As Haiti reels from crises, U.S. policy decisions are called into question

Dessalines Day is a point of pride in Haiti, a time to commemorate the revolutionary hero who defeated Napoleon’s troops, abolished slavery and in 1804 established the first free Black republic.

But this year the Oct. 17 holiday played out like political theater of all the woes afflicting the nation. The acting prime minister was scheduled to address the monument commemorating Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ assassination just outside of the capital, Port-au-Prince. However, gunfire turned his convoy back.

In the absence of a government delegation, a police-officer-turned-gang-leader seized control of the ceremonies. Jimmy Cherizier, a masked man with assault rifles who goes by the nickname “Barbecue,” strode to the monument wearing a white suit and collar from palace officedom.

A man in a white suit and black tie pours liquid from a bottle onto a pile of wooden planks as a crowd watches

Jimmy Cherizier, a police-officer-turned-gang-leader, prepares to light a bonfire during a ceremony in July 2021 to demand justice for slain Haitian President Jovenel Moise, who had the support of the U.S. government.

(Matias Delacroix / Associated Press)

“Today the time has come where they have the ports and the tax offices,” he shouted. They are all millionaires. We’re sleeping with pigs. This is how the system is.”

Like dozens of gang bosses in Haiti, Cherizier is a product of the country’s fractious politics, and as has been the case for more than a century, those politics are deeply entwined with U.S. policy.

Since U.S. Marines first occupied Haiti in 1915, Washington has put its thumb on the balance of power, supporting the brutal Duvalier dictatorships dating to the 1950s and more recently propping up center-right presidents with little popular support.

The latest round of violent upheaval in Haiti is inextricably linked to Jovenel Moise, who won the presidency in 2016 in flawed elections and then proceeded to strip away institutions, rule by decree and — even after constitutional experts said his term had expired — remain in power until he was assassinated in July. He enjoyed the support of both Trump and Biden governments throughout the process. Gangs connected to Moise continue to operate in impunity, often using government vehicles. Robbery, rape, and kidnapping to pay ransom have reached epidemic proportions.

Preachers have been snatched during sermons, teachers abducted from classes and buses hijacked on highways. When a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck southern Haiti in August, killing more than 2,000 people, the rescue and recovery effort was severely constrained by the insecurity on the roads.

In one of the most brazen acts of recent violence, 17 missionaries from a U.S. ministry were kidnapped Oct. 16 and have yet to be released. The next day, the Dessalines monument was attacked by armed gang members wearing “Justice for Jovenel shirts” while their leader Cherizier placed flowers next to a Moise-framed photo.

A masked man in white T-shirt and jeans, surrounded by a similarly dressed crowd, holds up a framed portrait of a man

Gang members display a photo of slain Haitian President Jovenel Moise, who came to power in flawed elections and later ruled by decree, during a march in Port-au-Prince, the capital, on July 26, 2021.

(Matias Delacroix / Associated Press)

Cherizier stands accused of numerous crimes against humanity, most notably a 2018 massacre of 71 men, women and children in the slum of La Saline, a neighborhood that had been a seat of protest against corruption in Moise’s government.

A high-ranking official in the Moise administration, Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan, “provided firearms and [Haitian National Police] uniforms to armed gang members who participated in the killings,” according to a U.S. Treasury Department bulletin about sanctions for “serious human rights abusers.”

The question on the minds of many involved with Haitian affairs as the country falls into a deepening despair: Why is the Biden administration continuing down the same path that led to this point? “It’s not Haitians that have been deciding this mafia should be there holding out our institutions hostage,” stated Monique Clesca (a retired United Nations official based in Port-au-Prince).

Clesca is on the Commission for a Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, a 13-member civil society group that formed in March. It comprises church leaders, women’s right groups, humanitarian workers and lawyers.

“The U.S. is Derek Chauvin’s knee on our neck,” Clesca said, referring to the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of the 2020 killing of George Floyd. “Now we are organizing to say stop it, enough.”

In July, the group came up with an accord for a two-year transitional government aimed at shoring up security, healthcare and education, rooting out corruption and creating the climate for free and fair elections.

A man in a dark suit and tie, seated in a chair, is flanked by flags

Many are puzzled by the inability of Prime Minister Ariel Henry to attend an event honoring a Haitian revolutionary hero. His convoy was turned back by gunfire on Oct. 17, 2021.

(Joseph Odelyn / Associated Press)

But the influential diplomats of key donor nations in Haiti, led by U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison, in effect rejected that accord by backing Moise’s appointed prime minister, Ariel Henry, to lead the nation. Many are now questioning Henry’s power, as he is unable to attend the Dessalines Memorial, despite the support of the National Police.

” “Can this really continue?” Clesca asked. “Can you picture going to elections with Barbecue there?” That’s what’s being set up.”

Political and business leaders have long used paramilitary forces to terrorize opponents in Haiti, mostly in the capital and other big cities. According to Louis Herns Marcelin of the University of Miami, the practice grew rapidly and spread across the country under Moise and Michel Martelly (a U.S.-backed predecessor).

“About 60% to 70% of senators have their own gangs, and the oligarch families who control the private sector in Haiti either have their own gangs or have gang leaders on their payroll,” he said. A few oligarchs have been pulling the strings for years, controlling every sector in Haiti’s economy, stealing government funds, and exerting enormous influence over U.S. policymakers. They also have an untapped pool of young, jobless men who will do their bidding on the streets.

Democrats in Congress say U.S. support of bad actors in Haiti needs to stop.

” We have been stressing to all, even Secretary of State [Antony J.] Blinken that there needs to be a course change.” Rep. Yvette D.Clarke (D.N.Y.), cochair of the House Haiti Caucus said in an interview.

“While Moise was still alive we were very concerned about the propping up of his administration because the dissatisfaction was very resonant among the populace there.”

She said her colleagues are speaking with the administration and still holding out hope that it will take a new tack.

“Things can’t get any worse in Haiti. And we have an opportunity and an opening, given the level of crisis they are facing, to lead in this moment in a way that is helping Haitians come up with Haitian solutions.”

Criticism has also come from within the ranks of the U.S. State Department.

In September, Daniel Foote, the U.S. special envoy for Haiti, resigned in protest and released a scathing letter criticizing the Biden administration for supporting the “unelected, de facto Prime Minister Dr. Ariel Henry” over the accord worked out by the civil society coalition.

Decrying the United States for its long history of propping up autocrats, Foote wrote that what Haitians need “is the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering and favored candidates but genuine support for that course. I do not believe Haiti can enjoy stability until her citizens have the dignity of truly choosing their own leaders fairly and acceptably.”

“The hubris that makes us believe we should pick the winner — again — is impressive.”

He also condemned the administration for its decision this month to expel Haitian immigrants rounded up in Del Rio, Texas, where they had formed an encampment and were applying for asylum. “The people of Haiti are in extreme poverty and hostage to terror and kidnappings by armed gangs. They also suffer under corrupt governments with gang alliances. We simply cannot support the forced infusions of thousands of migrants who lack food shelter and money.” he wrote. The State Department declined to give an interview for this story. But Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said in a video interview with the Miami Herald that her main disagreement with Foote was over a proposal he made to use U.S. troops to restore security in Haiti.

” Our interest is that Haitians can decide their future in free and fair elections,” she stated. “We don’t take sides with anyone.”

Sherman pointed out that the United States had spent more than $5 billion in aid since an earthquake leveled much of Port-au-Prince in 2010. Many in the metro area of 2.6million have little to show for their efforts. There are few jobs, garbage piling up on the streets, and a police force that is not well trained.

A man in a white T-shirt and jeans has one hand on his hip

Patrick Colas, 58, had to send his daughter to the Dominican Republic because gangs took control of his neighborhood in Haiti and were threatening her and other women.

(Jean Marseille)

Patrick Colas, 58, said he recently pooled money from family in the U.S. to send his 23-year-old daughter to the Dominican Republic, as gangs moved into his neighborhood and threatened to rape her. She was beaten up,” he stated. “I had to get her out.”

As he spoke to The Times on a cellphone, he described a group of young men with rifles driving down the street in a white SUV. He laughed when asked if the police would stop them.

“No, no, no, no, no, no. He said that the police were only looking out for their own interests. “You just have to pray to God that you don’t get kidnapped.”

Nearby, Junior Frantz Cazeau, 28, sat outside his house on a bench seat that had been ripped from a car. He decided to leave after the earthquake. He said, “That couldn’t happen in Haiti.” “That couldn’t happen in Haiti.”

He got a visa and flew to Chile, one of 300,000 Haitians who fled the destruction for South America. After working odd jobs, he eventually found steady work as a disc jockey and sent money home.

Starting in 2020, quarantines due to the COVID-19 pandemic hobbled his business. After President Biden was inaugurated, Cazeau began to hear from his friends who had crossed the Texas border into the United States. Cazeau decided to travel to New York where he had many relatives. He took what money he had and began to take buses north. It took him two months to get to Del Rio.

A man in a T-shirt and shorts, holding his cellphone, sits on a bench seat ripped out from a vehicle

Junior Frantz Cazeau was expelled from Texas’ border. He talks on his cell phone outside of his Haitian parents’ house in Port-au-Prince.

(Jean Marseille)

There he found himself stuck, with hundreds of other Haitians. As U.S. border officers on horses round up Haitians along the riverbank, he watched. He said that he was eventually taken to a U.S. border agent on horses and told that he would be moved to a US city. He realized that they were sending him back home to Haiti not long after he flew.

“He said it was a lie.

Now he can only hustle to get food and water from his friends that he helped. Inflation has made everything more expensive. A gallon of gas can run up to $15, if you can find it. He is afraid to walk on the streets because he believes that the returnees will be targets as they are believed to have money.

” “I’m going back to Chile,” he stated. “It’s my only option.”

Read More