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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A chance for hope in Haiti’s latest crisis

Jimmy Cherizier, who runs the G9 gang, holds a portrait of assassinated President Jovenel Moïse during a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 26, 2021. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

By Lydia Polgreen

Dead bodies are rotting on the streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Clean drinking water is scarce, and a cholera outbreak threatens. Hunger looms. The outgunned police force has all but disappeared.

Armed groups have seized control of ports and major roads in the capital and freed inmates from jails. They shut down the airport, preventing the country’s deeply unpopular prime minister, Ariel Henry, from returning from a trip abroad, and have threatened to overrun the presidential palace. Under intense pressure from the United States and other regional powers to speed the transition to a new government, Henry agreed to resign late Monday.

And now comes the hardest part: determining who will govern Haiti. Will a transitional government manage to lead that fragile nation back to stability and democracy? Or will the armed men who roam the streets and murder, kidnap and rape with impunity, along with the political and business leaders aligned with them, seize control and set off a fresh cycle of violence and criminality?

I want to be hopeful and see this as a rare moment of possibility for self-determination for the Haitian people, whose country has long been a plaything of foreign powers and avaricious local elites. Much of my hope comes from having closely followed the work a collection of political, civic, business and religious groups that for the past two years have been frantically trying to forge a path for Haiti out of its disaster, demanding that Henry step aside and hand power to a transitional government that could, with help from abroad, stabilize the country and lead it back to democracy through new elections.

“This is too much of a good crisis to waste,” said Fritz Alphonse Jean, a former central banker who has played a pivotal role in that effort and would serve in the proposed transitional government.

But I am equally fearful, having seen armed groups, some of them aligned with political and business power brokers in Haiti, gathering strength as Henry clung to power with the tacit support of the United States and other regional powers. These brutal gangs have succeeded where civilians have failed: They physically blocked Henry from returning and forced his resignation. Now they threaten to seize momentum from the leaders who seek the restoration of Haitian democracy.

When I last traveled to Haiti, late in 2022, infamous gang leader Jimmy Cherizier was a wanted man, unable to meet visiting journalists because the police had vowed to take him, dead or alive. These days, he brazenly holds news conferences, vowing to plunge the country into civil war or even genocide if the government fails to step aside. Would-be political leaders, like Jean and many others I have spoken to the past few days, can scarcely leave their homes because of violence in the streets.

Adding to the foreboding is the reemergence of a particularly sordid figure from Haiti’s past, a former police officer turned putschist named Guy Philippe. He is representative of a distinct Cold War legacy in the Americas — a security official serving a right-wing government aligned to the United States (and in Philippe’s case, actually trained by the U.S. military, according to Human Rights Watch). Like many such figures, he became a kind of political entrepreneur, styling himself as a latter-day Che Guevara, despite his previous ideological alignments. The last time I spoke to Philippe was in 2004. He was marching to overthrow Haiti’s democratically elected president, leftist former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“I am not ambitious,” Philippe said in an interview then, drinking beer as his men lounged by a hotel swimming pool with their assault rifles. “What I want is a better life for the Haitian people. What I want is democracy.”

He and his men succeeded in driving Aristide from power. He ran for president but lost. He had long been accused of links to drug trafficking, and he eventually served time for felony money laundering in the United States. Philippe was deported to Haiti late last year and quickly reinserted himself into its turbulent political scene. Styling himself as a quasi leftist and anti-imperialist, he has been embraced by some gang leaders, and once again, he claims to speak for the masses.

When you are trying to understand any crisis in Haiti, it is always tempting to go all the way back to the beginning, when a band of Black men rose up against the French colonizers who had enslaved them, creating the first Black republic and a beacon of freedom for the enslaved and colonized across the globe. This beacon, an unacceptable refutation of colonial rule, was shunned and manipulated by every powerful nation in the world, setting a pattern that has continued to this day. And it’s this history that men like Philippe and Cherizier attempt to evoke as they market themselves as revolutionaries and men of the people.

But the proximate cause of the current crisis was the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, in July 2021 by a group of Colombian commandos hired by a Florida security company. The motive and causes of the killing remain unclear, and a miasma of rumor and speculation involving many key players in Haitian politics and business has hung over the case, which is being prosecuted both in the United States and in Haiti.

Moïse and Henry are just two examples of a long line of broadly center-right, pro-United States leaders who have, with a few exceptions, governed Haiti for decades with support from Washington despite evidence of corruption and autocratic tendencies. Henry, who had been appointed to his post and never elected as a national leader, pledged to organize elections quickly to return Haiti to democracy. But those elections never happened, and the United States continued to support Henry as the last link to an elected government in Haiti, even if he himself was not elected. Political groups seeking a transition as promised accused the United States of propping Henry up despite rising unrest and a sharp increase in gang activity.

Now crisis talks are unfolding in Jamaica, with leaders of various Haitian political factions putting forth competing proposals. A senior State Department official said Tuesday afternoon that an agreement has been reached to create a seven-member transitional council representing major political and civic groups that would run Haiti until elections can be held, but people involved in the talks said that there were still delicate negotiations underway. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Jamaica to meet with regional leaders and pledged an additional $100 million to support an international security force for Haiti, to be composed largely of Kenyan police officers. The fate of that force remains uncertain; Kenyan officials said Tuesday that it cannot deploy unless there is a government in place in Haiti.

Haitian political leaders tend to blame outsiders for their manifold problems, and they do have a point. Foreign powers, especially the United States, have meddled in Haiti’s affairs, undermined its leaders and scuppered its democracy throughout its history. But Haiti’s political and economic elites have consistently failed the people of Haiti, too. And at a certain point, the belief that outside powers are manipulating your country becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, sowing paranoia and suspicion at precisely the moment trust and solidarity are most needed.

Imagining a new future for Haiti is the job of Haitians, but it will require a leap of faith and a whole lot of help, financial and otherwise. The United States and its allies in the region must abandon their paternalistic games in Haiti. But they can and should play midwife to a new Haiti by convening, supporting and nudging Haitian leaders to work together to build a new future. This moment, fraught as it is, presents a chance for Haitian hopes to triumph over fear. We cannot fail to meet it.

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1 Comment

Mar 16

Haiti is doomed for a long time

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