Haitian Day of the Dead – First of November: for the year 2022, the party is not taken, the activities of the GEDE have not attracted crowds. Because of the different problems of the country, the groups, the people, don’t really travel.
In February, Inroads subscribers received our Special Report on Haiti. This had originally been envisioned as one of the lead articles for the current issue. However, with that country descending into anarchy, we felt it urgent to bring the deteriorating and desperate situation in Haiti to readers’ attention. We aimed to alert public opinion in Canada to the Haitian situation and Canada’s need and responsibility of to intervene. The article cited a recent United Nations report, followed up by UN Secretary General António Guterres, which concluded that only with the support of an international force could the Haitian police restore order, and that Canada was best placed to lead such a force.
Wecould not avoid being keenly aware of the situation. During the winter months, we are in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, just three hours away from the Haitian border. The Dominican Republic, faced with massive illegal immigration from the failed state with which it shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, has repeatedly called for international intervention.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with an estimated annual per capita economic output of $1,819 USD (compared to $20,625 USD in the Dominican Republic) has no functioning governmental, economic or social institutions. In the mid-20th century, the economies of the two countries were comparable. Since that time, the Dominican economy has grown significantly while the Haitian economy has shrunk. Haiti’s poor performance was due partly to external factors like earthquakes but also to incompetent leaders, especially the dictators who ruled the country for 30 years, voodoo practitioner “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son “Baby Doc.”
In 2018 we visited Cap Haitien, the second-largest Haitian city with 190,000 inhabitants, in the country’s northeast. We had hoped to return to Haiti once the pandemic subsided, but because of the increased risk of being kidnapped, we have not been able to do so. However, in Puerto Plata, we maintain regular contact with Haitian acquaintances who have fled their country and receive continuous news coverage about what is happening there.
The international press has drawn attention to the violence of the gangs that control 80 per cent of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area, where almost half of Haitians reside. There are frequent credible reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, serious abuses by the authorities, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture and physical abuse. The UN Integrated Office in Haiti reported that 51 people were killed during police operations from June to September 2022 and that rape had been weaponized in the gang wars, leaving no family untouched.
We had thought things could not get worse. But now vigilantism appears to be spreading. On April 25, residents in the hilly suburbs of Haiti’s capital, armed with machetes, bottles and rocks, unleashed their anger on the gangs. They took 13 suspected gang members from police custody and, filling the tires surrounding the central square with gasoline, set them on fire. The mob lynchings have since spread to other areas. Residents in the communities where violent mobs are operating fear possible retaliation from the gangs whose members were tortured, killed and mutilated.
What can – what must – be done
In light of these deteriorating conditions, a consensus has emerged in favour of outside intervention, even though opponents of unelected President Ariel Henry are justifiably suspicious that he seeks to use such intervention to prop up his illegitimate regime.
The need for outside intervention is made clear in a long December 2022 report by the International Crisis Group. The report also sets out the challenges facing any foreign military intervention. The question is not whether such intervention is needed but whether and how it could come about. Calling for helping the Haitians, as the Dominicans did after the last earthquake, does not win Dominican politicians any votes in this election year, but they know that it is in their interest to cooperate with any outside intervention.
There is no excuse, then, for Canada’s stance of excluding such an intervention. In early May, the new United Nations Envoy for Haiti, María Isabel Salvador, renewed the UN call for an international force to be deployed to Haiti to support the Haitian police in quelling rising gang violence. She warned that further delay could lead to a spillover across the region.
Learning from past failures, such a deployment must be planned in advance so as to be in a position to operate effectively in support of the police. The police would be provided with training and increased firepower to take on the gangs, which have obtained large quantities of ammunition and high-calibre weapons via arms trafficking. The prospect of high-intensity clashes in densely populated areas crisscrossed by narrow streets, often located at the heart of overcrowded slums where gang members and civilians are hard to tell apart, will pose many operational challenges.
Information making it possible to play off the rivalry among the gangs will need to be assembled. Clearly, such an intervention will have to be a long one, requiring renewal of the mandate of the “timebound specialized support force” called for by the United Nations Commission
Alternative institutions will take time to build; without them, the gangs will return once the intervention is over. Ideally, a first stage would reduce the pressure from refugees massing at the Dominican border, liberating the territory in regions closer to the Dominican Republic where the gangs are relatively weak. Here the democratic forces could begin the task of (re)building functioning political and economic institutions. This would take a seldom-attained level of trust between the two peoples sharing the island of Hispaniola, which cannot be counted upon.
Canada must take the leadership role. It has a large immigrant Haitian population. Quebecers, especially, have the needed linguistic skills (French is still prominent in Haiti). While the United States is geographically closer and more affected by the drugs that pass through Haiti’s long stretches of unpatrolled beaches (often in return, apparently, for lethal weapons), U.S. intervention is not, by any means, the best option. Given the past American role in propping up the Duvaliers, intervention led by the United States would encounter more opposition in Haiti and beyond, and thus make it more difficult to rally the needed international support for the mission.
The ball, whether we like it or not, is in Canada’s court, and it will stay there. Action will become unavoidable. We need to be prepared. Opponents of such an outside intervention cite lack of resources and note that Canada’s military capacity is already stretched. While this is true, priorities can change. NATO will certainly be able and willing to replace Canadian soldiers transferred from Latvia to the Caribbean. And other countries are ready to contribute personnel and money. It is time to take our government’s head, and our own heads, out of the sand.