As gang violence grips Haiti, donor nations, including Canada, appear reluctant to intervene

Haiti has been limping from crisis to crisis for a long time. But never in the recent past—perhaps not since the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake—has the country’s plight seemed as hopeless to so many of its residents as it does now.

Caribbean leaders, traditionally opposed to outside interference, are facing an influx of Haitian boat people fleeing what Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis called a “failed state.”

The Dominican Republic has sent its army to the border with Haiti to prevent what its president Luis Abinader calls a “low-intensity civil war”.

“We have to act responsibly and we have to act now,” he said. “Thousands of people die.”

The gangs, which claim control of 60 percent of Haiti’s territory, kill hundreds of people a month.

Protesters call for peace and security in the La Plaine neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, May 6, 2022. Escalating gang violence has prompted Haitians to stage demonstrations to demand safer neighborhoods. (Odelyn Joseph/Associated Press)

Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, recently visited the country. He told CBC News that he found “gangs have taken control of a large part of Port-au-Prince. Gangs are even occupying the courthouse.”

Led by Ambassador Sébastien Carrière, Canadian diplomats are stationed in Haiti, sheltering in their homes as the streets of Port-au-Prince are no longer safe to travel.

“The embassy is closed to the public and we are virtually operating remotely, managing the current crisis as well as everything else,” Carrière told CBC News. “The streets have been calm yesterday and today, but the big question is what will happen tomorrow.”

No one wants to enter the swamp

Haiti was certainly a topic of conversation as world leaders gathered in New York this week for the 77th UN General Assembly. But there was little sign of any country willing to commit to Haiti the kind of resources needed to restore law and order in the capital.

And there was no sign at all that outside powers were willing to send their own people to reinforce the Haitian National Police, which are often beaten by gangs.

Haiti is no longer the world’s largest recipient of Canadian foreign aid, as it was a decade ago, but it remains the largest recipient of Canadian aid in the Americas.

Among traditional donors, Haiti has given more than Canada since the Port-au-Prince earthquake.

On Wednesday, Canada announced that it would provide an additional $20 million to rebuild schools destroyed by the earthquake that struck Haiti’s southern peninsula last August.

Canada’s presence is a shadow of the past

Canada also contributed millions of dollars this year to train and equip Haitian security forces.

“We spearheaded the establishment of the US$30 million United Nations Security Basket Fund and are currently funding a third of what is still to come,” Carrière said.

But Canada’s human security presence in Haiti has dwindled to almost nothing. A country that once had more than 2,000 military personnel and about 100 police officers in the Haiti Joint Task Force now has just two RCMP officers in the entire country.

And despite funding for foreign security, gangs have increasingly taken hold since last year, when Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his own bedroom.

Police carry the coffin of slain Haitian President Jovenel Moïse at the start of his funeral at his family home in Cap-Haitien. (Matias Delacroix/Associated Press)

Moïse himself was deeply involved in the rise of gangs such as the 400 Mawozo – who kidnapped a group of US and Canadian missionaries last year – and the G9 led by ex-policeman Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier.

Moïse’s Tet Kale (Baldhead) party has long used gangs as enforcers and wards in poor areas of Port-au-Prince and allowed them to smuggle weapons.

Many Haitians reject the claim that there is a struggle for control between the government and gangs. Rather, they see gangs and government as a duopoly of power that work hand in glove.

There is clear evidence of government collusion in some of Haiti’s worst gang carnage, including the use of government-owned heavy equipment to bulldoze slum areas.

The Prime Minister is considered a puppet

To the extent that Haiti’s ruling elites have now realized the extent of their mistake in feeding such a monster, they have tried to rein in the gangs – by raising the price of fuel (cutting off a source of black market revenue) and by slowing down. the steady flow of arms and ammunition through Haiti’s porous and corrupt ports.

But gang leaders like Cherizier are no longer content just to muscle and coerce votes into Haiti’s rulers; now he wants to rule Haiti himself. And other Caribbean governments, eager to deal with anyone who can slow the flow of refugees on the rafts, have proposed negotiating directly with Haiti’s gang leaders, rather than its dysfunctional government – led by the man many consider the prime suspect in his predecessor’s murder.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry speaks at the Summit of the Americas plenary session on June 10, 2022 in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Haiti’s acting president, Ariel Henry, has not fulfilled his promise to hold new elections. In a country where nearly every elected official has exceeded their mandate, few citizens recognize Henry’s government as legitimate.

Many see Henry as a designator of the foreign governments that make up the “core group” of major donors: the US, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, the EU and the UN. His support was expressed in a tweet by those ambassadors withdrawing the support of rival acting prime minister Claude Joseph, who immediately resigned.

The “new normal” of fear.

US President Joe Biden has seen his own envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, resign in protest of the president’s support for Henry, and this week he received letters from 100 different Haitian civil and religious groups asking him to withdraw that support.

The letter says that under Henry’s misrule, long-suffering Haitians have descended into a “new normal” characterized by constant fear of robbery and violence, an almost total lack of accountability and a growing humanitarian crisis on all fronts.

Perhaps the only bright spot on the Haitian scene is the emergence of a new alliance of civil society groups unaffiliated with traditional political parties that has proposed a transitional government to allow for new elections.

A woman braids a girl’s hair at a school that has been turned into a shelter amid armed gang clashes in the Tabarre neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, May 12, 2022. (Odelyn Joseph/Associated Press)

Their plan is called the “Montana Accord” after the hotel in Port-au-Prince where it was negotiated. Although several parties have signed the agreement, Tet Kale has ignored it.

Last weekend, the Canadian ambassador met with representatives of the group.

“Politicians talk,” Carrière said. “Hopefully they will finally come to that comprehensive solution for Haiti that we all support and have been encouraging for almost a year now.

“Haitian politics is multidimensional, alliances shift like the wind in a strong storm. But the people are suffering, so they have to pull themselves together.”

The intervention dilemma

Monique Clesca, a former journalist and UN official, is one of the Haitians who negotiated the Montana accord. He works to convince others to sign up.

He agrees that Haitians need to find more consensus among themselves, but he said foreign embassies carry much of Henry’s legacy of “death and despair and disease and misery … because they put him there.”

The Catch-22 currently plaguing Haitian politics is that while no one wants to see more foreign dictates, foreign governments are the only players with the leverage to oust Henry — and foreign forces may be the only ones with the firepower to do a thorough job. defeat and disarm gangs.

But few in Port-au-Prince want to see the U.S. Marines return. Perhaps even fewer relish the prospect in Washington.

UN peacekeepers from Brazil in the southern peninsula of Haiti in 2016 (Evan Dyer)

“It’s shameful to say what I’m saying, but we’re fighting to preserve our sovereignty,” Clesca told CBC News from his home in Port-au-Prince.

“Yesterday we were in a meeting and someone said: ‘You are talking about possible intervention’, but we have been under foreign intervention for several years. We are a sovereign country, but many of the power brokers in Haiti have surrendered our sovereignty. foreigners and so it is a very difficult, almost bloody situation .

“Canada together [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau, France with [President Emmanuel] Macron, the US with Biden prefers to support someone who is killing his people en masse, who is in league with gangs, who is turning the economy upside down, who supports corruption and impunity, instead of listening to the cries of the Haitian people for democracy and. respecting their human rights.

“They wouldn’t allow it in their homes, but they allow it here, and they push it here.”

Hands off the wheel

Bob Rae told CBC News that Canada wants to break the old cycle of foreign intervention that undermines Haiti’s sovereignty.

“We have to learn from some of the mistakes we made in the past, where there were interventions that did not have the full support of the Haitian people,” he said.

“The government is an interim government and there are many people in civil society who feel very strongly that things are not going in the right direction.

“When your capital city is basically occupied by one type of gang or another, you have a real problem. But it’s not our job to tell the people of Haiti what they need to do and how they need to solve it. We want them to tell us how they think it should be done. can be solved and what else we can do to help.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, as he sits with Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, at a meeting of the ad hoc advisory group and Caribbean partners on the situation in Haiti at the United Nations in New York. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

At the United Nations on Wednesday night, Trudeau reiterated this new, hands-off message.

“We cannot continue to see outside elements, no matter how well-meaning, try to determine Haiti’s future,” he said.

“That’s why in this morning’s conversation we talked about, among other things, how we ensure accountability, including to the elites and oligarchs who contribute to the instability in Haiti that we’re seeing now, how we ensure that we’re there to strengthen the necessary civil society institutions and police agencies.

“But after many, many years and even decades of the international community trying to fix Haiti for Haitians, we need to ensure that Haiti itself leads the lasting change that we need to see in this once beautiful country that is beautiful again.”