Will a New Government Halt Haiti’s Nosedive?
Will a New Government Halt Haiti’s Nosedive?
A woman carrying a child runs from the area after gunshots were heard in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 20, 2024.
A woman carrying a child runs from the area after gunshots were heard in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 20, 2024. Clarens SIFFROY / AFP
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean 15 minutes

Will a New Government Halt Haiti’s Nosedive?

With the acting premier out of the country, Haitian gangs have formed a united front to take over key sites and deter an international security mission from embarking. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Diego Da Rin assesses whether a new administration can respond.

What has driven the recent gang offensive in Haiti, and what are security conditions in the country like now?

Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, heavily armed and violent gangs have extended their grip over large parts of Haiti. Before dawn on 29 February, they gave the most alarming proof yet of their raw power. The two largest gang coalitions – G9 and Gpèp – joined forces to launch an offensive targeting critical sites across the capital, Port-au-Prince, including police stations, the main port facilities, the international airport and several government buildings. Not by chance, these coordinated attacks came on the same day that acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry embarked for Nairobi, Kenya, on what had been slated as a trip to nail down an international mission that, with UN backing, would deploy police from Kenya and other countries to help their Haitian counterparts roll back the gangs.

Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, the most publicly prominent G9 leader, immediately assumed responsibility for the attacks, holding a press conference in which he claimed the offensive was the work of a broad front called Viv Ansanm (which means “living together”, in Haitian Creole). Chérizier announced that the front’s intention was to prevent Henry from returning to the country – a goal it has managed to achieve. During several press conferences over the days that followed, Chérizier acknowledged that the gangs had done harm to the public and asked for forgiveness on behalf of the new criminal federation. He insisted that the gangs wished not only to topple Henry – who has announced his intent to resign upon formation of a transitional government – but also aimed to knock down the country’s entire political edifice, which he branded “a cruel system in which a small group of people control all the country’s wealth”. Gangs have already signalled that they will not recognise the coalition government that is expected to be formed in the coming days.

The attacks have ebbed and flowed – but mostly they have flowed. After the bedlam of early March, there was a short lull in the rhythm and intensity of the violence, but more recently the gangs have gone back on the offensive. On 2 March, gangs overran Haiti’s two largest prisons, both in the capital, freeing over 4,700 inmates, among them several high-profile gang members. Haitian police found themselves overwhelmed. During the early stages of the uprising, a police officer told Crisis Group that the force was struggling to counter attacks on several fronts, adding that the police’s chronic weaknesses – understaffing, equipment and weaponry shortages, and lack of a strategy for responding to the gangs’ assaults – had been exposed in plain view. He said several of his colleagues had decided to desert their posts and take shelter at home for fear of being seized by gangs, which had posted horrific videos online showing officers being murdered and mutilated. Gangs have attacked over a dozen police stations, the police academy and the police headquarters. They also looted and burned down the house of police chief Frantz Elbé. In the week of 18 March, gangs launched brutal assaults on several upscale neighbourhoods on the capital’s outskirts that previously had been largely untouched by the onslaught, killing at least fifteen.

On 2 March, gangs overran Haiti’s two largest prisons, freeing over 4,700 inmates, among them several high-profile gang members. Source: Mapcreator, OSM, Copernicus. CRISIS GROUP / Claire Boccon-Gibod

The gang offensive has nearly cut Haiti off from the outside world and caused chaos within the country. Airlines suspended operations at Port-au-Prince’s international airport on 4 March, due to repeated gang attacks, and no plane has taken off or landed there since. As the gangs control all roads in and out of the capital, the only safe escape route from the city now available is via helicopter, costing upward of $10,000. Haiti’s second international airport, in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, is still operational, but very few dare to leave Port-au-Prince by land to catch a flight from there. Only a few tankers have been able to load fuel at Varreux, the main oil terminal, since 29 February. Following several attacks on the country’s chief container seaport, located on Port-au-Prince’s coastline and run by Caribbean Port Services, people have broken into the warehouses there to steal humanitarian aid, including shipments of food and medical supplies. The gangs now holding this port are in possession of some 260 containers belonging to humanitarian relief agencies.

According to Planet Labs imagery obtained since 29 Feb, a lone A321 jet has been parked at the apron of Toussaint Louverture International Airport. It likely landed that morning, coming from the Dominican Republic. CRISIS GROUP / PLANET LABS PBC

Despite Chérizier’s insistence that the offensive is targeting government officials and oligarchs, those who are suffering the worst from the violence are, as usual, the most vulnerable. In under a week, gang raids caused the displacement of more than 15,000 people. A sizeable number of the displaced people in metropolitan Port-au-Prince – there are more than 160,000 in total – have had to seek refuge in makeshift camps, with little or no access to water, food, medical services and sanitation facilities. Elsewhere, residents of several neighbourhoods have erected barricades and built fences, on top of those already in place, in an attempt to prevent gangs from converting the areas around their homes into battle zones.

Gang assaults have not spared medical facilities, either. While gangs have ransacked only a few clinics, most hospitals have had to scale back operations or close because they have run out of supplies and medical personnel are unable to leave their homes. Six of ten hospitals around the country are out of service, while only two are still able to carry out surgical procedures in Port-au-Prince – and those are difficult to reach safely.

Between 9 and 12 March, images taken by Planet Labs show cargo crates were stacked around the cranes in Haiti’s national seaport. CRISIS GROUP / PLANET LABS PBC

What makes this surge of gang violence different?

This criminal rampage is not the first occasion on which gangs have sought to bring the country to a standstill. Gangs belonging to the G9 triggered humanitarian emergencies after twice blocking access to the Varreux oil terminal during the second halves of 2021 and 2022. Yet what distinguishes the current uprising is the united front that gangs have formed. Since their creation in 2020, the G9 and Gpèp have brought together the most powerful criminal bands in the metropolitan area while waging a bloody internecine turf war. The planned deployment of a foreign security mission appears to have convinced the rivals to put aside their differences, focusing instead on establishing channels of communication and means of cooperation in response to what they perceive as a shared existential threat.

The gangs forged a non-aggression pact in September 2023, only for it to break apart within days.

To be sure, the entente has had its ups and downs. The gangs forged a non-aggression pact in September 2023, only for it to break apart within days. Acting Prime Minister Henry was in New York at the time, attending high-level meetings of the UN General Assembly and rallying support at the UN Security Council for a Kenyan-led security mission to Haiti. While he was doing so, the G9 and Gpèp announced that they had decided to join forces in the Viv Ansanm initiative. They vowed to stop inflicting harm on civilians and work to restore peace, in a seeming bid to persuade one of the veto-wielding Security Council member states to block a resolution on the security mission.

The gangs’ effort to thwart the resolution were for naught, as the Security Council voted to approve the mission on 2 October. But several sources who communicate frequently with gang leaders in the capital told Crisis Group in late 2023 that rival crime bosses were still in contact with one another, standing ready to reunite if plans for a foreign security mission advanced and started to become an operational reality. These sources said a major unstated motive behind reviving Viv Ansanm has been to display military might, in the hope of deterring Kenya and other countries that are considering contributing police to an intervention force from doing so. Although tensions among competing gangs remain latent, the prospect of a foreign mission disembarking in Haiti has awakened a common interest in keeping threats to their power far offshore.

Why has acting Prime Minister Henry said he will resign?

Henry announced he would leave power after an emergency meeting held on 11 March in Jamaica by the fifteen-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and other foreign countries to address the mayhem in Haiti. As mentioned above, Henry was headed to Nairobi when the gang attacks began. There, he signed an agreement intended to clear a legal hurdle to deployment of the Kenyan force, articulated in a Kenyan High Court decision in January. Unable to land in Haiti upon his return from East Africa, Henry had to go to Puerto Rico instead, where he remains.

With the acting prime minister stuck outside his country, foreign support for him, already thinning, finally collapsed. According to media reports, the Biden administration asked Henry to agree to a new transitional government and resign, although U.S. officials were prepared to admit in public only that they had urged him to “move forward on a political process that will lead to the establishment of a presidential transitional council that will lead to elections”. After the meeting in Jamaica extended late into the night, Henry posted a video declaring that his government had agreed to establish a transitional presidential council. He said he would step down immediately after the council was installed and had appointed a new acting prime minister.

Henry’s hold on power had depended on foreign support from day one.

Henry’s hold on power had depended on foreign support from day one. He was appointed prime minister two days before Moïse was killed in July 2021. As he had not completed all the required legal procedures to establish his place in the order of succession before the assassination took place, and several other pretenders were jostling to become Haiti’s de facto head of state, a group of international representatives gave Henry the nod and asked him to assume office.

At first, Henry pledged to hold overdue polls in 2022. But as gangs expanded their footholds in the capital and beyond, he pushed back the election date, all the while staying mired in a political confrontation with opposition forces who insisted that stronger checks and balances on his rule were needed. Henry eventually signed an agreement in December 2022, promising polls the following year and a handover to a new elected government on 7 February 2024, but no concrete steps were taken in its wake toward organising elections. Meanwhile, security and economic conditions continued to decline. A committee appointed by CARICOM, as well as other international mediators, enabled political dialogue to inch along, but there was no major progress toward bridging the country’s yawning political divides through a power-sharing agreement.

Expectations that massive opposition demonstrations could at last persuade Henry to resign on 7 February, as he had pledged, were also dashed, with the prime minister showing no inclination to leave office and no successor waiting in the wings even if he had. (As a date, 7 February bears great symbolic weight in Haiti, as it is the day on which democratic leaders have handed the reins to successors since the Duvalier dictatorship ended on that day in 1986.) Speaking in a broadcast that same evening, Henry declared that he would remain in office until his government could hold elections, while insisting that he would continue talks aimed at finding a way out of the political stalemate. In private, however, Haitian government officials allowed that resuming dialogue with political rivals was far from straightforward, given that most opposition parties were demanding Henry’s immediate resignation.

Impatience with Henry, long widespread in Haiti, finally spilled over its borders as gang violence surged. Frustration with the burgeoning chaos was palpable at a CARICOM summit on 25-28 February in Guyana, when the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda declared that Henry had to step aside. With neighbouring states badgering him, Henry agreed to hold elections no later than 31 August 2025. As the gang offensive paralysed Haiti’s capital in early March, the Caribbean leaders summoned Henry to the emergency meeting in Jamaica. By then, with Henry and other Haitian politicians participating by Zoom, it was clear the country’s foreign partners and neighbours had lost all faith in the acting prime minister.

Who will rule Haiti now?

Amid the spike in gang violence, Haiti’s outside partners stepped up efforts to find a way out of the quagmire. The 11 March Jamaica meeting of CARICOM came as foreign states feared that failure to address the country’s political divides and form a more representative government could spur rogue politicians to form an alliance with the gangs and take power. (In Henry’s absence, the government has been headed by the finance minister.)

Caribbean mediators received seven proposals from various Haitian political groupings regarding formation of a transitional government, but at the Caribbean leaders’ urging a compromise finally emerged. Agreement among those present at the Jamaica meeting was reached on forming a new government to be led by a seven-member presidential council. CARICOM asked six leading political groups and private-sector bodies each to nominate a representative for this council, which would work alongside two nominees from civil society serving as non-voting observers. Once the presidential council is installed, the members are due to appoint a new acting prime minister and a cabinet. The transitional government’s main tasks are set to include laying the groundwork for elections, including establishing an electoral council – polls are expected to take place within the next two years – and coordinating with Haiti’s foreign partners on deployment of the long-awaited security mission.

All the groups chosen at the Jamaica meeting to be part of the presidential council had submitted the names of their representatives at the time of writing. An initial outlier was the Petit Dessalines party, led by Jean Charles Moïse, a well-known left-wing politician (not related to the late president), which had declined an invitation to put forward a representative. On 20 March, however, Moïse had second thoughts and submitted his nominee to the council, stating he had done so following a request from a “big country” – presumably Russia, with which he has close ties.

Before his change of heart, Moïse had pointed to several areas of disagreement with the arrangement forged in Jamaica, but his actions were also almost surely guided by the alliance he struck with Guy Philippe, a former police commander with a record of criminal dealings. Philippe played a leading role in the insurrection that forced then-President Jean Bertrand Aristide into exile in 2004. After serving six years in a U.S. prison on charges of laundering drug trafficking proceeds, Philippe was deported to Haiti in November 2023. He soon called on Haitians to join him in a “peaceful revolution” to force Henry to resign as prime minister. Philippe, who did not take part in the CARICOM discussions, acknowledges having connections with gangs and proposes creating a three-person presidential council that he would chair. He says he would issue an amnesty to the gangs. 

For Caribbean states and most political forces in Haiti ... a major concern is how to stop gangs from becoming part of the new government at any level.

For Caribbean states and most political forces in Haiti, by contrast, a major concern is how to stop gangs from becoming part of the new government at any level. The Jamaica agreement bars anyone indicted, charged or convicted of a crime, facing UN sanctions, or who has taken a public stand against the deployment of the international security mission from being appointed as a member of the presidential council. Even so, individuals involved in the negotiations told Crisis Group that the invitation to Jean Charles Moïse’s party to nominate a representative was intended to instal a member on the council who might eventually create a channel of communication with the gangs, with a view to reducing violence. 

The council should be formed soon if all representatives nominated by the seven different groups meet the stipulations. Once the council takes office, members will have their work cut out for them. At the top of the list will be confronting criminal mayhem in Port-au-Prince while preventing the emergence of more splinters in the coalition government. Presenting a cohesive front will be important. Caribbean leaders announced that the presidential council would make decisions by majority vote, which should enable it to move more swiftly, but also threatens to exacerbate divisions between representatives if a minority of members feels frozen out. To prevent the council from breaking down, members of the council should strive to maintain unity when they start to govern. They should avoid public bickering. Should the council totter, it is quite possible that gangs grouped under Viv Ansanm would seek to seize power by broadening their alliance to include politicians such as Philippe and Moïse.

What prospects are there for a foreign security mission arriving soon, and what other options are under consideration?

The day after Caribbean leaders announced the agreement to create a presidential council in Haiti, the Kenyan government put a hold on plans to deploy a security mission to the country. Officials in Nairobi argued that the breakdown of law and order and Henry’s resignation represented fundamental changes to conditions on the ground, compelling them to reassess the decision to dispatch police officers. Kenyan President William Ruto later held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Caribbean leaders and Henry, in which he insisted on Kenya’s unwavering commitment to the mission and said his government would pick up its preparations once more as soon as the new presidential council was in place. Ruto nevertheless added that Kenya would have to send another reconnaissance mission, following up on its first venture in August 2023, once the new Haitian authorities are established. Although the agreement signed between Haiti and Kenya in early March should remove the main legal obstacle to deployment of the mission, civil society groups opposed to the Ruto government’s plans to dispatch police officers have said they will not relent in challenging the decision in the courts.

Several other countries have publicly expressed willingness to send personnel to join the mission, but until late February only the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin and Chad had notified the UN Secretary-General of concrete interest in doing so. Funding is also an issue. Around $11 million has been deposited in the UN-managed trust fund to cover the mission budget, which Kenya has estimated will cost a total of $600 million. The UN has stressed the urgent need to raise more money, especially since Kenyan officials have stated that they will not send police to Haiti until the funds needed to begin deployment are available. The Biden administration, set to be the mission’s largest donor after pledging $300 million, is also facing an uphill struggle to get acquiescence from key members of Congress. Republican lawmakers are not satisfied with the details on the security mission provided by the U.S. State Department and have so far declined to greenlight the funds it is requesting. 

With hurdles such as these suggesting the mission may not start operating immediately, Caribbean leaders have spoken of “bridging security mechanisms” as a way to reduce insecurity ahead of the force’s arrival. Details of options under consideration have not been divulged. Two groups of U.S. marines were deployed in early April to protect the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, and a top military official has said Washington would be “prepared” to dispatch troops to the country as a part of a multinational effort if the situation worsens, but U.S. officials said there are no plans to send additional military forces to support the Haitian police. A possible alternative would be for private military contractors to step in to assist the police, even if only to open the capital’s airport and ports. Serious concerns have nevertheless surfaced over abuses in other foreign operations run by private contractors caused by a lack of oversight and accountability.

Curbing the violence assailing Haiti will pose an acid test of the new government’s unity and staying power.

Curbing the violence assailing Haiti will pose an acid test of the new government’s unity and staying power. Opposition forces have long clamoured for Henry’s resignation and the creation of a more inclusive, representative administration ahead of new elections. Now that they have this opportunity, political forces will need to steer clear of minor disputes and act decisively in the public interest. They should choose an interim prime minister with the unanimous backing of the presidential council, and signal to the gangs their determination to restore state control of critical infrastructure and city streets. The new authorities should resume talks with foreign partners to accelerate deployment of the multinational security mission as well as discuss potential stopgap measures until this force is ready, anchored in providing the Haitian police with the equipment, logistical back-up and intelligence it needs to re-establish control of the port, airport and major highways. At their moment of greatest need, Haitians deserve a government that can claim the broadest possible support and stand up to the gangs. 


Visuals and satellite imagery analysis by Paul Franz and Claire Boccon-Gibod

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