Haiti’s Dangerous Crossroads

As Haiti veers from its constitutional path and armed gangs compete for power, its civil society persists in spite of the odds

Haiti’s Dangerous Crossroads
People walk on the deserted road ahead of gang shootings in downtown in Port-au-Prince, on December 20, 2019/ Chandan Khanna/ AFP/ Getty Images

At the end of November, a curious decree was published in Le Moniteur, the official journal of Haiti’s government. The edict announced the creation of a new security service, the Agence nationale d’intelligence (ANI). Answerable only to the president and immune from criminal charges without presidential approval, the ANI’s anonymous agents will be tasked with the “monitoring of individuals and groups liable to resort to violence and to undermine national security and social peace.”

A Caribbean nation of 11 million, sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, Haiti has rarely known a period free of political tumult in its 217-year history. The country was forged in the fires of the world’s only successful slave revolt. Marginalized by outside nations aghast at the thought of a Black republic, bedeviled by internecine political wars and repeated outside meddling (including a 1915 to 1934 military occupation by the United States), this nation of what the Haitian author Lyonel Trouillot called “the children of heroes” has not had an easy path.

Few periods, however, have been as tumultuous as the last year, as President Jovenel Moïse, in office since February 2017, has squared off against a fractious opposition that has thrown everything they have at him to drive him from power, without apparent effect.

From Haiti’s mist-shrouded mountains to its lush rice fields to its glistening tropical beaches, warring politicians now battle in a landscape of competing armed groups. The criminality and economic anguish they stalk are far from natural occurrences like the hurricanes that occasionally batter Haiti’s shores; they have been created by powerful people both within and beyond its borders.

Moïse, an agribusinessman known locally as Nèg Bannann (The Banana Man), won the presidency by gaining 55.60% of the vote in a crowded field in a November 2016 contest marked by feeble participation. The opposition’s earlier promise to wait for voters with “machetes and stones in hand” likely did not help turnout. With the vote overseen by an interim president and political rival — former senator Jocelerme Privert — it was the second attempt at holding a presidential ballot after the first attempt was shelved due to violence and allegations of fraud.

Running as the candidate for the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK) developed by former president and carnival singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, Moïse promised an aggressive infrastructure program to help revive Haiti’s economy, still struggling from January 2010’s devastating earthquake.

Despite the construction of miles of roads and the beginnings of an effort to restructure Haiti’s faltering energy grid, the reality has turned out somewhat differently. Moïse has been dogged by allegations of corruption related to his business dealings before becoming president. A 600-page audit of the Venezuelan low-cost oil program known as PetroCaribe claimed that firms linked to Moïse took part in an embezzlement scheme. Since 2018, a civil society movement under the slogan Kot kòb PetroCaribe a? (“Where is the PetroCaribe money?”) has demanded accountability for the funds, an end to corruption, and other government abuses.

Moïse denied links to the scandal and called on the Organization of American States to investigate, while frequently assailing what he charges is the “state capture” of Haiti’s resources by corrupt business elites and their political allies. Earlier this year, a government anti-corruption task force published a report which concluded that, between March 2019 and May 2020 alone, private oil companies operating in Haiti made $94 million in undue profits at the expense of the state.

After all eight members of Haiti’s Conseil électoral provisoire (CEP) resigned last July, Moïse created a new electoral council and unilaterally named its members. Many have been tasked with organizing local and federal elections and overseeing a commission to re-write Haiti’s often-criticized 1987 constitution. The new document is slated to be approved by a plebiscite, a move that left many stunned.

The president’s actions are “totally, wholly, bluntly unlawful,” says Georges Michel, a Haitian historian and constitutional expert. “It is a move towards arbitrary rule and dictatorship.”

Reached for comment, Haiti’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Claude Joseph said that the changes were needed, noting — correctly — that presidents have been left to govern by decree several times in recent years as legislative elections failed to occur on time. Joseph went on to say, “President Moïse has been absolutely clear that he will not stand for a second term. These reforms will serve no benefit to him but will pave the way for a functioning democratic government in Haiti.”

In fairness, Moïse’s aberrant actions have been equaled if not exceeded by those of his political opposition, a different breed entirely from his civil society opponents. They are a collection of men — for they are almost all men — who have developed reputations for themselves at home often at odds with how they wish to be perceived abroad.

Before the terms of most of its members expired in January, Haiti’s parliament was regularly unable to reach quorum because its members didn’t show up for work. In May 2019, rather than allow a vote on Moïse’s designate for interim prime minister, a group of opposition senators led by Antonio “Don Kato” Cheramy, a former rapper turned politician, destroyed the meeting room. After Moïse nominated a Ministry of Finance official for the same post four months later, opposition politicians, again led by Don Kato, once more vandalized the parliamentary meeting hall. One of the president’s fiercest critics, the former senator Moïse Jean-Charles, recently demonstrated in front of the U.S. Embassy — a favorite target of opposition ire — and vowed to “dismantle this political class to make room for a new dynamic carried by young people.” This promise might have sounded more convincing were it not coming from a 53-year-old man who has not had a job outside of politics since the mid-1990s. In late 2019, an opposition-led armed strike forced the country to a standstill for weeks, further wounding an already grievously ill economy and achieving virtually nothing.

Another of Moïse’s many recent decrees seeks to classify protest strategies such as reducing freedom of movement on public roads as “terrorist acts,” punishable by up to 50 years in prison.

With many of their own families living safely abroad, Haiti’s political operators appear to hold fast to Satan’s maxim in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: It is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

As all of this goes on, Haiti’s security situation has disintegrated

As all of this goes on, Haiti’s security situation has disintegrated. In the space of a few days, kidnappers seized a young doctor from the Hôpital de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti, a well-known guitarist from the group Strings, and the wife of the head of the Unité de sécurité générale du palais national (USGPN), the police unit directly responsible for the president’s personal security. Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste newspaper recently ran an account of one kidnapping victim that detailed how kidnappers possessed “heavy weapons, dozens of vehicles and government license plates,” performed reconnaissance on potential targets’ social media accounts and were able to open the phones of their victims without asking for security codes. In August, Monferrier Dorval, head of the Port-au-Prince bar association and a well-known attorney, was slain returning home, one of several such assassinations in recent months.

This landscape is even more dolorous when one pauses to consider that, in just over 25 years, Haiti has been host to the Mission civile internationale en Haïti (MICIVIH), the Mission des Nations unies en Haïti (MINUAH), the U.S.-led “Operation Uphold Democracy” in 1994, and, from 2004 to 2017, the Mission des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti (MINUSTAH), which eventually became the Bureau intégré des Nations unies en Haïti (BINUH), which is presiding over the current implosion.

As the political situation in Haiti has deteriorated, the role of the baz (base) — the armed groups in the country’s most impoverished quarters acting as a kind of netherworld of neighborhood protector, tax collector, muscle for political interests and freelance criminal — has grown to ever more powerful levels.

The baz are descendants of other irregular paramilitary forces in Haitian history — from the zinglin of the mid-1800s rule of Faustin Soulouque to l’armée souffrante of the renegade general Louis-Jean-Jacques Acaau to the Tontons Macoutes of dictator François Duvalier. One can almost pinpoint when the baz, as a specific political modus operandi, overwhelmed Haiti’s democratic sector and began the slow, inexorable poisoning of its political system.

After returning in October 1994 from an exile during which hundreds (perhaps thousands) of his supporters were killed by the army and paramilitaries (some of whose leaders were on the payroll of the CIA), then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s first order of business was to disband the military that had overthrown him. He dissolved the military in April 1995 (which was illegal without a constitutional amendment, as the army was still enshrined in Article 263 of the Haitian constitution). With the creation of the Police Nationale d’Haïti (PNH) the following month, many hoped for a more humane face of public security in Haiti.

The PNH faced a rough economic landscape, however. In 1995, as part of an IMF and World Bank-sponsored structural adjustment made with U.S. President Bill Clinton’s support, Haiti lowered tariffs on imported rice to 3% from 50%, quickly becoming the world’s fifth-largest importer of U.S. rice. The backbone of the Haitian economy, local rice could not compete with cheaper American imports, putting farmers out of work. Those who fled the countryside to the cities found few jobs waiting for them, as the early-1990s U.S. embargo that helped drive the military regime that had ousted Aristide also wrecked Haiti’s manufacturing base.

At a January 1996 meeting between the PNH and a gang that referred to itself as Lame Wouj (The Red Army) in the seaside slum of Cité Soleil, a young policewoman named Marie Christine Jeune criticized what she viewed as the president’s attempts to co-opt the nascent police force by suggesting it join forces with pro-government thugs. Two months later, a month after Aristide left office, Jeune was found slain. It was the beginning of a pattern of the killing of police officers who would not turn a blind eye to illegal armed actors that continues to this day.

That same year, Aristide founded the Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family) party. In the years leading up to and beyond Aristide’s 2001 return to office, the party nurtured a network of armed supporters in marginalized communities. The network was referred to as chimere, after a mythical fire-breathing demon. Many of the leaders of these groups in Port-au-Prince had grown up in the orbit of Aristide’s Lafanmi Selavi home for street children. When I was living in Haiti between 2001 and 2004, a number of them became my friends. They would receive a little money for no-show jobs at state industries and, in return, were expected to enthusiastically demonstrate for the president and terrorize his opponents. They were in regular contact with the PNH. Almost none of these young men would make it out of their 20s alive.

Aristide was overthrown in February 2004 after months of massive street protests and an armed rebellion against his rule (a rebellion that began with the Lame Kanibal, a formerly loyal gang in the northern city of Gonaïves). After that, the young gunmen engaged in a brutal war of attrition against police, then under the command of Léon Charles (who would later be named as Haiti’s ambassador to the Organization of American States and was recently re-appointed by Moïse as head of the PNH), that became known as Operation Baghdad. Hundreds would die before some level of stability returned when an unelected interim government was replaced by René Préval, in his second turn at the helm of Haiti’s ship of state. Préval, between his inauguration in May 2006 and Haiti’s apocalyptic January 2010 earthquake, proved that he was Haiti’s wiliest and most able politician.

The only president in Haiti’s history who twice turned power over to a democratically elected successor, Préval – an agronomist by training – represented a figure in whom many sides of Haiti’s stratified nation, from the rich in their villas above Port-au-Prince to those in the slums, felt they had a representative. He managed to bring a measure of tranquility to the divided country, saying that Haiti was like a bottle that must rest on its broad base to be secure. If it rested on its narrow mouth (the presidency and the country’s elite), it would topple over and shatter.

When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, destroying much of the capital city and killing more than 300,000 people, Préval appeared at times paralyzed when faced with the massive task of rebuilding. After a fraught election during which the international community pressured him, and as with his 2006 win, street protests erupted when it looked like the leading candidate might be deprived of victory, Préval (who would die in March 2017) turned the presidency over to Michel Martelly in May 2011. Many among Martelly’s entourage, including some advisers, had either direct or family links to the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1971 until his overthrow in 1986.

Many foreign commentators on Haiti couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that a right-wing populist who had previously performed in drag and a diaper and had once released an album called “100% Kaka” could win a contest for the presidency. But the Haitian sociologist and former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Guy Alexandre, saw things much more clearly. He wrote that Martelly’s popularity was “explained by the frustration of the population and its rejection of Préval, who has not been able to manage the country after the earthquake… [Martelly] is backed by former Duvalierists and the youth of the popular classes for whom he represents a break with the traditional political system.”

A little over a year after his election, Martelly would form the PHTK, whose name — roughly translated as “Bald Headed Haitian Party” — referred to Martelly’s gleaming pate. Corruption and patronage flourished, and the PHTK would enthusiastically embrace the baz model, as had many other political parties as it metastasized throughout Haiti’s body politic.

In recent months, despite the revival of the Haitian army in 2017, two specific armed groups have risen to prominence as the government and its opponents prosecute their struggle for power.

Last year, while the government negotiated with the PNH over the police department’s desire to form a union, a gang calling itself Fantôme 509 (the country code for Haiti) and claiming to be dissident police began appearing at demonstrations. Though certainly dominated by current and former officers, there is some evidence that Fantôme 509 also struck an alliance with a gang operating out of the Village de Dieu slum. Appearing masked and frequently shooting in the air and at vehicles, Fantôme 509 is viewed widely as a wing of the opposition, and the rank-and-file PNH perceives the group’s members as outlaws.

On the opposite side is Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a former officer in the PNH’s Unité Départementale pour le Maintien de l’Ordre (UDMO) who went rogue following a November 2017 PNH raid against a gang in the hillside slum of Grand Ravine during which at least two police officers and 10 civilians died. Part of a larger neighborhood called Martissant, Grand Ravine is a known opposition stronghold. About to be arrested amid an investigation of the civilian deaths, Chérizier instead retreated to his home base in the lower Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. He was subsequently linked to a 2018 massacre in the capital’s slum of La Saline that a United Nations report said left at least 26 people dead (a report by the Haitian human rights group Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, RNDDH, put the death toll at 71) and during which the U.N. alleged involvement by two then-government officials.

Chérizier held a press conference last June, dressed in a suit and carrying a machine gun, during which he announced the formation of the G9 an fanmi e alye, an alliance of armed groups around the city. A month later, G9-allied gunmen held a public demonstration in Port-au-Prince during which police did not intervene. Though Chérizier specifically stated that he was not “pro-government or pro-opposition,” many see the G9 as the government’s bludgeon to clear out potentially troublesome elements from opposition neighborhoods before as-yet-unscheduled elections are held. Speaking on Radio Métropole last month, Moïse said, “I have no connection with these bandits, I do not distribute money or weapons to them to maintain order in their neighborhood.”

On December 10, Cherizier and the two officials — Ministry of Interior functionary Fednel Monchery & former West Department delegate Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan — were sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for their alleged roles in the La Saline killings.

Many veteran observers feel the dynamic in Haiti with the armed groups has begun to shift in recent years, with the politicians no longer holding all the cards.

“Many of the gang leaders are very aware that they’re being used, and they want to start doing things for themselves, especially when it comes to the next elections,” says Louis-Henri Mars, the executive director of Lakou Lapè (“peaceful community” in Creole), a group that promotes non-violence and dialogue. Mars is the grandson of Haitian author Jean Price-Mars, one of the founders of the négritude movement of Black consciousness and has been involved working with the most marginalized communities in the capital for decades. “You’re not going to become mayor if the crew don’t say yes, you’re not going to become deputy.”

Earlier this month, the eminent Haitian jurist & homme politique Gérard Gourgue died at 95. Under the Duvalier dictatorship, he bravely created the Ligue haïtienne des droits humains, and was repeatedly beaten and harassed by the tyrannical security forces. He was briefly a member of the military-civilian junta after Duvalier’s fall in 1986, and his likely victory in 1987 presidential elections prompted the killing of voters in what became known as the Ruelle Vaillant massacre. Still opposed to tyranny into his 70s, Gourgue was a member of a wide-ranging opposition when Aristide began his drift toward dictatorship. He was briefly proclaimed “provisional president” in 2001, leading the school he ran to be attacked by Aristide partisans as students cowered inside.

Gourgue was one of the last of the all-but-vanished generation of democratic activists that I met during my first trips to Haiti in the 1990s, notable for their intellectual brilliance. There was the economist, author, and political militant Gérard Pierre-Charles. There was the former head of the Parti unifié des communistes haïtiens René Théodore. There was the ex-priest turned human rights champion Jean-Claude Bajeux, who had lost most of his family to Duvalierist terror. All have since gone to join to the ancestors

It is not easy to find these bright lights in Haiti’s political firmament anymore, but if one knows where to look, one can still find them in the country at large.

The impoverished Cité Soleil is often characterized as a place of violence, but it is a community where fishermen mend nets by the glittering Caribbean and delicately-dressed schoolchildren skip down dusty streets as residents struggle diligently to better their lives. In such communities, one finds groups like the Sant Kominote Altènatif Ak Lapè and the Konbit Solèy Leve, which have tasked themselves to provide residents with a world-class library, which is already half-built. Further afield, one finds groups like the Asosyasyon Orijinè Granplenn in the northern community of Gros-Morne, which advocates for the interests of Haiti’s long-suffering peasants. In Haiti, even those with the most impetus to give up soldier on, often against extraordinary odds, chèche lavi (looking for life).

In an open letter in Le Nouvelliste published a few months ago, an eminence who even predated Gérard Gourgue’s generation, the 103-year-old author Odette Roy Fombrun, confessed to her compatriots, “I am sad to leave my country in tatters.”

She then went on to implore them to:

Rise to the level of true citizens by agreeing to make personal sacrifices in favor of the country, of political and economic stability, of the return to the constitutional path, and the strengthening of institutions. It is imperative to stop this descent into hell with the humility of each of us to recognize that, alone, not in small, dispersed groups, we can do nothing. …Wisdom and love of country require us to work together.

As they stand, daggers drawn, one hopes that Haiti’s political actors hear her plea.

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