Policymakers across the Western Hemisphere were shocked this weekend by news of a concerted effort by a coalition of gangs to attack Haiti’s key infrastructure, block the capital’s airport and prevent Prime Minister Ariel Henry from returning from a trip abroad. After all, the analysis went, Henry’s position seemed cemented as the deadline of February 7 — when he was supposed to hand over power to an elected government — passed with no real challenges to his rule. Now, absent an inclusive transitional arrangement that can effectively govern, the possibility of total collapse and anarchy in Haiti is ever more real.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry seen here at his residence in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 3, 2021. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry seen here at his residence in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 3, 2021. (Victor Moriyama/The New York Times)

Henry flew last week to Guyana to coordinate on an electoral calendar and political support from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) — a regional organization uniting 15 island nations. He then traveled to Kenya to sign an agreement allowing for the deployment of 1,000 police as part of a Multinational Security Force (MSS) the East African nation had promised to lead. As gangs attacked Haiti’s main prisons, releasing roughly 4,000 inmates, and opened fire on the country’s main airport in Port-au-Prince, Henry found himself unable to return to the country, and has since then shuttled between New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico, attempting to find a way to reenter the country.

A Protracted Governance Crisis

The gang violence that has left at least 12 people dead has highlighted the governance crisis in Haiti that enters its third year. Leaders of the Caribbean are now outspoken in their desire to see Henry resign as soon as possible as part of a new transitional government arrangement. Moreover, it is unclear whether the gang coalition will be willing to lay down its weapons if a new government that is supported by the MSS is installed, or whether the Haitian National Police (HNP) would recognize an agreement that does not include the current government. Moreover, the current crisis highlights the risks of removing a head of state as a result of the explicit pressure from illegal actors.

Still, the formula for restoring Haiti to a place of stability and basic human dignity, things that have been all but lost as the capital has been taken over by gangs, is not a mystery. It involves a political reset that allows for a stronger, more effective and more inclusive transitional government. It also involves a decisive infusion of international security forces that push the gangs back while Haitian security forces are redesigned, trained, equipped and, most importantly, mentored through a years-long process of rebuilding.

The resolution of the current crisis also requires the international community, especially the United States, to take on a more proactive role in engaging with Haitian political actors to bring about a political agreement. Additionally, it involves a renewed commitment to marshalling the necessary human, financial and logistical resources to match the current security and humanitarian needs of the country.

Negotiating a Transition Within a Transition

Henry’s government has been controversial since its inception. Appointed, but not sworn in, to his post days before the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021, the government came about as a result of a three-way dispute that was settled by the recognition of Henry’s as the legitimate government by the international community.

As the government failed to organize elections as a result of the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the country, opposition movements coalesced around a number of groupings united in the demand to have Henry resign and form a new transitional government. Repeated rounds of negotiations over the past years have resulted in some limited governance agreements, including the December 21 accord in 2022, that provided the interim government with a semblance of institutional legitimacy in 2023.

The December 21 accord provided for the creation of a three-member High Council of the Transition (HCT) that was envisioned as a power-sharing instrument to stabilize the political environment. However, the HCT was never empowered nor equipped to fulfill its mandate, and actors across the political spectrum grew dissatisfied with the status quo.

CARICOM, in an effort to contribute to a solution to the impasse, designated a three-person Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to broker a new agreement between all the political actors. Despite repeated rounds of negotiations, the EPG failed to mediate a new agreement, as the negotiations stuck over the permanence of Henry in his position of prime minister.

Nonetheless, the EPG’s efforts built a transitional government architecture that is acceptable to all parties: a prime minister as the head of government and a Presidential Council (or enlarged HCT) with enhanced powers to recommend policies and provide a road map for free and fair elections.

While the previous structure of incentives did not bring about an agreement in the past, the recent developments have changed the game: gangs are not anymore a destabilizing factor, they are now indeed an imminent threat to the very existence of a legitimate government and the rule of law in Haiti.

The current situation provides an opportunity for the international community to proactively bring all the political actors together to negotiate a transitional government. The architecture of such an agreement, as mentioned, is already agreed upon. International stakeholders, led by the United States (the most influential actor in Haiti), should first coordinate their messages and clearly communicate to national leaders the necessity to put in place an inclusive Presidential Council as soon as possible. Such an architecture should also include a National Advisory Council composed of members of civil society and representatives from each of the departments (Haiti’s administrative divisions), with the task of providing the government with an actionable road map to reestablish the provision of key public goods and services.

No Government Without Security

The political crisis has paralyzed Haitian institutions for the past three years, creating a vacuum of power that gangs have filled through violence and intimidation. Gangs now control over 80% of the capital, and have grown their influence in the rest of the country as their capabilities have increased thanks to extortion, kidnapping and deepening connections with regional weapons and drug trafficking networks. On the other hand, the HNP is underequipped, understaffed and low on morale after years of institutional degradation despite international support.

The Haitian government has requested international support since 2021 and reemphasized its call in 2022 — a petition that was approved by the United Nations Security Council in October 2023 after Kenya expressed its willingness to lead an international force. The United States and Canada, despite repeated statements supporting the deployment of such a force, have refused to contribute personnel and have instead pledged financial and logistical support to the mission. The MSS deployment has been postponed by legal challenges in Kenya, and other contributing countries such as Benin (which pledged 2,000 troops) and Jamaica, Bahamas and Antigua and Barbuda (pledging roughly another 400 jointly) have been waiting for the resolution of such obstacles to finally organize the force.

The delays in the arrival of the MSS have allowed the gangs to reorganize, reinforce their positions and prepare for open conflict with the HNP and the international force. As such, the initial idea of a limited contingent supporting the local police in specific tasks no longer matches the needs on the ground. The current conditions, as evidenced by the gangs’ willingness to openly challenge state institutions, require a stronger international mission that can arrive in force, intimidate smaller gangs into disarming, deter attacks from more organized groupings and disrupt stronger criminal coalitions.

The role of the international community, led by the United States, in restoring security in Haiti is key. First, it should provide the MSS with the necessary financial and human resources to match its current mandate. Second, it should ensure the formation of a stronger force through additional troops and police contribution from countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, with clear diplomatic and financial support from the United States and its allies. Absent the capacity to send national forces, the United States and Canada should consider contracting key contingents as has been done in other peace operations. Third, it should provide the necessary political and diplomatic support to allow the MSS to operate under a clear framework in the country and ensure its neutrality and impartiality vis-à-vis Haitian domestic politics, with a Haitian governing partner that is itself capable and legitimate enough to host the international force.

Neither political leaders nor the international community can afford to let Haiti collapse. The ripples of the humanitarian catastrophe that would follow would be felt across the hemisphere in the form of more intense waves of migration; unleashed human, weapons and drugs trafficking in the Caribbean; and a level of human suffering rarely seen on this side of the planet. There is still a way to give Haiti another chance, but it requires renewed energy and ambition from all stakeholders.


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