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In Haiti, violence, hunger, and cholera threaten to kill thousands of people. As conditions grow ever more dire, gangs are preventing humanitarian assistance from reaching those on the brink of death. A record 4.7 million people face acute hunger and almost 20,000 people are enduring “catastrophic hunger,” meaning they are at risk of starving to death, according to an October report from the UN World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Those in greatest danger live in Cité Soleil, the largest slum in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and home to about 260,000 people. The area is controlled by gangs; for the past six months, lawlessness and violence have made it nearly impossible for urgent humanitarian assistance to reach those most in need.
Fighting between rival gangs for the control of roads leading to the capital caused close to 500 deaths over the summer. Violence has effectively severed Port-au-Prince’s 1.5 million people from the rest of the country. Gangs are believed to control 60 percent of Haitian territory and have stopped gasoline, water, and other essentials from reaching communities and have blocked patients trying to reach clinics for urgent medical attention.
The violence and instability have also created conditions for cholera to make a deadly comeback. In February, Haiti declared victory over the disease, which spreads through contaminated water, after fighting it for over a decade. But since then, the lack of fuel has prevented pumps from working, and now, without access to clean water, people are contracting the disease again. The difficulties of getting health care will only hasten mass contagion. There are no reliable figures as to how fast cholera is spreading: the government has recorded 200 deaths and almost 10,000 cases so far, but that is likely a significant underestimate.
It was against this grim backdrop that Ariel Henry, Haiti’s unelected acting prime minister, and 18 high-level Haitian government officials formally requested the deployment of foreign troops to support the Haitian National Police’s fight against gangs in early October. The hope is that international forces could also halt the spread of cholera—rather than spur it as they have in the past: the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which packed its bags five years ago, left behind a broken reputation and deep-seated animosity for foreign troops as the sewage that poured from the mission base contaminated a nearby river and caused the 2012 cholera epidemic. The disease sickened half a million Haitians and killed almost 10,000.
Neither the supposed beneficiaries of a new intervention nor the powers that could supply it look at the prospect with anything less than foreboding. Although many Haitians may be deeply skeptical as to whether an international mission will resolve Haiti’s interwoven political, humanitarian, and security crises, a growing number of voices inside and outside the country are even more alarmed by the risk of sitting back while a cholera epidemic festers under the watch of predatory armed gangs. A quick military deployment that changes the balance of force and allows supplies to reach communities is most likely the only approach that would bring immediate relief. But the political and operational challenges for such an effort might be insurmountable.
Many Haitians vehemently oppose the idea of bringing in foreign troops to solve Haitian problems. Politicians, opinion leaders, and citizens on social media insist that past foreign military interventions, whether led by U.S. Marines or UN peacekeepers, have only subjected the country to the iniquities of colonial rule and left a host of unresolved problems in their wake. The United States has led three military interventions in Haiti. The first one took place after the assassination in 1915 of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam and lasted almost 20 years, during which the United States took control of Haiti’s finances and created legislation that defended American interests. The United States returned to Haiti in 1994, when it reinstated Jean Bertrand Aristide, the popularly elected president who had been overthrown in a military coup three years before. It would return ten years later to escort Aristide into exile, after armed groups had taken over two major Haitian cities. The deposed president would later claim he had been kidnapped by the United States. American troops remained in the country, as part of a multilateral force, until they were replaced by MINUSTAH in 2004. Over the course of its 13 years of existence, MINUSTAH mobilized over 9,000 troops to effectively reduce violence throughout the country. Its role in the proliferation of cholera and the involvement of UN blue helmets in sexual abuse, however, stained its legacy.
There is also a strong feeling in Haiti that foreign meddling in Haitian problems has only empowered corrupt actors and exacerbated political dysfunction. A coalition of civil society groups organized around a platform known as the Montana Accord have insisted that it is time for a “Haitian-led solution.” A few days after Henry requested military assistance in October, thousands took to the streets of Port-au-Prince to protest the possible arrival of foreign forces.
But a growing number of Haitians are reluctantly wrestling with the idea that there may be no other option. When asked by Crisis Group if he supported the idea of foreign troops, Samuel Madistin, the president of the Je Klere foundation, a civil society organization in Port-au-Prince, responded that fixing the problem is more important than who fixes it. “We have more than 200 violent gangs, which are very well-armed and equipped, often better than the police,” he said. “People are kidnapped every day. The police are even incapable of protecting themselves. Women are filmed being raped in the street, the videos are posted by gangs on social networks to further humiliate them, and the police are unable to carry out an intervention. The situation is extremely dire. People often don’t ask the right questions. Whether one is for or against foreign military intervention in the country is not the right question. For us, the question is whether today Haiti has crossed the threshold of the duty to interfere. We think so.”
Public discontent with a government regarded as incapable of subduing the gangs or guaranteeing the most basic rights to its citizens increased in September after Henry announced drastic cuts in fuel subsidies, following guidance from the International Monetary Fund. Many Haitians depend on fuel to run generators that provide electricity and running water to an impoverished population: more than half the country lives under the poverty line. Without the subsidies, many will not be able to afford to buy fuel. Massive protests across the country demanded that the acting prime minister step down. Infamous gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former policeman who leads the G-9 criminal alliance, claimed that his henchmen would maintain their blockade of the crucial Varreux fuel terminal that began in September until Henry resigned, while also demanding amnesty for gang members and cabinet seats for his outfit. The police have since cleared gangs from the terminal, at least temporarily.
Watching the security situation in Haiti worsen, diplomats in New York started discussing the possibility of sending military support to the Haitian police in July and a UN mission to assess needs visited the country soon thereafter. Following Henry’s formal request for international military assistance in early October, UN Secretary General António Guterres endorsed the proposal in a letter to the UN Security Council, where it was later discussed at the request of Mexico and the United States. Those two countries also drafted a resolution establishing sanctions against gang leaders and their sponsors, including an asset freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo. The Security Council unanimously adopted it on October 21. Another draft resolution, which so far has not been sent to the whole Security Council, proposes the creation of a multinational force that would operate with the blessing, but not under the mandate, of the UN.
A “rapid action force,” as described in the letter Guterres sent to the Security Council, would be made up of “special armed forces personnel,” but it is not clear who would lead the mission or supply the soldiers. Mexico and the United States are looking for African, Caribbean, and Latin American countries to offer personnel, but no country has so far agreed to lead what Guterres describes as “the planning and start-up, command and direction of operations.” Canada, a country with a long history of involvement in Haiti, is the top candidate and favored by the United States, but Ottawa is weighing the operational risks of fighting an enemy embedded in civilian communities, as well as the challenges of doing so in a fraught political environment.
If a rapid action force could work with the Haitian police to clear the gangs from ports, roads, and airports and enable the delivery of clean water, fuel, medical supplies, and food, Haiti’s most beleaguered communities would at last enjoy some respite from hunger and potentially lethal confinement. It is extremely hard for countries close to Haiti, above all those in the Americas, to turn their backs on Henry’s explicit request for assistance when it comes at such a dire moment. Yet what causes anguish to the mission’s potential foreign backers and contributors, as well as to Haitians who support it, is not whether there is a case for intervention but whether the conditions are in place for anything more than a fleeting success followed by a return to today’s dangerous conditions, or worse.
Perhaps the biggest risk is political. Henry, who was appointed in the aftermath of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, is unpopular, yet he remains in power thanks to the support of the so-called Core Group of ambassadors from Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United States, and the EU, as well as representatives from the UN and the Organization of American States.
Gangs are believed to control 60 percent of Haitian territory.
A wide-ranging political agreement between Henry, supporters of the Montana Accord, and other parties and stakeholders in Haiti, including prominent businesspeople, would ideally precede the arrival of foreign troops and establish clear parameters for their mission. But dialogue between the government and the Montana group has gone nowhere. Henry has refused to reach a compromise on changes to Haiti’s system of government, a core demand from the opposition, and representatives of the Montana group have remained steadfast in their demand that the prime minister—who they say was involved in the killing of president Moïse (no charges against him have been brought forward) and is emblematic of Haiti’s disgraced and corrupt political system—should resign first.
Key figures in the opposition think that Henry’s hold on power is feeble and are hoping he will be forced to resign soon. The arrival of foreign troops, which could give the country some respite, could nevertheless end up strengthening the prime minister’s hand. Possibly emboldened by that prospect, Henry still has not presented evidence of progress in negotiations with the opposition although the UN Security Council explicitly asked him to do so by October 17. At the same time, almost no one in the political elite can now claim a constitutional mandate: the sole remaining legitimately elected officials in the whole of Haiti—a rump group of ten senators—will see their terms expire in January.
The ways in which foreign troops might cooperate with the national police, and their engagement with civilians, present another major hurdle. Gangs thrive in poor, densely populated urban areas, where they operate as local patrons and recruit unemployed young men. As foreign and Haitian forces seek to clear gangs from the country’s economic lifelines such as roads, ports, and centers of commerce, they would inevitably come face to face with the local population, especially if their operations reach deep into the gangs’ strongholds or if they face protests following the death or capture of gang leaders. An even trickier scenario is the possibility of popular demonstrations against Henry that draw on the active participation of gangs and perhaps their most visible leaders. How would an international security force react if, as has happened on previous occasions, gang leaders such as Chérizier, of the G-9 criminal alliance, or Ti Will, who commanded the rival gang Cannibal Army, are part of such a march? A clash that leaves civilians hurt or dead would likely trigger major unrest; the death of foreign soldiers could quickly ratchet up tensions.
Another daunting question looms over the future of any prospective mission. How can foreign powers design an international military force with a realistic exit strategy and avoid another long-term intervention? The immediate goal of the potential mission is ostensibly to secure ports and airports and build a humanitarian corridor to the communities facing starvation and cholera. But in his letter to the Security Council, Guterres envisions that this rapid intervention would need to be followed by the deployment of a multinational force to support the police. International partners’ reluctance to commit human and economic resources stems, in part, from the likelihood that plans for an initial six-month stint could morph into an intervention lasting years.
In addition, a law enforcement strategy, although urgent, will not remedy the deep roots of violence. According to the World Bank, Haiti is the most inequitable country in the Americas, where large parts of the population have no pathway out of poverty and where political and economic elites have long used gangs as private shock troops to defend their interests. Although the links between gangs and their patrons have weakened in recent months as the criminal groups have gained autonomy and more power, it is unlikely that the entrenched political powers will forgo violence as a way to defend their interests and privileges.
Despite the long list of challenges facing a foreign military operation, a handful of isolated voices in Haiti, outside Henry’s government, have publicly welcomed the idea of international intervention. While some Haitians who work directly with communities in peril say the public is coming to regard that as the only solution to their dire predicament, few are willing to speak up, certainly not on the record, fearing they will be accused of supporting Henry or, worse, sabotaging what many see as a unique opportunity to transform Haiti’s political establishment.
Steps that fall short of deploying foreign troops could no doubt help weaken the gangs’ stranglehold. The decision by the United States and Canada to sanction not only gang leaders but also important political figures such as former President Michel Martelly and the President of the Senate Joseph Lambert has shaken Haiti’s elites and could slow down, at least momentarily, the flow of resources to the criminal groups. Efforts by the United States to stop the trafficking of arms and ammunition to the country by controlling shipments to Haitian ports would weaken gangs’ firepower.
As helpful as these measures could be, a quick military deployment that facilitates the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian assistance is most likely the only approach that would bring immediate relief. This would mean securing all airports and ports and creating humanitarian corridors to communities direly in need of fuel, medicine, and provisions. It would also entail opening the roads connecting Port-au-Prince with the rest of the country, so that aid that arrives in the capital can be distributed nationwide.
Although the needs are desperate, Ottawa and other capitals are understandably hesitant to step in to meet them. Without some common ground established between Henry and those who oppose him, foreign troops risk arriving to immediate battle with nimble criminal groups—at the invitation of a weak leader whose hold on power remains dubious—and encouraging public perceptions that they are simply the new face of the colonialism that has inflicted so much harm on the Caribbean nation. If the Haitian leaders cannot bring themselves to sit at the negotiating table, 2023 will likely be another year marked by violence, desperation, and chaos.
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