Disaster, in Slow Motion

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Feb. 7 is a treasured day in Haiti. In 1986, it was on this day that Haitians ejected dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier after 15 years. Five years later, on that very day, Haitians witnessed the swearing-in of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, their first democratically elected president.

It’s a day that signifies freedom, a day enshrined in the Constitution for the transfer of presidential power.

That’s why when Feb. 7, 2024, came and went without Prime Minister Ariel Henry stepping down as he swore to do three years ago, many Haitians weren’t pleased. He is an unelected prime minister who took office following the assassination of Jovenel Moïse in 2021, allegedly perpetrated by Columbian mercenaries with Henry implicated in the plot, according to Al Jazeera.

Henry is still in the prime ministerial office, however, reviled and outliving his welcome, the Associated Press wrote, while governing with little control over the country these days.

Instead, it’s criminal gangs that are firmly in control, while gang violence has reached unprecedented levels, activist Monique Clesca, a former UN official, told CNN.

More than 800 people in Haiti were killed, injured or kidnapped in January, an increase of more than 300 percent compared with last year, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, as reported by the Associated Press. Meanwhile, gangs are using sexual assaults, including “collective rapes,” as a “weapon of terror” to “instill fear, punish, subjugate and inflict pain on local populations with the ultimate goal of expanding their areas of influence,” UN officials say.

Schools are often closed, markets are empty and streets sometimes unpassable.

The violence has also been undermining the impoverished nation’s already moribund economy. Rival gangs fighting over territory near the Rhum Barbancourt distillery in the capital of Port-au-Prince, for example, set almost 20 acres of sugarcane field alight last week, destroying the crop. That has left a situation where producers around the country can’t sell what they produce, therefore can’t earn to pay their loans or their employees, Haiti’s AyiboPost reported.

Luis Abinader, the president of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, appealed to the international community to take action, added El País. Otherwise, he would need to take action, he said, to prevent Haiti’s chaos from spreading. “Either we fight together to save Haiti, or we will fight alone to protect the Dominican Republic!” he warned.

The violence has displaced more than 310,000 Haitians within the country, the UN’s International Organization for Migration wrote. Many other Haitians have crossed the border into the Dominican Republic, though such flows have been happening for years as Haitians have sought economic opportunities across the border. Still, now they are seeking safety.

While the suffering unfolds, Haitian and Kenyan officials have been negotiating in Washington over a proposed deployment of 1,000 Kenyan police officers who would lead a multinational force in Haiti.

Henry requested the Kenyan force in 2022. The UN Security Council approved the move. The Kenyan parliament approved it. But, as Al Jazeera explained, Kenyan President William Ruto’s critics fought the move in court, where a judge ruled that the mission was unconstitutional.

Now Ruto is pledging to send the personnel without the court’s permission, the BBC reported. Still, the Kenyan police are no match for the criminal gangs now running Haiti, wrote World Politics Review.

That’s because in the past few years, Haiti’s bandits, often hailing from the police or with military training, have transformed into hardened paramilitaries, carving the capital into fiefdoms that now comprise around 90 percent of the city, the New York Times said. “They know their terrain and exert strong local governance, having often started life as community defense groups.” These fighters are heavily armed.

Adding to this is a descent into open warfare between the heavily-armed officers of the environment agency and police, wrote VOA news. The leader of the Brigade for the Security of Protected Areas was dismissed by Henry and now those agents are demanding the president’s resignation.

In the meantime, former Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who now leads the opposition, told France 24 that he feared a civil war might break out. Henry’s decision to stay in office past Feb. 7 is causing outrage in political circles. Henry says the security situation in the country is too dangerous for elections.

That makes this country of 11 million people, essentially leaderless because the terms of all democratically elected officials have expired. Now, there is an empty legislature and protests demanding Henry steps down.

Stepping into this void is Guy Philippe, a rebel leader, who in 2004 led the uprising that chased then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the country. He is now joining calls for Henry’s ousting.

Freed last year from a US prison on money laundering charges, he has won the allegiance of the environmental armed brigade, called for “revolution” and  “civil disobedience” across the country, the Washington Post wrote. That’s as destabilizing as the gangs, some believe.

His release “wasn’t really expected by Haitians,” Diego Da Rin, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told the newspaper. It landed “like a bomb.”

Commentators say that given the dire situation in the country, Philippe is the “wild card that could really upend everything,” and not necessarily for the better.

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