Haiti negotiates agreement on transitional council as it seeks to end chaos

Political parties and social organizations are in talks to form an interim body to stop the criminal gangs, but some experts are concerned that it will favor the very people who caused the security crisis

Former police officer Jimmy 'Barbecue' Chérizier, leader of an alliance of armed groups, in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) on March 11, 2024.Ralph Tedy Erol (REUTERS)
Pablo Ferri

Haiti is at a crucial point. The nation is on tenterhooks as it follows the progress of the negotiations to form a presidential transition council that will allow the paralyzed country to move forward. The talks between social organizations and political parties took place last week as chaos continued to grip the capital, Port-au-Prince, a battleground for dozens of criminal gangs that roam the streets. On Thursday, they ransacked and burned the house of the National Police chief.

Restoring stability is an enormous challenge. Seven coalitions of political parties and social organizations are currently electing the members of the transitional council, which will be tasked with reaching agreements of utmost importance. First, the council will have to elect an interim prime minister to replace Ariel Henry, who has been in power since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. Last Monday, Henry announced that he would step down once the transitional council had been formed.

As of Saturday, five of Haiti’s seven coalitions had submitted the names of their representatives to Caricom, the regional trade bloc also known as the Caribbean Community. Of the remaining two, one had declined to participate and the other — the December 21 Agreement, which supported Henry’s rise to power in 2021 — is waiting for its factions to agree on a name.

Once the council and a new prime minister have been elected, the top priority is addressing the violence in Port-au-Prince and its metropolitan area. “The priority is to create security,” said Monique Clesca, from Montana Accord, one of the seven coalitions that will elect the members of the transitional council. “We have to talk about security and humanitarian aid,” she added. Clesca said that given the current chaos, calling new elections is of secondary importance. “Is it even a priority, when people can’t go out to shop, or children can’t go to school?” she argued.

The last two weeks in Port-au-Prince have been particularly violent. Criminal gangs virtually cut off the city. On February 29 and the following days, groups of armed gangs jointly attacked the airport and the National Penitentiary, freeing nearly all the prisoners — more than 3,500. Nine National Police facilities were also targeted. Six agents were killed when gang members raided their station. The gunmen posted videos of themselves mocking the officers’ bodies on social media.

Emboldened by the power they have gained in the past few years, armed gangs responded violently — and with rare unity — to Henry’s initiative to crack down on crime. The attacks began after the prime minister traveled to Kenya to sign an agreement to send 1,000 police officers to the Caribbean country, with the backing of the United Nations and with U.S. funding. The gangs wanted to stop the efforts to reinforce Haiti’s dwindling police force: with 11 million inhabitants, Haiti has fewer than 10,000 officers.

The future

The question now is whether the future council will accept the U.N.-backed police force deployment. Clesca, for example, does not support the operation, which the Kenyan government has offered to lead. “Haiti’s survival cannot depend on Kenya. We have to see what the council decides when it is formed. I think Kenya is the U.S. and U.N. option, but I don’t know if it’s the only one for the Haitians,” she said. “I think there will be discussions about this. We may have problems, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have ideas. We are not a colony.”

Also of concern is the fact that some members of the council are backed by political parties that have been accused of supporting criminal gangs, such as the PHTK, the party of former president Moïse and his predecessor, Michel Martelly. Not surprisingly, one of the criminal leaders who has made the most headlines — Jimmy “Barbeque” Chérizier — supported the PHTK in the past. Human rights organizations have accused Chérizier and the PHTK of working together to repress the opposition protests in 2018.

“It is ironic that parties like the PHTK are part of a council aimed at seeking help for the police, because the role of every government has been, precisely, to destroy it,” said Michael Deibert, an American researcher and writer, who has published several books on Haiti. “Collaboration with criminal groups is a thing of many governments, including Lavalas, for example,” he added, referring to the party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in 2004.

Deibert does not have much faith in the presidential transition council, precisely because of who will be on it. “It is disappointing that this council will be putting a lot of power in the hands of the people who caused the crisis. The idea that they can work together is naive, they don’t have a history of working well together, even in peaceful times. The council is not an improvement from Henry,” he said. “I don’t think the council is the remedy for violence. There are too many actors inside and outside of it with multiple interests.”

Another threat hovers over the future council: former senator Jean-Charles Moïse, whose coalition declined the take part in the process. Moïse has established a strange alliance with Guy Philippe, a former police officer who served a prison sentence in the United States for money laundering and who participated in the coup against Aristide’s government in 2004.

Philipe and Moïse have said that another committee sponsored by them should take power. Last Friday, in neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, several groups of people marched with posters in favor of Philippe. In videos of the demonstrations, shared on social media, tires could be seen burning in the background — a sign of the tension that continues to grip the capital.

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