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Chaos in Haiti: What's causing it, and can it be stopped?

March 12, 2024

Ongoing violence in the impoverished Caribbean nation continues to escalate. The roots of the conflict lie both in Haiti’s recent and distant past. A solution to the crisis is nowhere in sight.

A demonstrator holds up an Haitian flag as he yells during protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry; flames and smoke from burning tires are seen in the background
Protests in Port-au-Prince at the beginning of MarchImage: Odelyn Joseph/AP Photo/picture alliance

According to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) grouping of 20 nations, Haiti's Prime Minister Ariel Henry is ready to resign. Now a presidential council consisting of seven members is to be established to appoint an interim prime minister for a transitional period leading up to elections in Haiti, Guyana's President Mohamed Irfaan Ali said late Monday following a meeting of Caribbean leaders in Jamaica.

"The government that I'm running cannot remain insensitive to this situation. There is no sacrifice that is too big for our country," Henry said in a videotaped statement.

Powerful criminal gangs controlling large swaths of Haiti and almost all of the capital, Port-au-Prince, have been demanding Henry's resignation for weeks and now look as if they may have acheived their objective.

Gang members in Haiti have been attacking state institutions such as police stations, government administrative buildings and prisons, leaving dead bodies reportedly lying in the streets and forcing the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

"Criminals have now taken over the country. There is no government, it is becoming a failed state," said Guyana's Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo prior to Monday's emergency CARICOM meeting.

Around the capital Port-au-Prince, a state of emergency has been declared and a night curfew put in place. According to reports, however, police are now barely visible and are more or less tolerating pillaging and vigilantism. According to a UN estimate, gangs already controlled 80% of the capital last year. Now, Germany, the EU, the US and other countries have recalled embassy staff for fear of their safety.

How did Haiti's crisis erupt?

All signs have been pointing to escalation in Haiti since February 7 at the latest. That was the date chosen by various political and social groups, in unison with Prime Minister Ariel Henry, for the inauguration of a new government. Henry, however, did not stage elections. Instead, in late February, he floated the idea of a new transitional period lasting until August 2025.

When Henry finally announced his resignation, it was from Puerto Rico, where he has been since March 5. Among other things, the ongoing violence has closed Haiti's main international airport, which has repeatedly come under fire from gangs. When the attacks began, Henry was in Kenya, pushing for a UN-backed deployment of a police force from the East African country.

During Henry's absence, the situation rapidly deteriorated. At the beginning of March, gang members stormed two prisons and helped free some 4,500 inmates.

During protests in Port-au-Prince, a man carries a mock coffin with the image of Prime Minister Ariel Henry and US, Canadian and French flags
In an October 2022 demonstration, protesters vented their anger against Prime Minister Henry and perceived interference from the US, Canada and FranceImage: Joseph Odelyn/AP Photo/picture alliance

Who is gang leader 'Barbecue'?

The gravity of the situation is aggravated by the fact that previously warring gangs have now formed an alliance. Primarily, it is an association of nine formerly independent gangs now called the G9 Family and Allies. It is led by Jimmy Cherizier, who is better known by his nickname "Barbecue."

A former police officer, Cherizier has repeatedly been named one of the most powerful men in Haiti by observers. Interviewed by the New Yorker magazine last year, Cherizier cited former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and US civil rights campaigner Malcolm X, among others, as his role models.

"I like Martin Luther King, too, but he didn't like fighting with guns, and I fight with guns," he told the magazine.

Jimmy Cherizier, aka "Barbecue," in white suit and black tie, marches during a rally to demand justice for slain Haitian President Jovenel Moise
Gang boss "Barbecue" (in center wearing suit and tie) attended the funeral of murdered Prime Minister Jovenel Moise in 2021Image: Joseph Odelyn/AP Photo/picture alliance

The background to the current conflict

A former French colony, Haiti makes up the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola; the remaining two-thirds, formerly ruled by Spain, are known as the Dominican Republic today. Large parts of the population of both nations descend from the African west coast, where people had been abducted and enslaved at the behest of colonial rulers.

Haiti gained independence from France in 1804, in the wake of a revolution resulting from a decades-long slave uprising. Haiti is the only country in the Western Hemisphere to have shed colonial rule through the leadership of former slaves with African roots. Since then, however, many periods of Haiti's history have been marked by violence and instability as various ethnic groups fought for domination.

How the West messed with Haiti

From the mid-20th century onward, Haiti's dictator Francois Duvalier promoted the deprivation of power from the country's multi-racial elite in favor of the Black majority population. It was also under his regime that ruthless and violent gangs grew to become a powerful parallel force capable of rivaling state power.

Widely regarded as another key event leading up to the current crisis was a devastating 2010 earthquake that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The weak state could barely grapple with the consequences. As a result, gangs were able to extend their respective spheres of control beyond their traditional neighborhoods.

A man covers his face as he walks amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Port-au-Prince
Large parts of Haiti were reduced to rubble in a devastating 2010 earthquakeImage: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Resentment among the population grew and by 2019 was increasingly directed at then-President Jovenel Moise, who was accused of corruption. In the wake of protests, Moise suspended elections and increasingly ruled by decree. In July 2021, he was murdered by unknown assailants at his official residence. Since then, Ariel Henry — whom Moise had only recently named prime minister — has been head of state, simultaneously serving as interim president.

Since Moise's murder, which remains unsolved, public order has come under ever more pressure, forcing Henry to turn to the international community for help. In October 2023, the UN Security Council voted to deploy a Kenya-led multinational security force to Haiti.

What hurdles does the UN response team face?

Kenya's President William Ruto proposed the deployment up to 1,000 security forces — referring to police officers as opposed to soldiers — several months prior to the UN Security Council decision. Though observers in Nairobi immediately voiced doubt that their training and equipment would be sufficient for fighting heavily armerd Haitian gangs.

(File photo) A view of riot police during clashes with protesters in the Kibera area of Nairobi
Kenyan police helped contain protests in Nairobi in July 2023 but can they handle Haiti's heavily armed gangs?Image: Brian Inganga/AP Photo/picture alliance

A legal argument, however, is now causing serious problems for the mission. In January, a Kenyan court ruled that the National Security Council can only deploy soldiers — not police officers. The court, nevertheless, left a loophole for a police mission, allowing deployment if an official accord with the country in question exists. But Kenya's opposition has already announced a new lawsuit to challenge the plan.

In addition, funding for the mission also remains an open question. US President Joe Biden's government previously promised to provide up to $200 million (€183 million). It is questionable though, whether Republicans in Congress will support the plan in the middle of an election campaign. It therefore remains unclear whether the international community will answer Haiti's call for help.

This article was originally written in German.