after the assassination of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moise in July, 2021, requested earlier this month that the United Nations send a “specialized armed force” to Haiti to quell the violence. Already, limited military matériel, including some armored vehicles, has arrived in Port-au-Prince from Canada and the United States, and some suspect, given recent unprecedented (though not numerous) arrests and killings of gang members by the Haitian National Police, that outside law-enforcement specialists and advisers have also already been sent in.
In fact, the gangs and their desperado measures are the only vibrant, healthy things in Haiti today. There’s no gas available in the vast Port-au-Prince metropolitan region, because G9, the gang of the charismatic, media savvy gang leader Jimmy Chérizier, also known as “Barbecue,” is holding fuel hostage at the Varreux terminal. Hospitals have had to shut down; embassies are closing; schools are shuttered; commerce is at an end; and markets don’t have the food supplies necessary for the population. Sanitation in urban areas is nonexistent: There are mountains of impassable garbage at some intersections. Hunger is rampant, and clean water is very hard to find. Usually it is supplied to neighborhoods by traveling water trucks and in small bags at intersections, but there’s no fuel around for water purification. Water- and food-borne cholera is thus beginning to spread through the population. Already 41 have died of this completely preventable disease (as of October 25), and nearly 2,000 have been infected—a harbinger of an exponential increase in coming weeks. Three years ago, cholera brought to Haiti by UN peacekeeping forces caused an outbreak that killed more than 10,000. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has, for the most part without congressional hearings or oversight, shipped some 26,000 largely penniless, hungry, and disoriented refugees from the US border to Haiti, into this chaotic scenario. It’s hard to think of a more reprehensible, irresponsible, and inhumane action for a government to take. Haiti is no Martha’s Vineyard.
Those who know Haiti only as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” might imagine that what Haiti is now is what Haiti has always been. But they’d be very wrong. For most of this century and the last, Haiti had been almost livable for a large percentage of its population. Today’s unlivable Haiti has been in the making since the singer and performer Michel Martelly was brought to power through questionable post-earthquake elections and with the support of then–US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as by USAID funding for a group that caused street chaos and forced the electoral changes that gave Martelly the presidency.
The situation continued to deteriorate during the rule of Martelly’s successor, Jovenel Moise—another president whose legitimacy was always in question among Haitians, but who was supported by the US under Trump, as well as by the rest of the international community in Haiti, commonly known as the Core Group. And then, finally, the violence was brought to a fever pitch after Moise’s (still unsolved) assassination, this time under Ariel Henry, to whom Biden has clung throughout, and who now hypocritically asks outside forces for a military force to quell a disaster magnified by his administration’s spectacular negligence and corruption.
Haitians have sent a clear message: No intervention that has as one of its goals Ariel Henry’s continuation in office can succeed. The Haitian people are thoroughly fed up with this so-called government, as they have proven by demonstrating for the past week in very large numbers against insecurity, the rising cost of living, and Henry himself. These are not the first such massive demonstrations.
On October 20, in response to Henry’s request, the UN Security Council put forward a series of sanctions concerning Haiti, drafted by the United States and Mexico, that includes a resolution proposing an arms export embargo, specific sanctions against Chérizier and criminal elements in general, including those who engage in “recruiting children, carrying out kidnappings, trafficking, murder, and sexual and gender-based violence” as well as the “obstruction of humanitarian assistance to and inside Haiti, and any attacks on personnel or premises of U.N. Missions and operations.” This resolution was easily approved by the Security Council last Friday. A second and more contentious resolution, to authorize a “non-U.N. international security assistance mission” to the country to assist in humanitarian aid delivery and to address “security issues,” has so far not come up for a vote. (For some reason—perhaps on the venerable principle “You broke it; You bought it”—the UN seemed reluctant to let the US offload the Haitian disaster.) US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that the council was “sending a clear message to the bad actors that are holding Haiti hostage: The international community will not stand idly by while you wreak havoc on the Haitian people.”
That sounds good, if minimal—until you remember that those “bad actors” know just how seriously to take the threats and clear messages of US officials. They also understand that—at least until November 8—Washington is not likely to take any risky action. In addition, lack of fuel in the country has made it harder for frightened Haitians to get to refugee boats, and for those boats to run their motors. Which means no outflow of boat people into Florida’s waters to push the US government to act on the Haiti issue.
Among the bad actors who shrug when they see America wave its fist are members of the current US-supported government and business friends of the US Embassy. Those corrupt officials and business mafya, as they’re known in Haiti, have been watching for 18 months while the US and the rest of the Core Group, which includes the UN, stood idly by as the gangs that some of them underwrote wreaked havoc on the Haitian people. In spite of desperate pleas from Haitians from all walks of life, Henry—with the US in tow—has shown the gangs what they can get away with and just how far they can go before his government will act. So far, the answer has seemed to be: just as far as they want. Certainly Thomas-Greenfield’s threats didn’t stop the attack on Roberson Alphonse or calm the battle that’s destroying the Village de Noailles. In fact, the upcoming US elections may be provoking some of the current extra-intense spasm of violence there. Make facts on the ground. Get it done while you can.
For two years a certainly adequate—and possibly stellar—alternative to Henry has been available: the vast network of Haitian organizations that have supported an interim Haitian-run solution to the situation, all signatories to the Montana Accords, which establish a road map out of the morass to true democratic elections. US emissaries have spoken to the leaders of this group, but the Americans have essentially given them the cold shoulder while trying to work out an agreement with other far less responsible figures, including Henry. The signatories to the accords frighten US officials, because, although the group does have an elected president, Washington prefers to see in power in Haiti a single politician beholden to the power of the United States. That’s easier to deal with and to control.
Now, Haiti stands at a crossroads. Aside from Henry and his cohort, very few Haitians want to see a foreign force of any kind on Haitian soil. Yet at the same time they see an outside intervention of some kind as possibly their only recourse at this point. Of course, they’ve seen such forces in action five times over the past century, from the 19-year US Marine occupation (1915–34) to the 13-year UN “stabilization mission” (MINUSTAH, 2004–17). The first was an unmitigated racist catastrophe brought down on Haiti in the name of various US financial and business interests. The latter brought Haiti the cholera that killed thousands, while its forces also committed a number of documented sexual assaults against Haitians, as well as attacking shantytown areas with heavy weapons in the name of peacekeeping and stabilization. The US and UN are now seen as forces of domination and control by most Haitians, as opposed to liberators or bringers of democracy. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” as the poet Audre Lorde has written.
But the triple whammy of Martelly, Moise, and Henry has brought the country to its knees, and on its knees the population may, if not welcome, at least tolerate a minimal tactical and advisory role for the international community. With weapons imported from the United States, and money from many sources, and few other options for young men in need of work, the gangs got too big and too strong for the country’s lax and supine government to handle. The Haitian police is outnumbered and outgunned. Many officers have died truly ugly deaths trying to control forces they were never trained or equipped to subdue. Chérizier’s taking the country’s fuel hostage is the last straw.
It should never have come to this. The United States and Core Group should have dumped Henry when it would have been easier to do so: In the wake of Moise’s assassination, when everything was unclear and Henry had been tied to some of the suspects in the murder, and the Montana group stood at the ready, already many months into their work to provide a framework for reestablishing a reasonable democracy—work that had begun long before the killing of Moise. And then the international community should have worked under Montana’s aegis, and under the Montana accords, to allow Haitians to move forward toward a real electoral democracy.
But they didn’t dump Henry. They refused a ready answer to the problem, admittedly a complicated answer, but a still a reasonable one, and they never came up with anything better—or anything at all. And now, us usual, Haitians are paying with their lives and futures for the international community’s stubborn arrogance.