Skip to main content

Haiti in Crisis: How It Got Here and What’s Next

March 14, 202422:27

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we speak with Jacqueline Charles, Pulitzer Prize finalist and Emmy Award-winning foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald.  She discusses the ongoing political and security crisis in Haiti. With gangs reportedly controlling large areas of the capital and the resignation of acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry, Charles examines the current efforts by the international community to create a multinational force to support Haiti’s security forces in their effort to reestablish the rule of law. 


  • This is an unedited transcript

    Hello, and welcome to Wilson Center NOW, a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I'm John Milewski. Today, we're going to be talking about the crisis in Haiti. And we have a terrific guest with which to do that. She is Jacqueline Charles. Jacqueline is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald and has been doing outstanding work covering Haiti for years.

    Jacqueline, welcome. Thank you for joining us. Thanks for having me. So a country that is a tough beat and in the last 24 hours just got tougher with the resignation of the prime minister, who couldn't even do good in the country. He's stranded in Puerto Rico, unable to get back into Haiti. Before we dig into some of the larger implications, let me ask you about what's currently happening on the ground, how much we know?

    Well, today, you know, the day after one, the prime minister announcing that he will resign once a new presidential transitional council has been put in. And this, of course, came hours after it was decided in Jamaica with the Caribbean community as well as the United States, Canada, France and others that, you know, we're going to move into a political transition in Haiti and it's going to look like this.

    We will have a seven member presidential panel with two observers. Still, seven members will have voting rights and it will be their job to lead this governmental transition to hire a prime minister to replace. Are you angry? And then together prepare for the arrival of a multinational security support mission and then lead the country to elections? So we've all been waiting to see what the reaction on the ground in Haiti is going to be.

    So far, it's relatively calm. I mean, there was some looting. Now, the day that the announcement was made, but I don't think it was actually related to the announcement. It was just part of the ongoing insecurity that we're starting to see in terms of the attacks that are happening on businesses and also key government infrastructure, the police and the Haitian army.

    They have taken control of the main port. That port has been under several attacks, though most egregious, of which is that it was ransacked and hundreds of containers that had just been sitting there. You know, everything that's in them has been pillaged. So, you know, how are the gangs going to react? They are not part of this new transitional council.

    They don't have a seat at the table. But what we're seeing is we're seeing reactions from Haitians both in Haiti and in the diaspora. I mean, they're like just a start. But a lot of people have doubts on whether or not you can run a country. Theoretically with seven presidents. Their concerns about, you know, the representatives that will that have been asked by CARICOM, the Caribbean community, to send names to them for individuals to sit there.

    They did put in some criteria. You cannot be an election. You cannot be a candidate in the upcoming election. You cannot have been indicted or convicted of a crime in any jurisdiction of the world. You cannot have this sanction that by the United Nations. You also had to accept, you know, this multinational security support mission. But also what's interesting is that there is no language in this about the U.S. and U.N. sanctions.

    And what I understand from people who participated in that meeting, that that was part of the debate. But there was disagreement about that. Some people wanted it, some people did not. Historically, how have gangs factored into this equation? You know, there's been a lot of focus on the armed gangs or armed groups in Haiti as of late. But the reality is that said, they are not a new phenomenon.

    It's just been a question of how much power they've been able to to amass. We saw this around the period of 2004 when we went through another transition with a bloody revolt that led to the president at the time, Sean Aristide being forced into exile. But then, you know, the gangs were just in particular areas. You know, you could still relatively get around Port au Prince, stayed in control over 80% of your capital.

    Today, we have gangs that control over 80% of our capital. You know, they were present when Rene Preval took power, you know, through an election after the end of that 2004 2006 transition. But you also had a United Nations peacekeeping force. You know, so, you know, they've been there, but being able to manage them. I mean, today you have a country where the president was assassinated almost three years ago on the 7th of July 20, 21.

    You had a complete constitutional void at the time that he was killed. He was ruling by decree.

    He had not had any election in four years. He was one of 11 elected officials. So what do you do? Well, that is the question is, is there a reasonable reason to be optimistic without bringing the gangs to the table, which seems anathema to setting up a legitimate government?

    You know, this has been a huge debate, de de political and street reality of Haiti today. Can it be ignored? Can you govern without having to negotiate with these groups or has the genie just fled too far out the bottle that cannot be put back in? One of the tensions of the last couple of weeks is that literally while Port au Prince was burning.

    The focus was very heavy on getting a political deal. When you listen to the statements from the State Department, in other words, they talked about the need to have some sort of a political plan for more inclusive government. I think what they realized, too, yesterday is that this is a very polarized group of individuals, is a polarized society, and people have very different opinions.

    And that was reflected in the fact that CARICOM and for one plan instead that they got anywhere between seven and nine, as I understand. And so the gangster don't have a seat at the table. Is that going to be acceptable to them? You know, what we've heard from some of them is that they want amnesty. They do not favor a force to come in.

    That's not a discussion. You know, one of their preconditions for sitting on this panel, this you had to accept that there will be a multinational security support mission. So, you know, that's a huge challenge, you know, to to the Haitians and to figure out what you're going to do. Because, you know, as the CARICOM, you know, leaders said yesterday, the gangs are part of the society and they were faced with this challenge about, you know, what do you do with them?

    There was also concerns that maybe some of the individuals that are sitting on this panel who represent various coalitions of parties, that maybe they're just a proxy for individuals who are connected to gangs and may be bringing in through a back door. So we really do have to see. It's a volatile place even before this deal was crafted.

    You know, we started to see some calm return. It wasn't completely there. So we were wondering what exactly was happening, you know, with them. But what is very different about this uprising versus the others moments of volatility is that it was coordinated. These gangs are now talking to each other. I have to tell you, for those of us who observe Haiti, who watch it closely, it's the moment of your worst nightmare.

    Because I had always been saying that, you know, what had benefited Haiti was the fact that when, you know, gasoline is blowing up to bars, quiet, you know, if you have a problem in the hills, the tension there, you know, in another area, it's okay. You know, the police, they really were not a stretch. But those of us who have been watching it also have been seeing where increasingly more and more the police, they were being stretched.

    You know, they and it was this particular episode, they literally had to decide, where do I go, where do I run to of God distance? And and this attack after that attack and they had to choose between attacks. With this happening with the potential for more coordination or among the gangs, what are the prospects for success for this multinational security force?

    I understand Kenya will lead the force the United States is now in for, I think, 300 million. They upped their contribution. What will be the mission for that force and what are its prospects for success? So, you know, first and foremost, let me just say this, because everybody is asking why Kenya? The reality is that, you know, we were seeing a blockade of the country's fuel terminal at the time that cholera had reemerged.

    This blockade actually went on about six weeks, and it was led by a gang chief. And thanks for that. So, you know, you probably didn't think that they could get this bad. But, you know, schools were closing, Businesses had just started. Hospitals were turning people away. And the government at the time, you know, asked for international assistance. I mean, was not something they wanted to do.

    There was a lot of discussions in the based that had been happening privately among themselves in the international community about whether or not you asked for another U.N. peacekeeping mission. And we know the history, you know what that has been. But they were really at a point where they were being brought to their knees. And so the United States, that was, you know, not going to send troops, but they understood and they supported this.

    And so they started to look for a country. And initially they thought that country would have been Canada. Does it have the same historical baggage in Haiti that the U.S. does? It's very involved. Is it one of the biggest funders? And Canada was very much engaged in conversations with CARICOM. In fact, they were the ones who first started these conversations, believing that maybe the curving committee needed to play a wider role.

    And what was happening in Haiti? Haiti is a member of that regional bloc, but nobody was raising their hands. I mean, you know, Haitians were saying, well, maybe the Brazilians will do it. They've been here. You know, they understand this place. They know how to go into these slums. But no, they they were not. And then we saw President Biden's trip to Ottawa and Canada basically said, no, can do.

    And I think when everybody was at the point where they just thought, well, maybe we have to go to the U.N. because no one is volunteering. Kenya did. Kenya stepped up. And I personally I was surprised. I've been watching them at the U.N. Security Council meetings. I was hearing what they were saying about Haiti. They really felt that Africa, the African countries, needed to be much more involved in what was happening there.

    And so they raised her hand. But we see that this multinational security support mission, which is a non U.N. mission, it's not a peacekeeping mission. It is sort of a hybrid, you know, between, you know, what you would have with the U.N. peacekeeping. But you can't tell countries they have to pay up. You have to you know, they had to volunteer, pass a hat around, as Robinson says.

    But it's been challenged, Right? There is a literal legal challenge that was done in Nairobi by opposition forces. And then in the United States. What we're seeing is that Republicans in Congress who have raised some of these questions that you've raised about what is the potential for success. They referred to this as a, quote unquote, untested mission. So though the United States initially pledged $200 million, they asked for an initial 50 million.

    Congress said, no, we'll give you ten because that's what you can get under the law. It's money that's already out the door. By the way, this is not new money that's be taxed for it. And then they went back and asked for another 7 billion because they needed 17 billion to start to sign off on some kind some contracts.

    And what we've seen is that, you know, Republicans have said no. They're saying they're saying that they have asked questions, you know, details. State Department is saying, well, we've had 65 briefings with them. And so this is back and forth, back and forth. Meanwhile, you know, Haitians are saying to me, are they just going to let us die?

    Like this is just it. I mean, nobody's going to come. I mean, the options here for it's either you go to the U.N. and you get China or Russia not to vetoes that you can send in another U.N. peacekeeping mission. You send U.S. troops, which the Biden administration has said they are not going to do. You do this hybrid version where we have Kenya, a thousand police officers to serve as the backbone with contributions from other countries, including Jamaica.

    So we've been seeing this as they'll send 2000 or you do nothing. And the question is, can the United States, with a country that is 2 hours off of its shores, cannot afford to do nothing, Did did the U.S. did other regional powers, the CARICOM trade bloc? Did they wait too long in terms of in terms of getting involved in a more robust manner?

    The outgoing prime minister had asked for more assistance and for actual troops on the ground or peacekeeping troops, and it just wasn't happening at the rate necessary to me, obviously, to maintain his government. Did we wait until the situation unraveled to a point where now the attempt will be to put Humpty Dumpty back together again? If you talk to a Haitians in Haiti, they'll tell you that too long Was 2011, too long was 2012.

    You know that that this period of instability that Haiti has seen, it just didn't start in the last four years since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise. I mean, clearly a vacuum was created. But all of us who have been watching this and even the diplomats in Haiti, we have been watching this develop. I mean, every time I go to Haiti, you know what I could have done on the last trip?

    I can't do on the next trip. You know, I remember in January last year having conversations with, you know, folks and saying, hey, you know, there's a town in the north and there's activity and there's commerce and people don't look like they're malnourished and they're actually doing things. Maybe we need to put some money and some focus there.

    So you give people something to fight for. Well, nothing was done. And just a few months ago, we saw that town blow up and you're in, you know, thousands of jobs that were active and happening and putting food on people's tables. They have now disappeared. Disappeared. So, you know, I think that, you know, it's a question that could be asked overall in terms of the policy.

    I think that, you know, what I've seen in my reporting is it's often very reactive instead of proactive. We focus a lot on the problems as opposed to, you know, what are the places that are working or how to shore things up. But, you know, we also have heard for years, you know, about Haiti fatigue. Right. You know, the earthquake happened and it was this outpouring of support, but it didn't go to the grassroots organizations or even the government.

    You know, big aid agencies, they kept that money to themselves. The reason for the HRC was just to report what we were doing, trying to do a coordination, and then we you know, we had an election. And I think that that is when the problem started, because we said to this country, you had to have an election in the middle of a major disaster where over 300,000 people were killed.

    And so, you know, this gang problem has been just this so boil and it ebbs and flows. And what we have seen is that we haven't figure out really what the policies should be. We focused and then we lose the focus and then we come back. So today you have a presidential panel that's been put together. Interesting enough, you know, U.S. and Canadian sanctions.

    There was a lot of focus on that. They were not part of the final, you know, blueprint. How is that going to play out going forward in terms of elections, in terms of, you know, how do you address the issue of impunity? So I don't know. I think, you know, but the people who get paid more than me and this is their domain, they need to ask whether they waited too long and sort of really take a step back and look at some of the decisions that have been made over the years, over the decades, and see, you know, where did the international community go wrong?

    You know, Haiti's didn't get here by itself. It shares a lot of the blame, but it had some help. And to further complicate the situation, that impunity or amnesty that the gang members have asked for, that goes beyond the active gang members we're talking about. Was it 400 prisoners that were released in recent times, attacks on prisons? Well, we had a massive mass prison outbreak and let's, I think 5000 prisoners are now.

    Yes, you're talking about murderers, kidnapers, people who have been indicted in the assassination of the president. But you also have people who are in prison who have been there for far too long. You know, who the amount of time that they've been in prison outweighs what, you know, the time they would have gotten if they actually had been judged.

    So, again, how do you even start to put these people back in prison? You know, what do you do? I mean, this is a country that has a weak government, a weak state. You know, we receive right now and I think that the international community saw yesterday in those meetings that it's very difficult to get a consensus. And again, so you give amnesty and all of this.

    But but what do you do to address that? The gangs. These are not the same gangs that were there in 2004. These are not the same gangs that were even there, you know, a few years after this. And what is feeding that? You know, and a lot of the people who are in gangs or young people, you know, which strikes me when I go to Port au Prince, is they used to be young boys that would come up to your car to wipe the window.

    And I don't see them anymore. And I ask myself, where are they? Are they now in the gangs? So you mentioned in your earlier remarks with a bit of skepticism that 7a7 headed leadership team can actually work. I wonder, you know, it's not a great job. Advertisement. Where you had an assassination and now a prime minister in exile.

    But are there names out there? Are there people who could emerge as strong leaders at a time where that's needed? Well, it's quite interesting. I mean, there are a lot of people who think that they can emerge as strong leaders and they've already been politicking and making phone calls and doing their own TR campaigns. So, you know, good luck to them.

    I mean, yeah, you said it. You know, in a country where what's happened to the most recent prime minister, despite his, you know, relationship with the United States and others and a president who was assassinated, you would think that people would be running away from this job. But what we're seeing is that at least for the job of Prime minister, there are a few people that are flocking to it.

    So final thoughts, Jacqueline, You know, you've been covering this story for a long time. We're not going to wrap it in a neat, tidy package today with any conclusions. But just I'd love to hear your thoughts on what a pathway to order might look like in terms of prospects and timeline With Haiti. You can never say what the timeline is going to be.

    You know, I think what has gotten lost in all of this and when I talk to my friends at the U.N. or, you know, in other diplomatic circles, so we have those sort of philosophical, you know, discussions as always, just a discussion about, you know, order versus elections. Right. You know, in the United States, we like elections. This will be about that's how we define the Marchese But does everybody need to sort of rush to elections or you need to try to get your house in order first?

    And I think that's what I'm watching to see sort of what the next steps are going to be. It's quite interesting that in the beginning of this transition, three years ago, people were reluctant to go into the government because, you know, the U.S. stopped talking about elections and so did the U.N. and the OAS. And so people were sort of biding their time.

    I find it very interesting that as the talk picks up about elections and you know that they're on the horizon somewhere, well, everybody's trying to rush into a government and they really weren't interested in being a part of earlier. But, you know, you would hope that that the individuals that are looking to to take charge, whether it's a ministry, whether it's an ambassadorship or whatever, that they really start to think about the 12 million people in Haiti who really today, they don't have a voice, increasingly don't believe in democracy, don't distinguish between Ariel and B or the next person that's coming.

    And basically, you know, they've just been suffocating and they just want a moment to breathe. I mean, they want to hope. They want to, you know, see a future for themselves, for their children. And I think that's the saddest thing of all of this. You know, today, if you're a parent in Port au Prince, you send your kids to school, you would think that maybe you would get 8 hours of relief that you don't because the schools are becoming battlefields for gangs.

    I mean, I've had reports that I've written about children who are stuck in their classroom for days because outside is a battlefield, heavy gunfire. They can't leave, they can't get home. Or schools are telling you that they have to do home schooling in a country where you, you know, have blackouts and not really a good Internet connection. But that's because bullets are flying in classrooms.

    Nothing is off limits. And honestly, that is the status of all of this. Indeed. Well, thank you. Thank you for helping us sort through it. And I should tell people who are interested in this topic that there's no better source for coverage than Jacqueline Charles work. And you can find that at Miami Herald dot com. Jacqueline, thank you once again for joining us today.

    Thank you. We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon. Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John Milewski. Thanks for your time and interest.


Hosted By

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more