With violence gripping the streets of Port-au-Prince and no neighbourhood spared from the insecurity wrought by armed gangs or critical shortages of fuel, virtually everyone in Haiti’s capital is living in a state of uncertainty, says resident Judes Jonathas.
“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Jonathas, senior programme manager at the Mercy Corps humanitarian group in Haiti, recently told Al Jazeera in a video call, describing how not a day had gone by in the past week in which he hadn’t heard gunshots ring out.
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“It’s as if we’re living minute to minute. We go out, we don’t know if we’ll be coming back.”
Haiti, which has faced years of political instability, is in the middle of a deepening crisis as powerful gangs recently seized control of a key petrol terminal in Port-au-Prince, cutting residents and healthcare facilities off from much-needed supplies.
Last week, acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry appealed to the international community to set up a “specialised armed force” to quell the violence, but civil society groups and rights advocates have said Henry has no legitimacy — and they have rejected the prospect of foreign intervention.
“There is frustration, there is anger, there is resignation … it’s across all classes [of people],” said Jonathas, about the worsening conditions. “Most Haitians are traumatised.”
Haiti’s council of ministers authorised Henry late last week to seek assistance from “international partners” to help immediately deploy the “specialised armed force” to address a humanitarian crisis unfolding across the country as a result of the gangs.
The Caribbean nation this month reported its first cholera cases in more than three years, and rights groups said the fuel blockade was impeding healthcare workers’ response. Many communities do not have access to clean water, already-high rates of hunger are set to worsen, and about 1.2 million children are at risk due to the cholera outbreak.
Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, recently told the Reuters news agency that he hoped the US and Canada would “take the lead and move fast” on the country’s call for help.
The US Department of State said on Saturday that it was reviewing Haiti’s request, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres a day later urged “the international community, including the members of the Security Council, to consider [it] as of matter of urgency”.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration “will accelerate the delivery of additional humanitarian relief to the people of Haiti”. Blinken on Wednesday also announced new visa restrictions on Haitian officials and others “involved in the operation of street gangs and other Haitian criminal organisations”. He did not specify which officials were targeted.
Brian Nichols, the assistant US secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, also travelled to Port-au-Prince on Wednesday for a series of meetings, saying Washington remained “committed to the health, safety, and security of the Haitian people”.
Nous apprécions l’engagement du Canada 🇨🇦 @melaniejoly et les USA @SecBlinken aux côtés d’Haiti en ces moments difficiles. Il est absolument urgent pour que nos partenaires Int agissent solidairement avec nous pour nous aider à en sortir. @JeanVGeneus @EmbassyOfHaiti pic.twitter.com/TeKTrm4Md0
— Bocchit Edmond (@BocchitEdmond) October 6, 2022
Translation: We appreciate the commitment of Canada and the US alongside Haiti in these difficult times. It is absolutely urgent that our [international] partners act in solidarity with us to help us get out of this [situation].
While some Haitians said outside help is urgently needed, many view potential international intervention with scepticism and scorn after a long history of foreign occupations.
Over the past decades, various UN deployments aimed at restoring security and strengthening the country’s institutions have largely failed. UN peacekeepers also have been linked to sexual violence against women and girls in Haiti, and to a 2010 outbreak of cholera that killed about 10,000 people and caused more than 820,000 infections.
The Groupe de Travail sur la Securite (GTS), a Haitian citizen-led, security think-tank, in August rejected the prospect of a new UN deployment “under the false pretext of helping us restore a climate of security”.
“The Haitian people have kept the bitter taste of a foreign force in charge of our situation: theft, rape, cholera, food dependence, deregulation of the economic system, without mentioning the fact that we don’t remember seeing then-gang leaders be arrested or rendered unable to do harm.”
Rosy Auguste Ducena, a lawyer and programme director at the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH) in Haiti, said, “History has shown us more than once that foreign forces bring us more problems than solutions.”
“It’s a bit like repeating the same mistakes,” Ducena told Al Jazeera, explaining that RNDDH had warned for years about a deteriorating security situation and called for the Haitian National Police (PNH) to be vetted to remove corrupt officers and then strengthened to take on armed groups.
But Ducena said the Haitian authorities never acted to address that key problem, while rights groups also documented that members of Moise and Henry’s Parti Haitien Tet Kale (PHTK) were linked to gangs (PDF). “The Haitian state needs to be de-gangster-ised,” she said.
“We stand firm on this: there is nothing in terms of insecurity that the police would not be able to resolve”, added Ducena — if given the “arms, munitions and equipment proportional to all the arms and munitions that have been distributed to the armed bandits”.
Flow of weapons, sanctions
People also have denounced Western nations for continuing to back Henry, despite the prime minister’s decision last year to indefinitely postpone presidential and legislative elections, as well as a constitutional referendum, amid the political crisis.
Henry, who is backed by the CORE Group of nations, which includes the US and Canada, has opposed a citizen-led initiative known as the Montana Accord, which was formulated by leading Haitian civil society groups and would set up a two-year transitional government.
US lawmakers recently urged (PDF) President Joe Biden’s administration to “lend its support for legitimate efforts to create a transitional Haitian government that respects the will of the Haitian people”, as well as “make it clear to Henry that it will not support him as he blocks progress”.
While the political deadlock has persisted, Haitian rights advocates have called for other measures to try to bring an end to the crisis, including ending the flow of weapons to gangs — particularly from the US — and sanctioning corrupt figures.
“Impose sanctions on high-profile individuals involved in corruption and who support and facilitate gang violence in Haiti [and] adopt drastic measures to stop the illicit trafficking of weapons from the US to Haiti,” Velina Elysee Charlier, an activist with anti-corruption group Nou Pap Domi, told the US House Foreign Affairs Committee during a hearing in late September.
“For decades, the international community has been violating Haiti’s self-determination and sovereignty; that must end. What we need is cooperation in a spirit of solidarity and mutual respect,” she said.
That was echoed by Jonathas in Port-au-Prince, who said the country’s problems did not happen overnight, nor will there be a “magic solution”.
“You have to go to the root causes. You will always find a story behind the gangs … a story of frustration, a story of social inequality,” he told Al Jazeera. “We can always say, ‘we’re going to dismantle the gangs.’ But what will we do then to make sure this doesn’t keep happening?
“We need partnership and collaboration from all those who really want to support us.”