The departure of Haiti’s last 10 senators could hardly be a clearer sign of the lack of political order in Port-au-Prince. But from the national assembly to the supreme court, the apparatus of democracy had already broken down. In the place of a functioning state has come something close to anarchy.
“The situation is unprecedented in Haiti’s history,” said Prof Matthew Smith, a historian of Haiti who joined UCL in London as director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery after many years at the University of West Indies. “You could see the country’s history as a series of crises with brief periods of hope and peace – but there hasn’t been anything like this.”
He said that the situation brought to mind a 19th-century Haitian saying: “Constitutions are made of paper. Bayonets are made of steel.”
How did Haiti get here?
What are the consequences of the power vacuum?
In the absence of a functioning state, it is the gangs that have filled the void. They are now arguably more powerful than government forces, with Port-au-Prince the centre of a horrific turf war that has seen prolific kidnappings, many civilian deaths, and gang rape of elderly people and children, a UN report says. “The presence of the gangs is the principle reason for the severity of the crisis,” Smith said.
Gangs have a longstanding role in Haitian political life, and have operated in tandem with political actors since the 1950s to intimidate rivals and deliver votes. Versions of those alliances are in some cases alleged to remain today, and there are suggestions of oligarchic figures with ties to the drugs trade pulling the strings – but “many of them are not affiliated to anybody,” Smith said.
“The international drug trade is a very important part of it, but that was only the beginning. Now gangs have secured their power locally, it is very hard to see that any more powerful actor can control them. The situation has dissolved into the incomprehensible.”
What impact are the gangs having?
There are almost 100 gangs in Port-au-Prince, many of them in loose alliances at war with rival groups. Gangs control major roads and draw income from customs, water and electricity distribution, and even bus services. Membership has become so desirable for some young men in the city that some gangs now have waiting lists for new recruits (PDF).
The country’s army – disbanded in 1995 after years of military interference in politics – has been reestablished but stands at just 500 soldiers, while police also appear impotent.
The ongoing violence has forced the closure of hospitals and has been blamed in part for the re-emergence of cholera, as well as fuel shortages that only worsen the crisis. Last month, the UN’s humanitarian chief Ulrika Richardson said that an estimated 155,000 people have fled their homes – almost one in six of the city’s population.
Is there a way out of the crisis?
Arguably the two most important steps for the restoration of order in Haiti are ending the gangs’ power, and holding meaningful new elections. For now, both seem a distant prospect.
One suggestion is the deployment of international forces in Haiti, an idea that has Henry’s support. Joe Biden and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau discussed the prospect of a Canadian-led force at a summit on Tuesday, with the US reluctant to send troops itself.
There is some support for such an idea: “I think most Haitian people would tell you they need intervention,” Pierre Espérance, the executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, told the New York Times in November. “They are tired with the government, they are tired with the police, they are tired with the gangs, and they cannot move around the country.”
Smith admits that he is deeply torn about the arrival of foreign troops. “For it to work meaningfully, it would have to be working with a very limited, clear definition of security, or it becomes occupation,” he said. “[They] would need to work with civil society groups on the ground before any force arrived.”
Meanwhile, as long as Henry’s power remains unchecked, opposition leaders appear uninterested in agreeing a timetable for new elections. With an intransigent leader and foreign intervention such a vexed question, it is hard to see Haiti beginning to emerge from crisis any time soon. “It’s heartbreaking,” said Smith. “It’s really difficult to see a way out right now – that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, but it is hard to see.”