What's behind the violent power struggle in Haiti — and what experts say Canada should do about it

Author: Editors Desk, Rhianna Schmunk Source: CBC News:
March 6, 2024 at 21:30
International community, including Canada, must be wary of past mistakes in offering aid: expert

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his home by gunmen overnight, sending the country into a state of emergency. The acting prime minister has assumed control, but with his term soon to expire, there are questions over who has the right to govern.

The power struggle that has largely paralyzed Haiti appeared to approach a tipping point on Wednesday as increasingly powerful gangs pushed the nation's prime minister to resign, in order to prevent what they called the beginning of a "civil war."

Gang leaders have attacked and seized most of the country's capital, Port-Au-Prince, over the last week. Heavily armed gang members laid siege to the airport, government buildings and prisons — including the nation's largest penitentiary, enabling thousands of inmates to escape. Schools and businesses shut down, while tens of thousands of people fled the violence.

The current impasse began after Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who has had Canada's support since taking office after Haiti's previous president was assassinated in 2021, was stranded in Puerto Rico on Tuesday because it wasn't safe for his plane to land at home.

With Henry stuck, armed groups have filled the power gap.

Here's what to know about the crisis — and how experts say Canada should respond.

Why is there a sudden surge in violence?

Some of the most powerful gang leaders in Haiti have said they are trying to bring down Henry, whose government has been widely been seen as illegitimate since he took power more than two years ago. Henry, who is also acting president, was sworn in as prime minister with the backing of the international community, including Canada, after the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

"People have been calling for him to step down since he stepped up," said Greg Beckett, an associate professor of anthropology at Western University who has worked in Haiti since 2002.

Haiti has failed to hold parliamentary and general elections in recent years, and there are no elected officials. 

WATCH | An expert breaks down the recent wave of violence in Haiti:


Diego Da Rin, an expert on Haiti with the International Crisis Group, breaks down what's happening in the country after anti-government gangs stormed a major prison.

The latest round of attacks began in late February after Henry pledged to hold long-awaited general elections by mid-2025. It also coincides with Henry travelling to Kenya last week to sign a deal expected to secure that country's leadership for a rapid international force to help national police fight gangs.

Louis-Henri Mars, who founded the Lakou Lapè peace-building organization in Port-au-Prince, said he believes the gangs made their move as a pre-emptive show of force.

"They've got together and decided they're not going to wait [for a deal with Kenya]," he said. "They're going to take up as much territory and as much reinforcements as possible to eventually resist whatever's coming in for them."

Haiti prime minister lands in Puerto Rico as violence descends on capital

Daniel Foote, the former United States special envoy to Haiti, said Henry now has little choice but to step down.

"There's no government to go back to. There wasn't a government a week ago, and there's no government now.

"If he goes back, I'm ... certain that he'll be killed."

Who is responsible for the latest attacks?

As gunmen began to attack infrastructure, Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as "Barbecue" who is considered one of Haiti's most powerful gang leaders, announced he would try and capture the country's police chief and government ministers.

Four police officers were killed when their stations came under siege.

Chérizier said last summer that he would fight any international armed force if they committed abuses, and he urged Haitians to mobilize against the government.

WATCH | 'I feel for them': Fears among Montreal's Haitian diaspora:

Frantz André, a spokesperson and co-ordinator for Action Committee for People Without Status, says he's received several calls from members of the Haitian diaspora in Montreal asking for help. Many are wondering how to get their families to Canada. A 72-hour state of emergency was declared on Sunday night after inmates escaped from two prisons in Haiti.

Other gang leaders also appear to be involved in recent attacks.

Johnson André, best known as "Izo" and leader of the 5 Seconds gang, appeared in a video posted on TikTok wielding a heavy mallet in his right hand as he pretended to punch his face with his left hand.

Izo's gang is considered an ally of G-Pep, archenemy of Barbecue's gang federation, but alliances have been shifting in recent days.

A report released last month by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime found that "for the gangs, the development of alliances is a fluid phenomenon."

A gang leader holding a gun and wearing a combat vest stands surrounded by masked gang members.
Former police officer Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, leader of the 'G9' gang alliance, speaks during a press conference in Delmas 6, Port-au-Prince, on Tuesday. (Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters)

It also noted how "only the most powerful gangs — such as Izo's or Chérizier's — are usually able to operate or profiteer outside their fiefdoms."

Barbecue is leader of a gang federation known as G9 Family and Allies, and he has previously launched powerful attacks that have crippled the country. In late 2022, he seized control of an area surrounding a key fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince for almost two months.

Why have the gangs in Haiti become so powerful?

An estimated 200 gangs exist in Haiti, with 23 main ones believed to be operating in the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince.

Up until recent years, they controlled some 60 per cent of the capital. United Nations officials say that number that has since grown to 80 per cent.

Haiti state of emergency in effect after police killings, massive prison break

Smuggled firearms and ransom payments to kidnappers have allowed gangs to become more financially independent. That has increased their power as the state has weakened, and an underfunded and under-resourced police department has been unable to contain them.

"Present-day gangs enjoy a much higher degree of military capacity than those a decade ago," according to the Global Initiative report. "This has largely been driven by the gangs' ability to acquire high-caliber weapons."

What are Haiti and other countries doing to slow the violence?

Finance Minister Michel Patrick Boisvert, who is serving as acting prime minister in Henry's absence, declared a state of emergency late Sunday and said officials were imposing an evening curfew to "take appropriate measures in order to regain control of the situation."

Haiti — a country of 11 million people and the poorest in the Americas — has long had close ties with Canada. 

Canada has sanctioned a number of economic and political actors it believes have enabled gang violence and corruption in Haiti, but balked at leading an armed international stabilizing force. Canada has been a part of such Haiti missions before 2004.

A man in a blue suit is seen gesturing as he speaks during a lecture.
Haiti's Prime Minister Ariel Henry, second left, at the United States International University in Nairobi on Friday. Henry was in Kenya trying to salvage the deployment of a foreign armed force to Haiti to help combat gangs. (Andrew Kasuku/The Associated Press)

Last week, Ottawa announced it would provide $80 million to support the multinational force to be led by Kenya, including police personal protective equipment and vehicles, as well as communications equipment for the police.

Beckett said the money "is a Band-Aid solution to a crisis that needs a structural solution, not a policing solution."

"Simply put, there's no foreign mission that's going to accomplish anything in Haiti until there's a political solution in Haiti that can bring that mission in in some legitimate, credible way."

Foote said the international community needs to let Haiti broker its own political situation.

"The international community needs to worry ... more about empowering ancient society to lay a political foundation for the future. They haven't been able to do that since they were independent in 1804.

"If the international community makes their decisions again this time, the results will be equally catastrophic than we're seeing today."

WATCH | Foote says international community cannot repeat past mistakes when working with Haiti: 

Dan Foote, the former U.S. special envoy to Haiti, says the international community must take great care not to repeat its past mistakes when addressing the turmoil in Haiti

Mars, the Lakou Lapè founder, said Canada also needs to plan for long-term social assistance to have a realistic chance at a long-term solution.

"If there is no restructuring of the presence of the state in the neighbourhoods, you're going to have new gangs popping up within the next 24 to 48 hours after any interventions," he said, "because you have thousands of young kids who are not doing anything — the fastest way to make a buck is to get into a gang.

"Preparing for the day after is as important as preparing for the day after is as important as preparing for the intervention itself. If not, we're just wasting money and wasting time and wasting lives."

The U.S. administration has refused to commit troops to any multinational force for Haiti to keep the peace, while offering money and logistical support.

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