Haiti News Round-Up No. 14: Armed Groups Join Forces to Demand Ouster of PM

On February 29, the disparate armed groups of the capital and surrounding areas joined forces and began a series of coordinated attacks against state institutions. At an impromptu press conference that afternoon, former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, who has been sanctioned by the US and UN, and has allegedly been involved in multiple massacres since 2017, announced that the armed groups had come together and that their “first objective is to ensure the government of Ariel Henry is no longer in power.”

Over the following days, armed men attacked universities and schools, torched police precincts, raided the capital’s main port that received critical food supplies, and broke out thousands of prisoners from the country’s main jails. Armed groups also attacked the airport, closing it indefinitely, in an apparent attempt to prevent Henry, who was in Kenya signing an agreement to bring 1,000 police to Haiti, from returning. On March 8, armed groups attacked the area directly around the National Palace.

The armed groups have adopted revolutionary rhetoric, pledging to overthrow “the system” that has produced such tremendous inequality. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of victims in the latest wave of unrest are among the most impoverished — the very population these leaders claim to be fighting for.

On March 5, after homes and businesses in his base in Lower Delmas were ransacked, Chérizier again held a press conference to ask for forgiveness, not just for himself but for all the others associated with the new coalition, which is called “Viv Ansamn,” or “Live Together.”

“To the Haitian people, please forgive everyone in Viv Ansanm for all the things they did to you that were wrong. Today, we have a big opportunity in front of us to change the system that we currently have,” Chérizier said.

It is unlikely that the population will be so quick to forget, however. Homicides nearly tripled last year, and kidnappings, rape, and other sexual violence have skyrocketed in recent years. More than 350,000 have been displaced; entire communities have emptied under the threat of violence.

During a few days of relative calm, police retook control of the main port and reinforced the airport walls. But attacks seem to have picked up again in recent days, with the port falling out of police control yet again, and key medical supplies taken. Many capital-area hospitals and medical facilities have closed or are running dangerously low on supplies. On Sunday, the national electrical company reported that its infrastructure had faced repeated attacks.

On Thursday, March 14, a home belonging to police chief Frantz Elbe was burned. Over the weekend, numerous small businesses in the downtown area were destroyed and emptied of supplies while armed groups attacked a neighborhood that is home to a number of former and current government officials. On Monday, local media reported early morning attacks in the Laboule neighborhood in the hills above Port-au-Prince.

The armed groups have sown terror across the capital and created a humanitarian crisis, but it would be a mistake to discount the appeal of their rhetoric — regardless of its sincerity. As former interior minister Reginald Delva explained in a recent interview, much of the population feels as though they are stuck between “the gangs,” a police force that has lost the trust of the population, and a political class that has supported and provided cover for those same armed groups.

“It’s not just people with guns who’ve damaged the country but the politicians too,” Chérizier told Al Jazeera last week. With Henry agreeing to resign, “our fight will enter another phase – to overthrow the whole system, the system that is five percent of people who control 95 percent of the country’s wealth,” he added.

“Their message can resonate with the public because it’s a reality,” Professor Robert Fatton said in a recent interview, “but that doesn’t mean that the solutions that they’re offering are real solutions. I mean, those guys have no program, no real vision. They’ve been extremely violent with the very poor. So, it’s difficult to see how they would differ once in power.”

De Facto Prime Minister Resigns, Sort of

After nearly a full week of silence, and unable to return to Haiti given the closure of airports amid attacks from armed groups, de facto prime minister Ariel Henry released a brief video message on March 11 announcing his willingness to resign upon the formation of a new transitional government — which is being negotiated in a process backed by the United States and CARICOM.

Henry attempted to return to Haiti on March 5, chartering a private jet from New Jersey in an attempt to fly to the Dominican Republic and then take a helicopter back to Port-au-Prince. However, the Miami Herald reported, while Henry was in the air the US asked him to resign. Then, the Dominican authorities denied authorization for the plane to land. Henry ended up in Puerto Rico, where he has remained since.

In Henry’s absence, the government — such as it exists — is being run by Finance Minister Michel Patrick Boisvert, who also has not spoken publicly since the armed groups began their coordinated attacks more than two weeks ago. The minister of justice, who was outside the country reportedly visiting family in France when the airports closed, has also yet to be able to return.

Henry, however, does not appear willing to simply fade into exile. On March 13, his spokesperson told CNN that only Henry could make appointments to the new presidential council currently being negotiated. “We will not deliver the country to just a group of people without following the procedure. We are in crisis as a country, but we must stay inside of the law and set a good example,” the spokesperson said.

Of course, Henry was appointed prime minister by decree by the late president Jovenel Moïse just two days before Moïse was assassinated. Due to the lack of a functioning parliament, Henry was never constitutionally sworn into office. Amid a post-assassination power struggle, the US and UN urged Henry to form a government, which happened within a matter of days. Henry, who has governed without any elected officials throughout the entire country for most of time in office, became the longest serving prime minister in Haiti’s history last month.

Political Negotiations Take Place in Jamaica

For the better part of the last year, political negotiations have been taking place in fits and starts between civil society, opposition political parties, and Henry’s governing coalition. In June 2023, CARICOM hosted a dialogue process in Kingston, Jamaica to try to bring the parties together. A group of former Caribbean leaders have since traveled multiple times to Haiti to try to broker an agreement. While civil society and others have long proposed a transitional council that could serve as a real check on Henry’s power, those appeals have been continually undermined by foreign support for Henry and his own unwillingness to cede power.

Yet, after years of propping up the deeply unpopular Henry, the US and others turned on him in the midst of the rapidly moving situation on the ground. With Henry stuck in Puerto Rico, the US and CARICOM quickly relaunched discussions with many of the same actors who had been involved in previous negotiation attempts.

On March 11, CARICOM leaders, together with Secretary of State Blinken and other foreign diplomats, announced their support for the formation of a transitional presidential council to be composed of seven voting members and two observers. (For more on the negotiation process and the potential pitfalls, see this analysis from Senior Research Associate Jake Johnston.)

The council has yet to formally take shape, let alone name a new prime minister and form a new government. Pitit Dessalines, the party of former presidential candidate Moïse Jean Charles, declined to participate. “Caricom cannot present us with a seven-headed serpent,” he told the press, insisting on the installation of a different three-member council that he is supporting. “We will take the destiny of our country into our own hands with other leaders so that our three-member Presidential Council can move forward,” he added. (See below for more information on Moïse Jean Charles’s proposed council.)

Ironically, the biggest issue causing the delay in the announcement of the CARICOM-backed presidential council has been naming a representative from the December 21 Accord, the political coalition that supported Henry. By March 17, the actors had yet to agree on their council representative, while all other sectors represented in the council had already made their appointments.

Another Presidential Council Proposed

Rejecting the CARICOM-proposed council, Moïse Jean-Charles is backing a three-member alternative that was announced days after coordinated attacks in the capital began. Also backing this council is Guy Philippe, a former police officer and paramilitary leader who helped to overthrow the democratically elected government in 2004. He was later arrested and transferred to the US where he pleaded guilty to money laundering related to drug trafficking and spent more than six years in a US jail. He was deported back to Haiti in late 2023, and has been agitating for Henry’s ouster since.

Though no explicit alliance has been announced between the armed groups and Philippe, it seems that their actions have been coordinated. Upon his return to Haiti, Philippe claimed to be the only one able to stand up to the armed groups. However, his attempts to enter the capital and replace Henry on February 7 fell flat. After weeks of silence, Philippe reemerged with this new governance proposal and has begun talking about amnesty for armed groups.

Philippe and Jean-Charles claim to have the support of hundreds more political parties and civil society organizations. “The decision of Caricom is not our decision,” Philippe said this past week. “Haitians will decide who will govern Haiti.” Though many are, with good reason given his past, skeptical of Philippe’s ultimate intentions, the rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the relative silence coming from those political actors participating in the CARICOM-backed negotiations.

In a March 10 interview, Philippe expanded on what he meant by amnesty: “First, there is the Truth Commission, because the people must, we must know how we got there, who armed these young men, who gave them weapons, how do they function. Once you know the truth and understand how things work, you must have justice.”

Philippe has come out strongly against any deployment of foreign troops in Haiti: “So now, they all would like for a UN force to kill and assassinate all of these people. So that the knowledge they have, we never learn.”

Honduras Calls for “Nonintervention”

As the current president of CELAC, a regional grouping that does not include the US or Canada, Honduras has formally called for an urgent consultation with Colombia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines to discuss the situation in Haiti. The “troika” of countries represents the previous president of CELAC, current president, and next president.

In a statement requesting the meeting, Honduran president Xiomara Castro noted that, in the Kingstown Declaration approved by CELAC heads of state on March 1, the region agreed that “The current crisis demands a Haiti-led solution that encompasses a broad dialogue between civil society and political actors.” Though the declaration did declare its support for the UNSC resolution authorizing the Kenya deployment, Castro wrote, “Under no excuse should we allow military action that violates the Principle of Non-Intervention and Respect for the Self-Determination of Peoples.”

At the recent CELAC summit, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro was the only leader to speak out against the planned deployment of foreign forces to Haiti. Brazil, though refusing to take any direct role in the Kenya-led mission, has offered diplomatic support and cohosted a fundraiser for the MSS at last month’s G20 meeting. Mexico is currently participating in the CARICOM and US-led negotiation process.

Kenya-Led Police Intervention Suspended Temporarily

On March 12, Kenya announced that it was suspending its deployment of police to Haiti as part of the UN Security Council-authorized and US-funded Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission. A government official told the press that Kenya would assess the situation once a new government was installed. The next day, Secretary of State Blinken spoke directly with Kenyan president William Ruto to “discuss the expeditious deployment” of the force. Ruto followed the conversation with a statement posted to social media declaring that “Kenya will take leadership” of the MSS.

Ruto later added further details, saying he had spoken with Canadian prime minister Trudeau, Bahamanian prime minister Philip Davis, and with Ariel Henry. “I further outlined our plan to deploy a reconnaissance mission as soon as a viable administration is in place, ensuring that our security personnel are adequately prepared and informed to respond effectively to the evolving situation,” Ruto wrote.

There remains an ongoing court challenge in Kenya to the deployment, though the government has previously pledged to move forward, regardless. Still, Kenya’s involvement has become a significant political issue inside the country. On March 14, former chief justice Willy Mutango, who has been publicly opposed to the mission, wrote on Twitter: “We are hearing that some of our police officers in the advance team in Haiti have been killed. I am asking the [Inspector General of the Police] and [Cabinet Secretary] Internal Security to answer my question. If true, the families involved should not keep quiet about the tragedy.”

Aside from the domestic political question in Kenya, there is also a budgetary issue.

At the CARICOM-backed political negotiations, Secretary of State Blinken announced an additional $100 million in Pentagon funding toward the MSS. The funds would go toward preparing “facilities on the ground in Haiti,” according to a press briefing held by an unnamed State Department official.

Kenya, however, has previously asked that it be paid up front for the costs of the mission. This, as Reuters reported last week, complicates the funding question. Most of the contributions to the MSS — including up to $100 million from the State Department — will pass through a UN-administered trust fund. So far, however, it only has $11 million. The bigger issue, however, is that “U.N. rules require that funds it administers be used only to reimburse costs already incurred,” Reuters reported.

“The Department of State contribution can go to the reimbursement or even forward funding of some salaries and other activities,” the unnamed State Department official told reports. “Training activities is something that we’re already working on reimbursing Kenya on. They’ve already carried out a lot of training. But there need to be a variety of funding mechanisms.”

In terms of the UN fund itself, the official noted that the “terms of reference […] are still being refined […] and how that trust fund will work and whether or not there’ll be a mechanism to pay for costs for contributing nations in advance is still being debated.”

Though clearly not the main reason why the MSS has been delayed, the Biden administration and Democratic members of Congress have laid the blame squarely on Republicans, who are holding up some of the State Department funding.

Haiti Becomes Political Football in the US

The crisis in Haiti has, predictably, turned into a domestic political flashpoint in the United States. With the US presidential election just seven months away, that dynamic is unlikely to change.

On March 7, McClatchy reported that the Biden administration was warning “senior Republicans in Congress that a multinational force to Haiti cannot deploy unless they lift their longstanding hold on the release of key U.S. funds.” The State Department had sent a request months ago to the House and Senate foreign relations committees about reallocating previously approved funds toward the Kenyan-led MSS. Although an initial $10 million was dispersed, Republicans have thus far blocked the remaining funds.

“Two other senior administration officials said that a failure by Congress to provide the funds could imperil the commitments of allies, who have also pledged to contribute to the mission,” McClatchy and the Miami Herald reported.

On March 12, Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) released a statement responding to the Biden administration, noting that “after years of discussions, repeated requests for information, and providing partial funding to help them plan, the administration only this afternoon sent us a rough plan to address this crisis. Whether it’s ‘credible and implementable’ remains to be seen.”

The same day, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the top Democrat in the House, sent a letter to Speaker of the House Mike Johnston (R-LA) stating: “Congress must join the Biden administration in their crucial work and meet the moment by fulfilling our essential responsibility to ensure security in the Western Hemisphere and release the full $50 million funding allocation forthwith.”

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee related to the Western Hemisphere, told The New Republic: “The security force was needed months ago, but now it’s really needed … It would be a disaster if they were to say, ‘Well, we can’t do it, because the U.S. isn’t meeting its commitment.”

Despite the appeals from Democrats and State Department officials, as noted above, the deployment of the MSS is facing hurdles well beyond the funding blocked by Republicans.

There is, however, another concern that has colored the political debate in Washington. “If we don’t release the money so that the Kenyans can come in and do what they need to do, they are increasing the chance of the further migration problem to the United States,” Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY) told reporters last week.

And indeed, Republicans have begun to make more noise about migration from Haiti. On March 12, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) questioned Pentagon officials over their contingency plans if there were to be a spike in migration from Haiti. The next day, CNN reported that the Biden administration was considering using its facilities in Guantanamo Bay to detain Haitian migrants intercepted at sea. Florida governor Ron DeSantis mobilized the state’s “Division of Emergency Management, the Florida State Guard and state law enforcement to send 250 more officers and soldiers to Florida’s southern coast,” POLITICO reported.

“Fears” of migration from Haiti are being stoked by racist tropes platformed by some of the world’s most influential individuals. “Tech billionaire Elon Musk and right-wing pundits online are weaponizing unverified claims of cannibalism coming out of the conflict to advance a political agenda on immigration,” NBC reported.

On March 15, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wrote on social media: “Hundreds of thousands of people are pouring into our Country from Haiti.”

There is a long history of Democrats implementing draconian immigration policies that target Haitians in election years as a generally futile attempt to blunt Republican criticism, as CEPR’s Jake Johnston details in his recent book, Aid State.

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