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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Haiti engulfed by crisis as gangs press prime minister to step down

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry at his residence in Port-au-Prince, Aug. 3, 2021. Martine Moïse, the widow of President Jovenel Moïse, was charged by a Haitian judge with conspiring in his assassination — an attack she was seriously injured during. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

By Simon Romero and Maria Abi-Habib

Haiti’s security crisis is reaching a breaking point. An alliance of armed gangs is pressing the country’s prime minister to resign, placing the United States in the middle of a power struggle gripping the country. Aiming to ease the standoff, the Biden administration is increasing pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Henry to enable a transfer of power.

The United States was not actively “calling on him or pushing for him to resign,” Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the State Department, said. But, he added, “we are urging him to expedite the transition to an empowered and inclusive governance structure.”

The impasse points to a major inflection point in Haiti, which has been plagued by nearly perpetual crises over the past several years, as tempers flare in the country of 11.5 million people over spreading unrest, food shortages and a lack of progress in moving toward democratic elections and restoring a sense of security.

The standoff emerged after Henry, who has been backed by the United States since becoming Haiti’s de facto leader after the assassination in 2021 of President Jovenel Moïse, was unable to return to Haiti on Tuesday because of doubts over safely landing at the airport in the capital, Port-au-Prince, which has been targeted in recent days by gang assaults.

Henry, after landing instead in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, has not made any public statements about his whereabouts or plans to return to Haiti. In the meantime, as scenes of looting and disarray have many people in Port-au-Prince on edge, gang leaders have rushed to fill a power vacuum.

“If Ariel Henry doesn’t resign, if the international community continues to support him, we’re heading straight for a civil war,” Jimmy Chérizier, a top gang leader and former police officer known more widely as Barbecue, told reporters in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday.

Chérizier and other gang leaders have gone on a rampage around Port-au-Prince over the past week, clashing with police and attacking the airport, bank offices, government buildings and prisons, including the country’s largest penitentiary, allowing thousands of inmates to escape.

While different gangs appear to be behind the latest wave of unrest, security experts warn that any alliances between the gangs tend to be fluid and subject to change. It is not clear whether gang leaders are pressing to have a specific role in governing the country.

Gunfire could be heard around different parts of Port-au-Prince early Wednesday morning despite a curfew aimed at keeping people off the streets outside normal business hours. At least one court building was partially burned Wednesday, and the airport remained closed.

The deteriorating security situation is limiting the choices available to the United States, which has traditionally held immense sway in Haiti’s politics. The Biden administration has made it clear that there are no plans to deploy U.S. soldiers to Haiti to assert order.

“What we’ve asked the Haitian prime minister to do is move forward on a political process that will lead to the establishment of a presidential transitional council that will lead to elections,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Wednesday. “And we think that is urgent — that it’s urgent that he moves forward in that direction and start the process of bringing normalcy back to the people of Haiti.”

While members of Haiti’s opposition have criticized the Biden administration for continuing to back Henry, U.S. officials and analysts have said the prime minister is the only leader with some legitimacy.

“Henry is there to get us through an election,” said Keith Mines, vice president of the Latin America program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “He’s in the position for a reason, not because he’s particularly popular, but because he has a thread of constitutionality that no one else has.”

A U.S. government official said that CARICOM, a union of 15 Caribbean countries, has been at the forefront of calls demanding the Haitian prime minister resign immediately.

Speaking on background to discuss sensitive issues, the official added that the United States has no other Haitian partner who would serve as an alternative to Henry, and said that to demand the prime minister resign immediately would just create more chaos in a country already on the brink of collapse.

“Now they are stuck with something even more unpalatable, with no way out, no alternative to the crisis,” said Robert Fatton, an expert on Haiti at the University of Virginia, referring to the Biden administration’s options regarding Haiti. “The gangs have overwhelming superiority now.”

The violence unleashed by gangs is making an already acute humanitarian crisis in Haiti worse. About 15,000 people were forced to leave their homes over the past few days due to escalating violence, including many who had already been displaced, said Martin Griffiths, the United Nations emergency relief coordinator. Roughly 313,000 people in Haiti are currently displaced, the U.N. has said.

Widespread hunger is another pressing concern, with about 1.4 million people in the country currently facing emergency levels of hunger, according to the World Food Program.

Overall, “nearly half the population needs humanitarian aid,” said Griffiths, who is also the U.N.’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. “The crisis in Haiti is deteriorating at alarming speed.”

The deepening sense of chaos in Haiti is also raising doubts about a plan for Kenya to lead a security mission to Haiti, which the Biden administration has been pushing for over the past year. Henry had flown to Nairobi last week and Friday signed the deal with Kenyan authorities.

Under the plan, Kenya would provide at least 1,000 police officers for the mission, which the United States had pledged to support with $200 million and Canada with nearly $60 million. Other countries, including Benin, Chad, Bangladesh and the Barbados, have also pledged to send personnel as part of the mission.

“That agreement was signed by someone with no legitimacy,” said Monique Clesca, a Haitian democracy activist and former United Nations official, emphasizing that Haiti’s parliament, which is currently not functioning, and possibly its future leader would need to approve the agreement for the mission to move forward.

Still, others in Haiti contend the Kenyan plan is still on the table. “It’s a fait accompli,” said Claude Joseph, a former prime minister and a leader of one of the political parties in discussions aimed at replacing Henry. “We need to move forward with the plan. We need it, as soon as possible. We need a strong police with international support.”

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