As gang violence consumes Haiti, donor nations — Canada included — seem reluctant to get involved

Haiti has been lurching from crisis to crisis for a long time. But at no point in the recent past — perhaps since the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake — has the country's plight seemed so hopeless to so many of its people as it does today.

'The gangs are even occupying the courthouse' — Bob Rae

Men salvage parts from a charred car that was set on fire during clashes between armed gangs in the Butte Boyer neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, May 13, 2022. Dozens of people, including women and children, have been killed in recent weeks amid new clashes between gangs fighting over territory as their power grows following the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. (Odelyn Joseph/Associated Press)

Haiti has been lurching from crisis to crisis for a long time. But at no point in the recent past — perhaps not since the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake — has the country's plight seemed so hopeless to so many of its people as it does today.

Caribbean leaders, traditionally opposed to outside interventions, are facing an influx of Haitian boat people fleeing what Bahamian PM Philip Davis calls "a failed state."

The Dominican Republic has deployed its army to the border with Haiti to prevent spillover from what its president Luis Abinader calls a "low-intensity civil war."

"We must act responsibly and we must act now," he said. "Thousands of people are dying."

The gangs that claim control over as much as 60 per cent of Haitian territory are killing hundreds of people a month.

Demonstrators march demanding peace and security in the La Plaine neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, May 6, 2022. Escalating gang violence has prompted Haitians to organize protests to demand safer neighbourhoods. (Odelyn Joseph/Associated Press)

Bob Rae, Canada's ambassador to the UN, visited the country recently. He told CBC News that he found "the gangs have taken control of much of Port-au-Prince. The gangs are even occupying the courthouse."

Canada's embattled diplomats in Haiti, under ambassador Sébastien Carrière, are sheltering in place at home as it is no longer safe to travel the streets of Port-au-Prince.

"The embassy is closed to the public and we are operating virtually via telework, managing the current crisis as well as everything else," Carrière told CBC News. "Streets have been calm yesterday and today but the big question is what will happen tomorrow."

No one is keen to enter the quagmire

Haiti was certainly a topic of discussion as world leaders gathered in New York this week for the 77th UN General Assembly. But there was little sign from any country of a willingness to commit to Haiti the kind of resources needed to restore a semblance of law and order to the capital.

And there was no sign at all that outside powers are ready to send their own people to reinforce Haiti's national police, who are frequently outgunned by gangs.

Haiti is no longer the world's top recipient of Canadian foreign aid, as it was a decade ago, but it remains the biggest recipient of Canadian aid in the Americas.

Among Haiti's traditional donors, only the U.S. has given more than Canada has since the Port-au-Prince earthquake.

And on Wednesday, Canada announced it would dispense another $20 million to rebuild schools destroyed in the earthquake that hit Haiti's southern peninsula in August of last year.

Canadian presence a shadow of the past

Canada also contributed millions of dollars this year to an effort to train and equip Haitian security forces.

"We led the creation of a US $30 million UN basket fund for security and are currently funding a third of it with more to come," said Carrière.

But Canada's human security presence in Haiti has dwindled to almost nothing. A nation that once had over 2,000 military personnel in its Joint Task Force Haiti, as well as about 100 police officers, now has just two RCMP officers in the whole country.

And despite the foreign security funding, the gangs have been gaining ground since last year — when Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his own bedroom.

Police carry the coffin of slain Haitian President Jovenel Moïse at the start of the funeral at his family home in Cap-Haitien. (Matias Delacroix/The Associated Press)

Moïse himself was deeply implicated in the rise of gangs like 400 Mawozo — which kidnapped a group of U.S. and Canadian missionaries last year — and G9, led by former police officer Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier. 

Moïse's Tet Kale (Bald Head) party has long used gangs as enforcers and ward-heelers in poor areas of Port-au-Prince and has allowed them to accumulate arsenals of smuggled weapons.

Many Haitians reject the claim that there is a battle for control underway between the government and the gangs. Rather, they see the gangs and the government as a duopoly of power that work hand-in-glove.

There is clear evidence of government collusion in some of Haiti's worst gang massacres, including the use of government-owned heavy machinery to bulldoze slum areas.

Prime minister seen as a puppet

To the extent that Haiti's ruling elite has now realized the scale of its error in feeding such a monster, it has tried to rein in the gangs — by raising the price of fuel (cutting off a source of black-market revenue) and by slowing the steady inflow of arms and ammunition through Haiti's porous and corrupt ports.

But gang leaders like Cherizier are no longer content merely to provide muscle and coerce votes for Haiti's rulers; he now has aspirations of ruling Haiti himself. And other Caribbean governments, anxious to deal with anyone who can slow the flow of refugees on rafts, have proposed negotiating directly with Haiti's gang leaders rather than its dysfunctional government — led by a man many consider a prime suspect in the assassination of his predecessor.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry speaks during a plenary session at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, June 10, 2022. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Acting Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry has failed to live up to his promise to hold new elections. In a country where almost all elected officials have overstayed their mandates, few citizens accept the Henry government as legitimate.

Many see Henry as the appointee of the foreign governments making up the "Core Group" of major donors: the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, the EU and the UN. His endorsement took the form of a tweet from those ambassadors withdrawing support from rival acting prime minister Claude Joseph, who promptly stepped down.

A 'new normal' of fear

U.S. President Joe Biden has seen his own envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, resign in protest over the president's support for Henry, and this week he received a letter from 100 different civil and religious groups in Haiti asking him to withdraw that support.

Under Henry's misrule, the letter said, long-suffering Haitians have fallen into "a 'new normal' characterized by constant fear of kidnapping and violence, a near total lack of accountability, and a growing humanitarian crisis on every front." 

Perhaps the only bright spot on the Haitian scene is the emergence of a new alliance of civil society groups, not linked to traditional political parties, that has proposed a transitional government to allow new elections.

A woman braids a girl's hair at a school converted into a shelter after they were forced to leave their homes due to clashes between armed gangs in the Tabarre neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, May 12, 2022. (Odelyn Joseph/Associated Press)

Their plan is called the "Montana Accord," after the Port-au-Prince hotel where it was negotiated. While several parties have signed on to the agreement, Tet Kale has ignored it.

This past weekend, Canada's ambassador met with representatives of the group. 

"Politicians are talking," said Carrière. "Hopefully, they will finally come to that inclusive Haitian solution we can all support and have been encouraging for almost a year now.

"Haitian politics are multidimensional, with alliances that shift like the wind during a heavy storm. But people are suffering, so they need to get their act together."

The intervention dilemma

Monique Clesca, a former journalist and UN official, is one of the Haitians who negotiated the Montana Accord. She is working to persuade others to sign on.

She agrees that Haitians need to find more consensus among themselves, but she said foreign embassies bear much of the blame for Henry's legacy of "death and desperation, illness and misery …  because they are the ones who put him there."

The Catch-22 that currently bedevils Haitian politics is that while no one wants to see more foreign diktats, the foreign governments are the only players with the clout to drive Henry from office — and foreign forces may be the only ones with the firepower to thoroughly defeat and disarm the gangs.

But few in Port-au-Prince want to see the return of U.S. Marines. Perhaps even fewer relish that prospect in Washington.

UN peacekeepers from Brazil in Haiti’s southern peninsula in 2016 (Evan Dyer)

"It is shameful to have to say what it is that I'm saying, but we are in a battle to maintain our sovereignty," Clesca told CBC News from her home in Port-au-Prince.

"Yesterday we were in a meeting and somebody said, 'You're talking about possible intervention,' but we have been under foreign intervention for a number of years. We are sovereign country but a lot of Haitian power brokers have ceded our sovereignty to foreigners, and so it is a very difficult, almost incestuous kind of situation.

"Canada with [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau, France with [President Emmanuel] Macron, the U.S. with Biden prefer to support somebody who is massacring his people, who is in alliance with gangs, who is driving the economy backwards, who is supporting corruption and impunity, rather than listening to the cry of Haitian people for democracy and for respect of their human rights.

"They wouldn't allow it in their homes, but they are allowing it here and they are pushing it here."

Hands off the steering wheel

Bob Rae told CBC News that Canada wants to break the old cycle of foreign intervention undermining Haitian sovereignty.

"We need to learn from some of the mistakes in the past, where interventions happened that didn't have the full support of the Haitian people," he said.

"The government is a provisional government and there are lots of people out in civil society who feel very strongly that things aren't going in the right direction.

"When your capital city is basically occupied by gangs of one kind or another, you've got a real problem. But it's not for us to tell the people of Haiti what they have to do and how they have to solve it. It's up to them to tell us how they think it can be solved and what more we can do to be helpful."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks as he sits with Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae at the United Nations in New York during a meeting of the Ad Hoc Advisory Group and Caribbean partners on the situation in Haiti on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Wednesday night at the United Nations, Trudeau echoed that new hands-off message.

"We cannot continue to see external elements, no matter how well meaning, try to determine the future of Haiti," he said.

"That is why the conversation we had this morning, amongst other things, talked about how we ensure that there is accountability, including for the elites and oligarchs who contribute to the instability in Haiti we are seeing right now, how we ensure we are there to strengthen civil society institutions and the police institutions that are necessary.

"But after many, many years and even decades of the international community trying to fix Haiti for Haitians, we need to make sure that Haiti itself is driving the lasting change that we need to see in that once beautiful country, that will be beautiful again."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.