By Joseph Moss, International Banker
“We are looking at a war scene just meters from our hospital,” Vincent Harris, medical advisor for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (Doctors Without Borders), acknowledged on March 8, the day on which the renowned international medical organisation was forced to close its doors temporarily in the Cité Soleil area of Port-au-Prince in response to gang violence reaching critical levels. “While the hospital has not been targeted, we are a collateral victim of the fighting since the hospital is right on the front line of the fighting. We realise that closing the hospital will have a serious impact on the people of Cité Soleil, but our teams cannot work until security conditions are guaranteed.”
The shuttering of the MSF hospital is just the latest sign that uncontainable violence, which has dramatically escalated in recent years, continues to be unleashed throughout Haiti’s capital. This violence has arisen against a backdrop of political chaos, widespread food insecurity, massively elevated import costs and a deadly cholera outbreak (with children under the age of 10 accounting for one in three confirmed cholera cases), all of which have seen a ballooning dependence within the country on humanitarian aid. UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) confirmed in late January that at least 2.6 million children are expected to need immediate lifesaving assistance in 2023, a number that has increased by half a million over the last two years. “This is one of the hardest times to be a child in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake, and it’s worsening by the day,” said Garry Conille, UNICEF’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “With limited access to drinking water, affordable food, basic health care and protection, children and their families are reaching [the] breaking point. Without additional urgent support, their humanitarian situation is likely to further deteriorate in the coming months.”
The recent chaos has only compounded existing and deep-seated problems that have plagued Haiti for decades and have seen civilian uprisings emerge consistently over the last seven years. Much of the unrest has resulted from a history littered with foreign interventions, military occupations and coup d’états that, over the long term, have significantly destabilised the Caribbean nation and kept the overwhelming bulk of the Haitian people in a state of impoverishment. A devastating earthquake in 2010, the deadly Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and another earthquake less than two years ago have only worsened Haiti’s already grim situation and further diminished the economic prospects of its people.
But President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in July 2021 lit the touchpaper for the current crisis in which Haiti now finds itself. Originating from the far-right Haitian Tèt Kale Party, Moïse’s presidency had sparked frequent dismay amongst Haitians, with the administration’s announcement in 2018 of the gradual phasing out of fuel subsidies eliciting particularly aggravated responses from citizens. The government’s proposal in 2021 to hold a referendum to modify the Haitian constitution—an act that violates the constitution itself—saw demonstrations intensify markedly, leading to brutal police crackdowns on protestors. And despite his term having officially ended in February 2021, Moïse insisted on remaining in power for another year. Seen as a clear move towards dictatorship, resentment amongst the Haitian people only further swelled, culminating in armed men breaking into Moïse’s residence in July and killing the president.
A violent earthquake devastated much of Haiti just five weeks after Moïse’s assassination to compound matters further, causing widespread destruction and substantial economic losses and taking the lives of more than 2,000 people. The earthquake also prompted Haiti’s new interim leader, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, to indefinitely postpone the elections that had been slated for September 2021.
Given this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Haiti descended into a deep crisis during this time, which saw gang violence soar across the capital city and beyond, plunging the country into social, political and economic turmoil. “While there are many complex factors contributing to the crisis, one major component was gang violence blocking a key fuel terminal in Port-au-Prince,” Health Equity International (HEI) reported in November. “This situation caused extreme fuel shortages that affected supply chains, the operation of critical institutions, and even the availability of drinking water. Ubiquitous roadblocks have made travel impossible for days and weeks at a time.”
Citing the United Nations’ (UN’s) Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) figure of a food-price surge of 63 percent over the previous 12 months, the Haiti-focused global health organisation also noted that the crisis had exacerbated existing skyrocketing inflation, putting the basic food basket out of reach for most ordinary Haitians. “4.7 million people—almost half of the population—are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity, including for the first time ever, 19,200 in IPC’s ‘catastrophe’ classification, at risk of starvation,” HEI also confirmed at the time. “While the port and fuel terminal were recently unblocked, significant challenges around fuel shortages, supply chains, safe travel, access to health care, availability of safe food and water, and other difficulties persist.”
By January 2022, Henry had pledged to hold elections before the end of the year. But with mounting violence during the first half of the year proving excessive for the government, elections were postponed indefinitely once again, triggering hundreds of thousands of protestors to hit the streets amid a sharply deteriorating economic environment that saw the rising cost of living and acute fuel shortages become unsustainable for millions of Haitians. Indeed, MSF recently indicated the degree of unrest that engulfed Haiti last year. “In 2022, in collaboration with the Haitian ministry of health, MSF teams carried out more than 4,600 surgical interventions, provided 34,200 emergency consultations, treated 2,600 patients with gunshot wounds, treated 370 burns victims, provided 17,800 medical consultations in mobile clinics, provided care to 2,300 survivors of sexual violence and provided care during 700 births,” the March 8 press release noted. “Since late September 2022, MSF teams have also treated more than 19,000 people for cholera symptoms.”
As the situation continued to worsen during the second half of 2022, with violence across the country flaring up, calls from the Haitian leadership for foreign intervention to ease tensions grew stronger. “[We are] facing a multifaceted socio-political and economic crisis that is being exacerbated by insecurity,” Foreign Minister Jean Victor Geneus said in September when addressing the United Nations General Assembly on behalf of Prime Minister Henry, asking for “the effective support of our partners”.
“Colleagues, a Member State has reached out to us, the United Nations, for urgent assistance. Haiti has come to us in a time of need,” the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said at a Security Council briefing on Haiti on October 17. “As Security Council members charged with maintaining international peace and security, it is our responsibility to come together to help restore peace and security for the people of Haiti.”
But although financial, arms and travel sanctions have been implemented against specific Haitian gang members, the Council has been unable to move forward with an international security coalition as proposed by Thomas-Greenfield. Russia, a member of the 15-nation Council, has expressed opposition to such an intervention. “We have doubts that the option of sending an international military force could fundamentally change the situation,” Russia’s UN ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, stated.
The Haitians themselves are largely against such an interventionist force being used to quell the violence on the grounds that it could set the stage for yet another military occupation of the beleaguered country and thus seriously threaten Haiti’s sovereignty. There is also a widespread belief that the Henry regime has fuelled much of the gang violence in the country as a cynical ploy to continue postponing elections and further consolidate power. Doubting the government’s ability to hold free and fair elections, protestors continue to demand Henry’s resignation.
Many also want the implementation of the Montana Accord, proposed in August 2021 by the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis—a group of civic, religious and political organisations and leaders—that calls for a transitional government to take over from Henry’s administration for a period of two years, during which it can organise credible elections. But the Montana Accord has yet to be implemented. Instead, the Henry government officially announced a transition council in early February tasked with ensuring that elections are held by the end of 2023.