Haiti's future seems more uncertain than ever: gang-violence has reached unprecedented levels, hunger is at a record high, and emergency aid is failing to meet the country's most pressing needs amid a deepening political crisis that has no end in sight.
Centred in Port-au-Prince, the violence essentially keeps the capital’s entire population captive, with little or no access to food, healthcare, and other basic services. Gang activity is increasingly spreading to rural areas too, threatening Haiti’s vital domestic food production.
Last October, the UN reported catastrophic levels of hunger in the country for the first time, and some 4.7 million Haitians – nearly half the population – are now suffering from extreme food insecurity. Haiti is also gripped by a new outbreak of cholera, with nearly 600 deaths recorded as of the end of February.
Given the worsening humanitarian situation, there’s a growing clamour from both within and outside the Caribbean nation to find a path forward. Some believe an intervention from an international force is needed to restore security, but others argue that this will just act to stabilise a corrupt elite and say Haitians must be left to come up with their own solutions.
In the past few months, UN authorities have consistently backed a request from the de facto government to send in a specialised international armed force to tackle rising insecurity, help organise elections, and address the humanitarian crisis. This appeal still hasn't found consensus within the international community, and raises concerns among Haitians who experienced the troubled intervention of MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping force deployed until 2017.
In early February – after signing what was known as the December 21 agreement with representatives of political parties, civil society organisations, and the private sector – Ariel Henry, the prime minister installed after president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021, established a council tasked with paving the way for elections to be held later this year.
“You cannot look at the humanitarian situation or the gang situation without looking at the governance.”
For Haitian journalist and democracy activist Monique Clesca – a former UN official in Port-au-Prince who currently works as an international consultant – neither foreign intervention nor Henry´s consensus agreement are workable solutions.
Clesca is a member of the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis – a Haitian civil society-formed and opposition-backed group that presented a document known as the “Montana Accord” in August 2021. The commission includes church leaders, women’s rights groups, humanitarian workers, lawyers, and others.
The commission proposes a two-year interim government to take over from Henry, with oversight committees to restore order, root out corruption, and prepare elections. They refused to sign up to the December 21 agreement, which – among other things – expresses support for the immediate deployment of an international security force.
In conversation with The New Humanitarian, Clesca gave her analysis of Haiti's dramatic descent and explained why she believes so strongly that any solution must be Haitian-led.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The New Humanitarian: Haiti is facing what some have called “a humanitarian catastrophe”, can you describe the current situation in your country?
Monique Clesca: The humanitarian situation, the gang violence, [and governance] are [all] interlinked. For the last 11 years, we've had a regime that has been linked to criminal activity, whether it's trafficking, gangs, or corruption. So, it is what [Venezuelan writer and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Distinguished Fellow] Moisés Naím calls a mafia state. It's not by accident, for example, that Canada recently sanctioned two former presidents, two former prime ministers, about four senators, and two or three parliamentarians. There is a lawyer who was an adviser to one of the prime ministers who has been sanctioned, and three businessmen linked to the banking sector too. That means you cannot look at the humanitarian situation or the gang situation without looking at the governance. What has caused this? What has sustained this?
Since gangs took over, services cannot go through, because Haiti is very centralised. If you are a [humanitarian] agency, or even a civil society organisation, your logistical cost is going to double, triple, or quadruple. You have a humanitarian situation, but you cannot respond properly. Providing humanitarian aid is necessary morally, legally, and from a human rights perspective. But there are [challenges], and a lot of them are systemic. That is the complexity of the nexus between humanitarian [response] and living under gang rule, which is not development. I think Haiti is a case study [of something that should not be allowed to happen again].
Last September, a federation of gangs held the whole country hostage because they [seized control] of the [Varreux] fuel terminal. It was impossible to get petrol to the fuel stations, and because the electricity [supply] was so bad, hospitals, health centres, schools, everything [had to be closed]. People died. Haiti is also prone to natural disasters and, because of the lack of proper governance, it is kind of a climate basketcase.
I represented a UN agency in Niger for four years, and we had to provide humanitarian relief. This wasn't in areas controlled by Boko Haram, but in the east, some were controlled by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. There were camps in certain places; in others, there weren't but the government took charge. It led actions so that we could talk to people, identify the needs, and [figure out] what UNICEF could provide, what the [UN Development Programme] could do, etc. But now, in Haiti, we don't have a functioning government.
The New Humanitarian: In this context, what would elections change?
Clesca: Elections wouldn't change anything. You can't have elections now, anyway, because people are kidnapped regularly – anybody who goes out can be [taken]. So, when Ariel Henry says “we'll organise elections”, it is a lie: You can’t go out of your house.
Today, I heard a call by a doctor who was begging gang members to not kidnap doctors and release the ones they had. He was saying: “I'm calling on your good conscience.” Can you imagine that? So, for us, it must stop. There has to be a different transition; there has to be a different governance model that provides services for its population.
The New Humanitarian: The ‘Montana Group’ is against a foreign intervention; how would a Haitian-led solution play out?
Clesca: We are a serious actor on the scene that came up with the [term] “solution Haitienne” (“Haitian solution”) – with a plan, with a road map. We said that we needed to push the reset button. The people who have tweeted their support for this government are those who can whisper in its ear and say: "You know what, let your people go; let's find another way." We are not dreaming; we are very serious. We have been talking to every possible entity one can talk to. We wrote to President [Gabriel] Boric of Chile, to the presidents of Colombia, of Mexico, to [President Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva in Brazil]; we wrote to every head of state in CARICOM (the Caribbean regional bloc), every member of the UN Security Council; and we are talking on the ground to the different political parties, civil society groups, etc. That way, we can have a critical mass to be able to say: “We cannot continue this way, because during the 19 months that Ariel Henry has been in power things have gotten worse.” There are systemic structural problems – not only are we at a standstill, but we’re moving backwards with the criminal governance system that we have in place.
We have had troops already. MINUSTAH was here for 13 years – a lot of women were raped, many children were stigmatised, being called MINUSTAH babies. So, we´re back to square one. We need to change the model. And when you want systemic change, patience becomes really virtuous. We have to work with what we can and who we can to push these criminals out of power.
The New Humanitarian: How would the two-year transition work?
Clesca: It would be a two-year transition without the criminal elements, and with mostly civil society, because we have seen so many politicians sanctioned recently. There are Haitians who are capable, and we could have a new government that believes there are other ways to go, that declares a state of emergency, for example. And then, of course, with support from Haiti’s partners: Canada, the US, CARICOM have offered support.
“It would be a two-year transition without the criminal elements, and with mostly civil society, because we have seen so many politicians sanctioned recently.”
The idea is to have two years where we can level the playing field and provide humanitarian assistance, reset the security, and do a lot of the work that must be done with the police vetting. There are a lot of good cops, but also quite a lot of bad ones who are in cahoots with the gangs. This vetting needs to be done so that we can get a clean government in power and have a semblance of what the constitution sees as the governance of our state. Right now, the Supreme Court is not functioning, there are issues with the police, there is very little of an executive branch, and the president was killed. [We need a transitional government] so that we can get institutions moving, have humanitarian [aid] throughout the country, and get security going. Then, towards the end of these two years, you can start putting mechanisms in place to hold elections.
The New Humanitarian: What has been the reaction of the international community?
Clesca: It has varied. For example, CARICOM listens. Ariel Henry tried to see if he could get CARICOM boots on the ground, and they basically said no. And the Americans, we´ve heard them, they know us, we talk to them regularly. They know what the opposition is, and I think that is why they also tell Ariel Henry: “You may have an agreement with your allies, but you need to sit down and have a wider consensus.” So, at a certain point, something will have to give.
The New Humanitarian: Have sanctions helped?
Clesca: In a moral sense, they have. Some of the people sanctioned have stopped talking. A sanction is a sanction, whether you’re an eight-year-old child in school told to go kneel or “time out”, or you’re a 50-year-old politician and your name is cited as being in cahoots with gangs, involved in corruption or arms trafficking. Society looks at you in another way, your children may suffer, your family too; it is a shame [on you]. Now they are being watched so that they don’t continue [their activities], and some of them have quietened down.
“I am sure that deep down inside they want Haitians to be in power who are clean, who are competent, who have vision, and who can listen.”
The New Humanitarian: But according to a survey by an alliance of private sector groups, nearly 70% of Haitians back the creation of an international force to fight gangs. What do you think of that?
Clesca: I see it in different ways. The first thing is that I question the survey because it was paid for by private sector groups that aligned themselves with the December 21 agreement. And the second is that there is no state here. Haitians have a saying that I’ve heard throughout the country. They say: “pa gen leta”. It means, “there is no government”, in Creole. So, when you are being pushed, raped, kidnapped, I can understand that in the desperate need for a solution you say, “Come help!” I heard a woman say a while back: “There are two things that could help; one is God coming from the sky, the other is some foreigner coming to help us.”
But Haitians are very fierce. They are people who have resisted, who have helped Latin America become independent. We are very proud, and we are into resistance.
The third thing is that systemic change, unless you have a revolution like Fidel Castro’s or the Mexican revolution, takes time to do. So, people are impatient, and I can understand that. But I am sure that deep down inside they want Haitians to be in power who are clean, who are competent, who have vision, and who can listen. There were protests since the riots of July 2018 [up until last September]. Now we can no longer protest because of the gang activities. But before that, people were asking for jobs, for healthcare, for anti-corruption [measures], and protesting against Ariel Henry. The Haitian population throughout the country, over the past four and a half years, has said it wants change.
Edited by Andrew Gully.