The deadly consequences of the Biden administration’s policy of no policy.
By Amy Wilentz
Haiti is still in crisis. Out of the headlines, perhaps, but far from safe, secure, or stable.
In recent weeks, gangs have continued their slash-and-burn campaign, setting fire to whole neighborhoods, and to police headquarters around the capital and the country, including in the agricultural center of Haiti, the Artibonite Valley. Last week, gangsters ambushed and killed a contingent of three police officers in a southern suburb of Port-au-Prince. The gangs have some useful friends within Haiti’s police force (indeed, some gang leaders are former officers), and are often well aware of imminent police action.
Kidnapping for ransom is still the rage. From January through March of this year, a Haitian human rights group recorded 389 enlèvements (as such abductions are called in French), a 72 percent leap in the kidnapping rate when compared to the same period in 2022. Just in the last month, a Haitian American couple was kidnapped (and released weeks later after sequential ransom demands were met); two lawyers were killed; the well-known director of the television station Canal Bleu was taken; a doctor was badly injured during a kidnap attempt at his clinic; a number of adults were kidnapped together as they waited outside a school; and four or five businesspeople riding in a caravan on a major road were stopped and abducted. As I was writing this summary, the honorary vice-consul for St. Kitts and Nevis in Haiti, who also heads a plastic company in Port-au-Prince, was abducted with two other people in a provincial town. And the director of an annual Haitian summer musical festival that takes place in Miami was kidnapped, along with his driver, in Port-au-Prince, after attending mass. Reportedly, the kidnappers also attended the mass and took communion.
These are just the most visible of the most recent victims. A whole class of professional Haitians has been targeted. Many people who could help lead Haiti out of its crisis and then work to better the country should peace be reestablished have either left Haiti or have been killed. Many others have been kidnapped and are still sitting in captivity in the shantytowns and elsewhere, awaiting their fate. Because of this violent brain drain, there are fewer and fewer left to pull the country out of the churning vortex into which it is disappearing. The kidnap victims almost constitute a government in internal exile.
It’s also important to remember that these gangs are not just gangs. They have been developed and financed by various politicians and members of Haiti’s “business mafia” in order to destabilize the country and allow a few very wealthy and corrupt businessmen to take unequivocal control of corrupt profit centers like food, steel, arms, and gasoline imports; the ports, customs, and, of course, drug trafficking and transshipment. While doing the bidding of their masters, the gangsters naturally also find ways to make money for themselves, which is why kidnapping and robbery have become so widespread. Much of the violence takes place with absolute impunity. No crime scene investigation, no arrests.
In what feels like a bold move, the gangs, especially one very powerful group called Ti Makak (“Little Monkey,” in Haitian Kreyol), have recently begun moving up the side of the mountain that rises behind Port-au-Prince. Having perhaps exhausted the ransom money available from downtown and its small, comfortable suburbs, they’ve infested the more sprawling exurbs where some of the country’s wealthiest citizens live, and where people previously thought that they were safely out of range. Suddenly, they’re not.
Whole neighborhoods have been threatened—as they were downtown in earlier spasms of violence—and whole neighborhoods have fled, leaving their property and their houses to the depredations of the gangs. Certainly, such people will be leaving the country soon, too, and all the business interests they leave behind will—if lucrative enough—fall into the hands of the masterminds behind the gangs. Those masterminds, many of whom also have houses in the clouds above the capital, don’t need the doctors and lawyers who’ve been kidnapped or killed. Instead, for such services, they go to Miami, where they have second homes.
Meanwhile, President Biden, who cannot really be said to have any Haiti policy at all, or at best a policy of no policy, has instituted a new “parole process” for Haitians (and Cubans, Venezuelans, and Nicaraguans), who now may request special authorization to come to the United States for humanitarian reasons for up to two years. However, in order to receive such authorization, Haitians must have a valid passport, and so many petitioners have flooded the downtown passport office—in normal times already highly inefficient—that it is beyond the office’s capacity to cope. Near-riots have occurred on the street outside. (The flip side of the new seemingly generous Biden immigration process is that any Haitian who arrives at an American border will be summarily deported.)
Notable among those trying to leave are Haitian police officers, who are for the most part undertrained, underpaid, poorly armed, and incapable of dealing with the heavy weapons and guerilla tactics of the gangs.
This is the country over which Ariel Henry, Haiti’s de facto prime minister, has presided since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, on July 7, 2021. During that time, he continued his predecessor’s dismantling of all branches of the Haitian government, so that Haiti now has no legislature, its cities have no mayors, and its highest court is in a state of continual upheaval—its eight new judges all having been recently appointed by Henry. Although you could call him a dictator or tyrant, he’s barely present, other than to name his cronies to office. He’s no Papa Doc.
Indeed, given his passivity and inaction in the face of Haiti’s current catastrophe, Henry seems little more than a seat-warmer. He might just as well be made of plastic. Yet for 21 violence filled months—as Haiti has spun further and further into an abyss of chaos and social disintegration—the United States and Haiti’s other foreign allies (known collectively as the Core Group) have continued to bolster Henry in his role as prime minister. The Americans have put their trust in this de facto figurehead to lead Haiti to democratic elections within the year.
Even today, Henry is seeking to put together an electoral council to direct those elections. This is—as almost any Haitian will tell you—a hideous joke at the expense of the Haitian people and the concept of electoral democracy. Very few voters will turn out to exercise their democratic rights for elections put together by the man who has not even tried to control a situation that has taken so many lives in the past two years.
Leslie Voltaire, a long-standing advocate for Haitian democracy, a former minister of the Haitian Diaspora, and a member of the Montana Accords group that is seeking another way out of the crisis, told me that “the current de facto leadership has essentially legalized the bandits right under the complicitous eyes of Haiti’s business sector, its religious institutions, and the Core Group, and has created an ambiance of terror that does not allow for credible elections. Nor does Ariel Henry have the credibility to organize them.”
At this point, there are very few ways for Haitians to pull themselves out of the crisis. “Pressure has to be put on Henry to come to the negotiating table,” Monique Clesca, an organizer and leader of the Montana group, says. “There are other scenarios, of course; the people can come out into the streets and just take over; things like that have been known to happen. But to me the only way out of the crisis is the negotiating table.”
The pressure she is talking about will probably have to come from the Biden administration. There have been several attempts to get negotiations started between Montana and other groups put together by Henry, but so far no talks have succeeded. According to Voltaire and others, Henry failed to send his delegation to the most recent round of negotiations organized in Haiti by Jonathan Powell, a seasoned British conflict negotiator who reportedly has US backing.
The Montana group is more than ready for such a process to begin, but Henry seems reluctant to open the organizing of the elections to anyone other than himself and his band of associates. Although Canada, part of the Core Group, has sanctioned many influential businesspeople close to Henry, the United States remains a stalwart supporter. It’s important to recall that the US had a hand in every step of the political trajectory that led from the mishandled earthquake recovery plans of 2010 to today’s chaos. By continuing to back Henry, “the US is holding 12 million Haitians hostage to the gangs,” former US special envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote told me. Foote resigned in protest against US policies in September 2021, after just two months of service. “We won’t admit we were wrong with Ariel Henry, or that the US has had a remarkably deleterious impact on Haiti each time it prevents citizens from creating and implementing their own solutions,” he says.
Perhaps when the time comes around for Haiti to recover the billions of dollars in reparations it was forced to pay France in the 19th and 20th centuries, it will also be time for the Haitian people to pursue an international class action against Henry and the United States: a class action to recover damages nationally for the mental anguish, lost income and property value, ongoing traumatic stress disorder—due to gang kidnappings, rapes, and murders—cultural disfigurement, economic disorder, and shortening of life spans that this era of American interference has made the norm in Haiti.
According to recent leaks from American intelligence services, the Wagner group of Russian mercenaries has been considering Haiti as a place to impose its ruthless brand of order. A few months before President Moise was assassinated, Russia’s foreign ministry tweeted that Russia was ready to help the Haitians restore stability and “train personnel.” As Luis Moreno, a former acting US ambassador to Haiti, recently told the Miami Herald, “The Russians, wherever they are, are going to take advantage of whatever perceived weaknesses they see and Haiti is a perceived weakness.” It would not be the first time the Caribbean became a proxy for the tensions between the Russians and the Americans.
Maybe this recent Russian threat will finally make the Biden administration see the light, nudge Henry out of the way, and work with the Montana group and others to give Haitians a chance to implement a homegrown solution to the crisis. The Core Group and the US imposed Henry in 2021, and now would be an opportune moment to use their influence in a positive way, by convincing him to bow out.
One somewhat hopeful sign is the UN’s recent appointment of William O’Neill as its independent human rights expert in Haiti. O’Neill, a former senior adviser on human rights to the UN Mission in Kosovo who also once headed the Legal Department of the UN/OAS Mission in Haiti, is both serious and highly qualified, and this move may show a new willingness on the part of the Core Group (of which the UN is a crucial part) to shift away from its ongoing support of Henry and his crew.
But any ploy is possible from the Core Group; its motives in Haiti have been opaque and almost incomprehensible during this period. It may also be attempting to surround Henry with plausibly democratic outsiders in order to allow him to cobble together another illegitimate election that will produce a head of state palatable—as Henry has been, with all his sins upon him—to the Core Group.
One thing seems certain: The time is growing short during which the gangs and their bosses can be contained and disarmed—if this can ever be achieved—through decent political means, rather than by using the brutal Salvadoran or Wagner model. Traumatized by the past few years, many Haitians are probably ready to accept solutions that earlier would have seemed abhorrent. They shouldn’t have to.