Vincent Harris arrived in Haiti earlier this year to heal bodies.
Two weeks ago, the medical adviser for Doctors Without Borders found himself instead in the midst of the country’s war.
“There was a really violent clash between two armed groups,” Harris said this week from Port-au-Prince. “Unfortunately, the front line where those groups met was directly in front of the doors of the hospital.”
It was a battle between warring gangs in Cité Soleil, a notoriously poor and dangerous section of the Haitian capital. Errant bullets struck the hospital buildings, threatening the lives of sick and injured Haitians and those who care for them.
And it was the last straw.
Coming after a series of incidents in which medical aid workers and their patients have been confronted by Haiti’s rampant gang violence, Doctors Without Borders decided to halt operations and temporarily close the hospital.
“It’s terrible to have to admit that we were forced to stop,” said Harris, who has worked on missions in Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan. “Closing a hospital means that we are denying care to all those who need it … It’s a decision that carries heavy consequences.”
It’s scenes such as these, of a country on the precipice of anarchy, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces as he prepares to welcome U.S. President Joe Biden to Ottawa this week.
Among the many issues on the agenda is Washington’s reported hope that Canada will agree to lead an international security force to bring order to the country by reinforcing Haiti’s understaffed and ill-equipped national police.
The July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse set off a wave of insecurity that has inundated the island nation. Powerful gangs have been battling for control of the country and the Haitian National Police, lacking personnel and equipment, have been powerless to uphold the law.
Sending an army of international soldiers and police into the country is seen as the last resort for bringing some order and safety back to Haiti’s streets. But putting foreign boots on Haitian soil at the request of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, the country’s contested and unelected leader, will also heighten political divisions.
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg puzzle wrapped in a Catch-22. And while the world debates what should come first — democratic elections or an armed security force — Haitians have neither.
“We need to start talking about what matters to Haitians most. The first thing is security,” said Helen Meagher La Lime, head of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti.
Elections will come after, she told a meeting this week of the Organization of American States.
“Nothing is going to move unless the situation on the ground changes. Kidnappings are rampant. Sexual violence … is at levels never seen before, and rarely seen in any society.”
Questions of legitimacy
The heavy burden of leading an international mission has given Canada pause, and perhaps rightly so. The Haitian National Police force has just 9,000 active-duty officers for the entire country, down from 15,000 five years ago.
This week, Haiti’s Justice and Public Safety Minister, Emmelie Prophète Milcé, said the public should have no expectation of a timely police response.
“With this in mind, the population must stand up for itself,” she said.
Police officers hole themselves up in the relative safety of their stations. Some are deployed to VIP protection duties. There have been waves of desertions, most recently when the U.S. announced it was accepting immigration applications from Haitians with American sponsors.
Also, said La Lime, “they get killed.”
“Haiti needs force support, fighting support, to be able to show that there is an effort on its way to dominate the gangs. And if they can’t, then this country will just continue down the path of a failed state.”
Canada must also make political calculations in deciding whether or not to act.
Henry, the prime minister, has been leading the country since the assassination of Moïse two years ago. He is the one who first requested armed forces come to Haiti, but his many critics say he needs an election and a democratic mandate from the people to make such a request.
“The current government in Haiti is not representative of the population,” said Frederic Boisrond, a Quebec sociologist and author who established the YMCA in Haiti, his native country. “There is no one who is mandated to decide for the population. That’s one of the limits of a foreign intervention. There is no one who has the legitimacy to ask for it.”
Domestic factors will also play into Trudeau’s political calculus.
The UN mission noted in a recent assessment there had been an almost fourfold increase in the number of Haitian migrants detained upon entering the United States. At Roxham Road, the crossing point for asylum seekers entering Canada from the U.S., Haitians, along with Nigerians, make up the bulk of those seeking protection.
“The interest of Canada is that of the 40,000 people who entered Canada (last year) through Roxham Road, probably half were Haitians,” said Boisrond. “It’s clear that the security situation in Haiti means that we can’t send people back.”
‘A descent into hell’
Political strife, desperate poverty and shocking violence go hand-in-hand-in-hand in the Caribbean country that clings to its nickname, the Pearl of the Antilles, and its claim as the first in the region to throw off the shackles of slavery and French colonialism.
There is less to celebrate in the country’s recent political history. It was occupied by the United States from 1915 to 1934 and has struggled to attain any sort of political and economic stability ever since.
Military administrations bookended the 30-year dictatorships of Jean-Claude Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, known as Papa Doc and Baby Doc.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president, was deposed in a 1991 coup before being returned to power with the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994. His resignation in 2004 was marked by civil unrest and fighting which resulted in the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force.
The three-month military mission launched what has become the UN’s nearly two-decade presence on the island.
A 2010 earthquake, which killed an estimated 220,000 people, further weakened the country’s capacity to support the population and increased its reliance on humanitarian aid and international assistance.
“In the years that followed, with all the reconstruction efforts, some security and Haitian-led political leadership … there was a certain hope that things could be improved,” said Henri-Paul Normandin, Canada’s ambassador to Haiti from 2010 to 2013. “While things are never simple in Haiti, things were getting better.”
Moïse’s assassination sparked what Normandin called “a descent into hell” — a vicious circle of weak government and political deadlock that led to rising gang violence. This insecurity, in turn, further weakened the state and pushed the country’s political actors into more polarized and entrenched positions.
The UN reported in January that there had been 2,183 homicides in 2022, up 35 per cent from 2021, and 1,359 kidnappings, a 105 per cent rise from the year before.
These mounting figures sparked Henry’s request for an armed international force that was needed to prevent a humanitarian disaster. The flashpoint was the seizure by the so-called G9 gang of a major port and fuel depot in Port-au-Prince. It caused gas prices to spike, but also complicated efforts to respond to an emerging cholera outbreak.
Other prominent gangs are linked to politicians and entrepreneurs, while a “significant number” of the country’s police are alleged to be associated with Port-au-Prince gangs, according to the UN. When the gangs move in to claim new territory or to fight, local residents flee, resulting in impromptu camps occupied by displaced Haitians.
Ottawa initially showed some willingness to both help Haiti and assume a high-profile international role. A technical mission sent to explore the situation last October was followed by the visit of Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, in November.
“I think that when we looked at what was happening on the ground, we concluded, for one, that putting in place and leading a multinational force is a major operation. Second, that the chances for the success of such a mission are not at all obvious,” said Normandin, who is also a fellow at the Institut d’études internationales de Montréal at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, told Reuters this month that his forces were already stretched thin with plans to expand its presence in Latvia as part of a NATO mission in support of Ukraine.
“My concern is just our capacity,” Eyre said. “There’s only so much to go around … It would be challenging.”
Canadian diplomats and military planners will also be looking into all the things that are liable to cause problems for Canadian police or military deployed in Haiti: the likelihood of civilian victims; the rules of engagement for tackling gangs; and how to deal with eventual prisoners facing a dysfunctional Haitian justice system.
“From the start, there are political considerations and then the fact that it’s a major operation in which the chances of success are uncertain — and which come with a lot of risk,” said Normandin. “When I put all that together, I can understand the Canadian government’s hesitation to take up such a mission.”
In the interim, Canada has offered financial support and equipment to Haiti’s police force, including armoured vehicles (though the Haitian Public Safety Minister recently complained that delays in the receipt of 18 armoured vehicles have prevented the police from conducting anti-gang operations).
And Trudeau now says that the best way to bring lasting stability to Haiti is to attack the impunity of the politicians and entrepreneurs who control the gangs and other criminal enterprises who have taken centre state in the country’s crisis.
Before intervention, sanctions
Canada so far has sanctioned 17 Haitians, and is urging Europe and the United States to follow suit.
Among those sanctioned by Canada is former president Michel Martelly, former prime ministers Laurent Lamothe and Jean Henry Céant, as well as the former president of the Haitian Senate, Youri Latortue, who was described in the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables as “the most brazenly corrupt of leading Haitian politicians.”
Another sanctioned politician, Rony Célestin, “has used his political position to orchestrate the importation of drugs from Venezuela into Haiti, as well as the exportation of drugs to the United States and The Bahamas,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
And Celestin is reportedly under investigation by Haitian anti-corruption investigators over a lavish $4.2-million mansion purchased under the name of his wife, Marie Louisa Célestin, a diplomat with the Haitian consulate in Montreal.
Celestin’s wife transferred the property ownership into both her and his name in May 2021, several months after the purchase, according to property records.
It is a concrete example, perhaps, that there are no easy answers and no quick fixes for a country in which the roots of problems can be traced back decades.
A country where action — by Canada and the rest of the world — may be costly and carry a steep risk, but where the price of inaction will be paid in blood.
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