By Catherine Charlemagne, Haiti Liberté, April 24, 2019
The Haitian paradox is being pushed to the extreme. The capital, Port-au-Prince, should be Haiti’s safest city. Instead, it is the most dangerous with armies of gangs taking its population hostage.
Worse, the Bicentennial district, along the city’s waterfront, should, according to all logic, be a kind of “No Man’s Land” or “Forbidden City” for armed gangs. But it remains the capital’s most threatened territory, controlled from one end to the other by “warlords” who sow terror day and night on everything that moves. Even stray dogs do not dare venture at a certain time in this district, which has the honor to house the Parliament, the Prime Minister’s office, and so many other public and private institutions. This territory offers no guarantee of getting out alive if a gang leader decides to mount a punitive operation against a rival or just wants to have fun shooting in all directions.
Paradoxical indeed, as it turns out that Port-au-Prince’s Bicentennial district has many more police officers per square meter than any other place in the country. Even the immediate area around the National Palace, with the Interior Ministry, and the Palace of the Supreme Court concentrates as many police and security agents, so this small perimeter become a true triangle of death. In this curious and singular country, everything is paradoxical. If one wants to protect oneself, it is better to live in neighborhoods where there are fewer public institutions, synonymous today with bait to attract prey for bandits and murderers. The Bicentennial district is, since the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, the nerve center of Haitian power.
With the Prime Minister’s office (Primature), the seat of government, now occupying the former premises of the U.S. Embassy, the Bicentennial receives many more officials and foreign visitors than the Champ de Mars, surprising as it may seem. With the Primature’s relocation to the Bicentennial district, this district is also home to the headquarters of the Superior Council of the National Police (CSPN), whose chief is the President.
Not a day or a night goes by without the government’s headquarters being visited by a large number of senior national police officers and other Haitian public security officials. In addition to the almost daily presence of Prime Minister Lapin in this place as head of government, he receives on a regular basis a considerable number of ministers, secretaries of state, senior state officials, and other personalities.
In short, the Bicentennial district in any other country, even with our Dominican neighbors, would have been a neighborhood where safety would be the government’s first concern. And yet!
The Bicentennial district, long before the Primature’s arrival, was where the Haitian Parliament was historically based. The building that housed the Legislative Palace before its collapse in the 2010 earthquake was one of the pavilions of the 1949 World’s Fair for the Bicentenary of Port-au-Prince’s founding in 1749. After 1949, just like the Foreign Affairs Ministry which was housed in another Pavilion, the Haitian Parliament took its seat in this district that was once the pride of Haitians in general and Port-au-Prince residents in particular.
Since that time, Haitian parliamentarians have never left this neighborhood. After the 2010 disaster, senators and deputies settled for a short time in Pétion-Ville. More exactly at the Police Academy, on the Frères Road. It was a short exile. Far from their usual base, the parliamentarians found themselves cut off from any contact with the population. Very soon, the officials of the United Nations Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) would make “provisionally” available to parliamentarians prefabricated buildings in their historic district, the Bicentenary.
Since then, what should have been temporary, continues. Nine years later, the Haitian Parliament is still installed in their prefabricated seaside buildings, some of which are in a pitiful state, not to mention the immediate area around them. The buildings’ parking lot and courtyards have been transformed into a pigsty. But that does not seem to worry or disturb our parliamentarians too much. If cleanliness and hygiene do not seem to be the first priority of our elected officials, they should be big enough to understand that their health depends on it.
But the phenomenon of insecurity interests us insofar as the entire population is the victim of the State’s incapacity to protect its citizens, especially the Bicentennial’s residents. They must wonder what harm they have done to pay this price for the failure and bankruptcy of their rulers for more than 30 years.
With the return of parliamentarians to the Bicentennial district, a whole contingent of police and security guards invaded this territory. Parliament as an institution has its own security guards to protect the various buildings day and night. Then you have to count the number of senators and MPs to understand that by day inside the Parliament’s precincts there is an entire army present. In today’s Haitian system, parliamentarians tend to overprotect themselves. In addition to the official protection of at least one or two police officers per elected official, some senators and deputies also have two other private security agents who follow them everywhere, especially when they know they have to cross the whole Bicentennial district to enter the Parliament area. Armed to the teeth, the police and security guards who protect parliamentarians alone constitute a real armed force crisscrossing this territory practically every day.
Yet, Bicentennial insecurity is a daily and permanent affair. Neither the Prime Minister’s presence nor that of the Presidents of both Houses at the Bicentennial, with their garrisons of security forces, has helped to improve security. The seat of government is a few meters from that of Parliament. In this rather small perimeter, there are police everywhere, going back and forth between the various institutions and administrations that have always been in the Bicentennial. The problem is that they are well hidden inside the official vehicles with tinted windows in order to protect their occupants. Moreover, it is not only the Prime Minister’s and parliamentary Presidents’ offices that allow the continued presence of police in this district.
There is also the headquarters of the Port-au-Prince Customs, the capital’s City Council, an annex of the Archives, the headquarters of the Central Bank of Haiti (BRH), which is also not far from the Primature.
All these very sensitive institutions, given their mission, abound with policemen and security guards who monitor them 24 hours a day, whether indoors or outdoors. Of course, we do not forget the Port-au-Prince Palace of Justice and the Prosecutor’s office which was installed (since the destruction of the original Palace of Justice during the 2010 earthquake) in the former luxury hotel Beau-Rivage, which had become the USAID headquarters in Haiti.
However, the Bicentennial remains dangerous for all those who frequent it whatever the time and the day. Nobody is safe in this area. The most comical or saddest part of this story is that even these high places of justice have sometimes remained closed due to insecurity in the area. How many times, parliamentarians are also attacked or their vehicles are riddled with bullets by thugs who will stop at nothing when the urge takes them to sow panic or even death? Several times, the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies could not meet as a security measure.
Gang leaders’ automatic weapons, the settling of accounts between all kinds of traffickers, and this, in broad daylight, constitute life’s daily lot for the inhabitants and employees of this Bicentennial quarter. In spite of enormous efforts and strikes carried out among the bandits by the national police, insecurity remains the biggest challenge for any government that knows that its first concern should be the population’s security against armed groups.
It is in this disturbing context and atmosphere that the Prime Minister nominee Jean-Michel Lapin appeared on Mon., Apr. 15 and Tue., Apr. 16, 2019 at Parliament to deposit his papers for ratification by parliamentarians. On his trip to the Senate on the 15th, he was able to perform this constitutional act leading to an invitation to come to make his General Policy Statement because everything was relatively quiet around the Parliament. But this was not the case on Apr. 16th.
Indeed, it was practically under a hail of gunfire from a ghost army that Jean-Michel Lapin entered the courtyard of the Lower House. It was surreal to see with what eagerness an acting head of government, even though interim, and his councilors rushed to enter the office of the President of the Chamber of Deputies to file the same documents that he had deposited the day before at the Senate. From the office of President Gary Bodeau, we heard the gunshots and bursts of automatic weapons that cracked not far from the side of the Croix de Bossales Market on the Boulevard de La Saline. In addition to this, the slum of Cité de Dieu is not far from the Prime Minister’s offices. Until the last moment, some thought it was a call to the arms by a gang leader or a new provocation of a rival band wanting to fight.
In fear, the police, the Prime Minister, and the other delegation members left the Parliament to return to the nearby Primature. Just before rushing hastily into his armored vehicle, Jean-Michel Lapin answered a few questions from accredited journalists, questions relating precisely to the insecurity that reigns in certain regions of Haiti and in the capital, especially the Bicentennial.
According to the former minister of ex-PM Jean Henry Céant, whom he is about to replace, “the country has developed, since 1986, a sort of banditry that has evolved to put the state today in front of a guerrilla force.” But, for the former colonel and former Secretary of State for Public Security, Himmler Rébu, this is not a guerrilla force.
According to this former colonel of the Armed Forces of Haiti (FADH), this situation is more like a “big mess.” Himmler Rébu proposes to the government to neutralize some 20 individuals (26 to be exact) to have peace. In an interview he gave to the newspaper Le Nouvelliste of Apr. 17, 2019, the colonel wondered about the origin of the weapons circulating among the armed bands. For him, only politicians and the business sector could have supplied these weapons.
In any case, this feeling of the political authorities’ helplessness alone sums up the whole paradox of this situation, which has become inextricable. Now, the one who was a minister in a government just censored by the deputies for not stopping the armed gangs and the climate of insecurity that reigns in the country was chosen by the President of the Republic to continue the action of the previous government. However, as outgoing minister and head of government a.i, Jean-Michel Lapin is co-depository of the government’s record which has been censored and co-responsible for this situation in which the population has been living for months.
In the event that he is ratified by Parliament, what will be his policy vis-à-vis these gangs, gang leaders and armed groups who openly challenge the public authorities and the police? The resurgence of acts of banditry, attempts to kidnap diplomats and foreign and local killings recorded across the country in recent months marks a turning point in the insecurity in Haiti? Faced with this incredible situation, the pluralist opposition, the human rights organizations, the religious sector and even the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner call on the authorities to act accordingly in order to put an end to what is already tragic for the population of some popular neighborhoods in the country and Port-au-Prince in particular.
The slums of Cité de Dieu, Tokyo, Wharf Jérémie, and, of course, La Saline have become open-air cemeteries as these neighborhood’s inhabitants live hell every day. Everyone remembers the hitherto unexplained and suspicious massacre of La Saline. The country is still waiting for an answer from justice on this curious massacre that the Democratic and Popular Sector qualifies as a State massacre.
Finally, the armed groups’ show of force witnessed on Apr. 16 not far from the Parliament as the Prime Minister was giving his papers, is this the passage to another stage of insecurity in Port-au-Prince and in the Bicentennial neighborhood in particular? Queries to which the appointed Prime Minister should soon provide answers if he wants to win the trust of his fellow citizens. But some observers have serious doubts about the means available to the Prime Minister even in terms of strategy to end Haiti’s insecurity. Although to become definitive head of government, he will not skimp on announcements and glowing promises to seduce Senators and deputies to obtain the keys to the Villa d’Accueil as a tenant by right.
In any case, following his statement and his term “guerrilla warfare” that the gangs are fighting against the national police of which he is the President of the Superior Council, President Jovenel Moïse has maintained a heavy silence. For a few months now, it has been embarrassing to see the incredible actions of gangs operating openly with the knowledge of political and police authorities. According to what he announced on Twitter, Jovenel Moïses said he instructed Haiti’s various security officials to disable the armed gangs that terrorize the population and threaten peace and public safety, without saying what measures the public authorities intend to use.
The future prime minister, whether his name is Jean-Michel Lapin or Pierre, Paul, or Jacques, will have his work cut out for him. For, the gangs, noting the bankruptcy of the state, have simply decided to turn the country into a haven for gunmen.
Posted April 30, 2019