Gangs rule the streets of Jovenel Moïse’s Haiti

A demonstrator wears a mask during a protest to demand the resignation of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Wednesday, February 10, 2021. (Dieu Nalio Chery / AP Photo)

By Amy Wilentz, The Nation, March 22, 2021

It would be hard to argue that Jovenel Moïse, the current president of Haiti, has mastered the situation in his country, but in a way, he has. Though the visuals of violence and scenes of chaos argue against him, it seems that Haiti’s latest strongman can do no wrong grandiose or cruel enough to call his regime into question—at least not according the international community, whose nodding acquiescence, along with a king’s ransom in aid, sustains Moise’s hold on power.

Only this past week, he gave a nod to sending the Haitian National Police (PNH) into Village de Dieu, a shantytown controlled by G9, a consortium of street gangs who support the president and often have done him favors, in order for the PNH to be seen by the international community as clearing out the gangs. Instead, the police were attacked by a massively armed group; the officers were overwhelmed (including those in an armored vehicle like a tank) and viciously massacred. The tank was burned, and there were rumors in the following days that the regime was negotiating payment for the release of a second tank from the gangs, as if the tank itself were another victim of Haiti’s terrible scourge of kidnappings under this president, but only this victim was valuable enough to ransom. (It’s possible that some wounded officers were still in the shantytown, and that their release was part of the deal for the tank.) According to a transcript of their phone messages, the officers who died pleaded for bakòp from headquarters for about two hours while under siege, but no bakòp ever came.

At least four police officers—who also look just like the people of the shantytowns—died brutal deaths in Village de Dieu, and many others were injured. Schools then shut down in fear of what might be about to happen. A few days after the utter and very public defeat of the police squad, a band of armed men from G9 attacked the offices and garage of Universal Motors, which is run by a prominent and vocal critic of the regime in a business area of Port-au-Prince very unlike the shantytown where the police were ambushed. The offices were burned and many vehicles either destroyed or stolen, with seemingly no fear of arrest or prosecution.

The G9 origin story is that it was founded by former police officers and neighborhood people who were disgusted by Haiti’s ineffective security management, and who have now taken matters into their own hands to help shantytown residents and people suffering in poverty, doing food distributions and other community services. For the poor of Haiti, there is a certain thrill in seeing people who look like them, thin and dark, daring to go into the quarters of the rich, plump, and light-skinned to steal nice cars and motorbikes just like that. Gang violence, however, is so deep and ubiquitous now that every level of society has been affected, and anyone can be kidnapped or killed. Any house, whether a gated mansion or a shack, can be burglarized or burned. Any woman can be raped.

Rather than take responsibility for the deaths of his police officers or actually take steps to rein in the gangs, Moïse has had Carl Henry Boucher, the PNH’s police inspector general and a respected 30-year veteran of the force, arrested and imprisoned, held in solitary confinement before facing a judge who will present charges. Boucher, the sole person blamed by the regime for the Village de Dieu police debacle, now joins the other score or so of political prisoners in Haiti whom Moise has recently chucked behind bars to solidify his hold on power, although Boucher’s only responsibility in the case seems to have been to help direct a drone to monitor the site of the attack.

Opponents of Moïse are saying that the reason Boucher is being held in solitary—strange for an officer of his standing—is that he could testify about others’ involvement in the failed intervention, among them the director of the PNH who was appointed by Moise in November to replace a director he had fired. Another theory is that Moïse supporters orchestrated the disaster in order to convince friends in the OAS to intervene in Haiti with a military force, stabilize the situation, and help conduct new elections that will keep Moïse’s party, if not Moïse himself or his mentor, compas musician and former president Michel Martelly, in power. It’s not difficult, given the level of this regime’s cynicism, to imagine that the police team might have been deliberately sacrificed to make a point: The gangs are now in charge of Haiti. The 15,000-strong PNH is funded by the United States.

Meanwhile, Moïse is trying to orchestrate a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a second consecutive term. Could Moïse possibly do anything more transparent? A recent video clip of him with a roomful of supporters shows him posturing and cocksure: “No matter what elections are conducted in this country,” he says, “they will never take power away from us.” It can’t help remind you of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier telling a CBS reporter, “I have just been elected president for life.”

 

There’s a reason why Haiti is such a disaster right now—and has been for quite some time. Martelly and Moïse’s criminal political behavior has been supported and even encouraged and mentored by the United States and other foreign actors: France, Canada, the UN, and the OAS. While Haitians have plunged further and further into extreme poverty and insecurity, the corrupt and increasingly lawless governments of Martelly and Moïse have been financially sustained by three successive American presidents: Obama, Trump, and now Biden. During the trauma of the 2010 earthquake there, then–UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon named Bill Clinton as the UN’s special envoy for Haiti; Bill and Hillary Clinton, at the time US secretary of state, both gave media and electoral credibility to Martelly, which set the stage for Moïse’s election five years later.

Since 2010, Haiti has received five times more international aid than all other Caribbean countries combined, in part because the earthquake virtually annihilated Port-au-Prince. But as Warren Everson Alarick Hull, the permanent representative of St. Kitts and Nevis to the OAS, told a meeting of that organization recently, “As these requests [for funding] are renewed, we ask ourselves what Haiti has done with this considerable aid?” As in the case of Hugo Chavez’s PetroCaribe, a discounted-oil-based social program for Haiti (and other Caribbean nations), precious few Haitians have reaped the fruits of foreign aid. Indeed, no one really knows where all the money has gone, though some of the Martelly regime’s and its cohorts’ thievery of PetroCaribe funds has been documented. No doubt some international aid has gone from the pockets of the state toward funding the gangs, which Jacques Leon Emile, the president of the Haitian Association for Memory and Culture, recently called “the armed wing of the political authorities.”

While the Moise regime has further impoverished the Haitian people, and caused the usual exodus of those who have the means to leave, the gangs have been favored with all kinds of advancement, and huge caches of heavy arms—supposedly banned under a US arms embargo—as well as military-grade armored vehicles. After the killing of the police officers in Village de Dieu, the gangs divided the clothing, arms, and protective gear of the men they’d just killed.

To read the Biden administration’s State Department homepage on Haiti-US relations, however, is to have an Orwellian encounter with the absolutely unreal. The more the Martelly and Moise governments failed, the more generous the United States has become. The page lists all the money given in the wake of the earthquake, then goes on to say that nonetheless Haiti is failing. Here’s a typical quote: “In response to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Haiti and requests for international assistance from the Government of Haiti and United Nations partners, the US Ambassador to Haiti declared a disaster due to the complex emergency in Haiti. In response, the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance is providing one million dollars through the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to support the transportation of humanitarian commodities and staff for immediate relief efforts.” Translated into what Haitians understand this to mean: While the politicians and their flunkies steal international aid targeted to the Haitian population, and fail the country at every turn, USAID picks up the tab for the thievery and failure, sending just enough to keep Haitians from an outright explosive revolt.

 

Five days after the killings in Village de Dieu, the US Embassy in Haiti held a virtual meeting with private-sector representatives from Haiti and the Dominican Republic (the DR had previously announced plans to build a 234-mile wall along the Haitian border, à la Trump). After the meeting, the embassy announced a cooperative border initiative. “Amid the challenges of the past two years,” reads the statement, “this continuing dialogue has proved a useful mechanism to undertake collaborative discussions and realize tangible accomplishments. Participants recommitted to a set of focused priorities to improve the business climate, formalize trade, promote rule of law, and spur development along the Dominican Republic-Haiti border.” Remember, they’re talking about a country where you can’t go outside without fear of kidnapping, and where the police are paralyzed or in league with the gangs.

Soon after reading the embassy statement, I watched a Haitian video of what happened when the Dominicans finally opened one of the crossings the day after the massacre. In the foreground you see an orderly line of Haitians who had no doubt been patiently waiting to cross a closed frontier, and just behind them, in the street, is a mad stream of people on foot, motorbike, in trucks, some carrying goods on their heads, rushing to get through, running, while the narrator with his phone says, “They opened the gate. They opened the gate. Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic opened the gate. They’ll close it soon. They’ll close it in a minute. And you don’t need a visa. You don’t need a passport.” A few scattered gunshots ring out, unexplained.

“[Haiti policy] is something that we are very actively looking at,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a recent Foreign Relations Committee hearing chaired by Representative Gregory Meeks that provided real insight into the excesses of the current Haitian regime and situation. “I share your concern about some of the authoritarian and undemocratic actions that we have seen,” said Blinken. (Note that “some.”) Perhaps it’s difficult for Biden, an elected president whose free and fair balloting was grossly and dishonestly challenged by an unscrupulous usurper, to tell a president whose election and administration are being questioned for real and good reasons that he’s got to go. But if Biden could only see Moïse’s election for the farce it was, with a low turnout and fiddled numbers rubber-stamped by the OAS, perhaps Biden could get over his distaste for abandoning this president.

So far, though, it doesn’t sound as if he’s even moving in that direction. Here is his assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs Julie Chung, on Twitter: “We urge @moisejovenal to initiate dialogue with stakeholders, end political paralysis & hold free & fair elections in 2021.” All of Haiti is laughing at this, surely including President Moïse. “These people are incredible,” a Haitian friend of mine said..

It is sad to say that more than two centuries after the enslaved people of Haiti led a successful revolution against Napoleon’s army and gained independence from France, the country needs outside support to help move it toward liberty from its own leaders. But right now it desperately needs that support. It especially needs the United States to stop encouraging and then propping up regimes that foster corruption and chaos and lead at best to a violent and oppressive dictatorship—or, even worse, that continue the current corrupt chaos that makes ordinary life impossible. Here’s the message Washington is sending to Moïse: Only some black lives matter.

Right now, all of Haiti has been kidnapped by a small cabal of bloodthirsty, money-hungry, and immoral leaders of all kinds: politicians, officers of the law, businessmen, and gang leaders. The country’s being held hostage. As one recent tweet said in Kreyol, “The problem you’re trying to resolve in the Village de Dieu, its solution is in the presidential palace.” Until Moïse and his cohort leave, Haiti can’t move forward. If the State Department doesn’t know this, it’s just not listening. “Abandoned by the state,” scrolled the crawl beneath one video commemorating the loss of the police officers. It might as well have said “abandoned by America.”

 

Amy Wilentz, a Nation contributing editor and Guggenheim fellow, is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier; Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti; and the novel Martyrs’ Crossing; among other books. She teaches Literary Journalism at the University of California, Irvine.

 

Posted March 23, 2021