Gang warfare, killings, sabotage in Haiti under an AWOL government
A National Police officer patrols an intersection in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, January 26, 2024. A court in Kenya on Friday blocked the deployment of a U.N.-backed police force to help fight gangs in the troubled Caribbean country. | Odelyn Joseph/AP

Reports have circulated of gang warfare in Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities and of killings, shortages, social catastrophe, and a government gone AWOL.  Also entering the news cycle was the UN Security Council’s approval in October 2023 of plans for troops from nine nations, other than the United States, to jointly occupy Haiti.

The U.S. Defense Department had arranged for 1000 Kenyan troops to lead the multi-national force. The international force did not arrive in Haiti pending a decision of Kenya’s High Court on Kenyan forces serving overseas. On January 26, that court prohibited the deployment, and plans for the international force are in disarray.

Less is known about U.S. planning on Haiti that takes into account the most acute of Haiti’s intractable problems. There are the well-known ones, but also political corruption, business-class financing of gangs, U.S. supply of weapons for the gangs, a government headed by the unelected and widely-reviled Aaron Henry, no workable plans for a transition government, and the murky circumstances of president Jovenel Moise’s murder in July 2021.

The U.S. government in April 2022 announced that a new relationship with Haiti was in the works. The description relies on generalities such as: “a long-term, holistic view,” “forward-thinking rather than reactive mindset,” “seeking innovation while scaling success,” and “prioritizing locally driven solutions.”

The statement offers ideas on ways to implement guidelines from the Global Fragility Act (GFA) of 2019. That legislation sets forth concepts informing a new U.S. strategy for dealing with nine troubled countries in the Global South. Haiti is the only one in the Western Hemisphere.

It’s a “comprehensive, integrated, ten-year strategy” for achieving “the stabilization of conflict-affected areas,” and with the purpose of “strengthen[ing] the capacity of the United States to be an effective leader of international efforts to prevent extremism and violent conflict.”

Another statement, also released in April 2022, is about overall GFA implementation, not specific to Haiti The GFA would “build peace across divided communities, leverage and enable societal resiliencies … anchor interventions in communities … [and be] informed by the insights of expert practitioners and academics.”  The United States is seeking “true mutual partners and [would] commit to multilateral solutions.”

The GFA represents for Haiti “a repackaging” of U.S. interventionist policies.” Analyst Travis Ross also suggests that U.S. troops would encounter “fiercer resistance than they did in their 1915, 1994, and 2004 interventions.”

The package is new, but substance is scarce. Specific objectives and precise methods for influencing affairs inside Haiti are lacking. There’s no mention of military and/or police action. Policymakers’ hesitation may be due in part to the ill-defined, if tumultuous, nature of difficulties they anticipate.

Loose cannon

Guy Philippe may be a case in point. The former narco-trafficker, imprisoned in the United States for money laundering since 2017, finished his term and returned to Haiti in November 2023. He has been touring Haiti’s cities and towns.

He speaks to crowds about Haitians choosing their own government, building their economy, rejecting foreign oversight and intervention, removing de facto government head Ariel Henry, and restoring Haiti’s Army.

Heading a paramilitary force of hundreds, Guy Philippe’s destabilization campaign prepared the way for the coup in 2004 that removed the progressive and democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Trained by U.S. special forces in Ecuador, Philippe in the 1990s was a brutal police chief in two Haitian cities notable then for extra-judicial killings. In 2001 he organized a failed coup. Philippe ran for president in 2006, was elected senator in 2016, and heads his own political party.

Philippe has visited Haiti’s northeastern region, particularly Ouanaminthe, at least twice. This small city on the west side of the south-to-north flowing Massacre River, part of the boundary between Haiti and the Dominican Republic (DR), is a crossing point for binational commerce and for Haitians traveling to and from low-paying jobs in the DR.

A display case

The region is a display case for the hostility and racism experienced by Haitians in the DR. Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s massacre of thousands of Haitians took place along the Massacre River in 1937. (The name derives from massacres in the 17th century.)

Guy Philippe has joined the fight local people are pursuing with Dominicans over a canal for diverting water from the Massacre River into Haiti for agricultural purposes. The process of building the Pittobert irrigation canal has extended over years, but enthusiasm for completing it recently brought small farmers and agricultural workers together as voluntary work crews.

Although 10 diversion canals deliver water to the DR side, the government there denounces the Haitians’ canal as depriving DR farmers and nearby mines of needed water. The Dominican government, in protest, closed the border between September 15 and October 8, 2023.

Speaking “to a multitude” in Ouanaminthe on Jan 3, Philippe insisted that, “We can construct as many canals as we think are necessary. I come to salute the determination and the bravery of these men and women who say that we are independent and sovereign in our country.” Philippe was honoring canal workers and security officers who had stood up to Dominican troops entering Haitian territory on November 7.

The latter are members of the Brigade for Surveillance of Protected Spaces (BSAP), a police unit of 15,000 officers charged with protecting national parks.  Observer Kim Ives explains that “Guy Philippe sees a future for [the BSAP] as a sort of popular militia that can be a surrogate or support for the PNH (Haitian National Police) and Haitian army.”

The incident [on November 7] didn’t happen by chance,” opined a pro-Haiti commentator; “it’s part of the U.S. plan under the Global Fragility Act to set the DR against Haiti … to unite the entire island under a single government … [This] provocation by the United States, mediated by the racist government of the Dominican Republic, accompanies war and American imperialist domination in the Caribbean and Latin America.

On January 24, “sympathizers of the revolution led by Guy Philippe” filled the streets of Ouanaminthe, according to a report. They attacked banks and public offices and demanded protection for a BSAP leader.

Taken as a whole, the account offered here is of a U.S. response to Haiti’s extreme difficulties that, apart from charitable sentiments, is directionless, lacking in specifics, and incomplete. As a dispensation from on high, it represents a kind of noblesse oblige.

Either the U.S. government is turning away from Haiti’s affairs – not bad news – or has other, unknown plans for Haiti, which is more likely. The U.S. commercial and investing class will undoubtedly be weighing in.

From that quarter may come concern about lost opportunity in allowing  Haitians alone to decide what happens with deposits of gold and other minerals worth $20 billion. They lie in the mountainous areas of northern Haiti, not far from the Massacre River.

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W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.