Do Not Empower the Criminals in Haiti

Dr. Austin is a Miami-based oncologist and a co-founder of the Haitian American Foundation for Democracy.

Here’s what I remember most about my childhood growing up under a dictatorship in Haiti: fear.

We could never speak against the president-for-life, François Duvalier. My classmates, the children of regime officials, were dropped off at school by big men with guns. One night, men came to take our neighbor’s father, and no one ever saw him again. Sometimes we would walk by the National Palace and avert our eyes, too afraid to even look onto the grounds.

It is agonizing to watch yet another generation of Haitians living with terror. Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, the country’s network of gangs, some sponsored by government officials, have gained territory, arms and audacity. Earlier this month, they formed a confederation and effectively launched war on the state, blocking Ariel Henry, the unelected and unpopular acting prime minister, from flying back into the country. They overran the capital, orchestrated multiple jail breaks, burned government buildings and police stations and attacked the central bank.

I am safe in Miami, but my relatives and friends in Port-au-Prince have told me they are not. One recently had his car shot up; another fled his home after the neighborhood was taken over by gangs; another saw gang members shoot into his convenience store and threaten his employees; another had his house burned to the ground. Most people I know there are terrified they will run out of food and water.

Now some of the same individuals imposing this chaos and destruction are jockeying for power as Haiti’s next government takes shape. Haitians deserve better. Haitians have always deserved security and a say over the fate of their country. They deserve to be led by people who represent the population and strive to keep them safe — not the criminals who have caused their fear and misery, year after year.

For several weeks, Haitian political parties, civil society organizations and diaspora groups have been negotiating what Haiti’s transitional government will look like after Prime Minister Henry resigns, as he has pledged to do. Many hope for a representative council that can re-establish security, rebuild institutions and inspire Haitians’ confidence to vote for a new government in elections later next year. The Caribbean Community, or Caricom, has brokered negotiations, mostly over Zoom, that have created a transitional presidential council, including both democracy advocates and members of several political parties. That council will select a new interim prime minister.

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As these negotiations have taken place, the violent leaders controlling the streets of Port-au-Prince are vying for legitimacy. Both Jimmy Chérizier, known as Barbecue, whose gangs have reportedly massacred and raped civilians, and Guy Philippe, who recently served time in U.S. prison for money laundering related to drug trafficking, are casting themselves as freedom fighters and legitimate political leaders. They have said they will reject any internationally organized agreement, raising questions about how the Caricom-brokered council will be able to regain control of the country.

Some observers of Haiti say that involving those criminal leaders in the next phase of Haiti’s governance could help restore order. That is both a dangerous misconception and a ludicrous idea: It is these men who are currently fomenting violence in a bid to gain power. More than 1,500 Haitians have died in gang violence since the start of the year, according to a new United Nations report. After a bully knocks everyone down, you don’t give him what he wants and expect him to stop. He will always want more and use violence to get it.

Haitians deserve governance by the talented, capable people of integrity and technical skill who have been reluctant, and often afraid, to participate in public life, which has been taken over by a criminally connected political class. The transition government in formation must not include criminals, their deputies or any political party with ties to drug trafficking, arms dealing or gangs.

I have watched state violence destroy lives. When I was a child in Haiti, my father’s twin brothers, Roger and Rodrigue Austin, were involved in a plot to overthrow President Duvalier. Roger helped hide other conspirators in cane fields near where my father worked for the Haitian American Sugar Company. Soldiers eventually burned the fields, killed some of the men and imprisoned my uncles. They never came home. My grandfather was briefly imprisoned as well — Mr. Duvalier believed in collective punishment — and died soon after his release. My father went into hiding, and eventually my parents, siblings and I fled to the United States.

The gangs holding Haiti hostage today are in some ways the direct heirs of that era. Mr. Duvalier governed by violent enforcers: the feared Tonton Macoutes, who imposed state power with machetes. After the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, other leaders followed, employing neighborhood gangs to safeguard their power. Politicians’ use of gangs has gone even further in the past dozen or so years, as a series of manipulated elections allowed Haitian leaders with little popular support to gain office. Instead of winning people over with good policy, empathy and transparency, leaders relied on gangs to intimidate the electorate.

The United States has had a defining role in Haitian politics for generations. Washington supported the savage Duvalier regime, valuing its stability and its opposition to communism during the Cold War. Recently, for more than a decade, the United States has supported Haitian leaders as they dismantled democratic institutions and instrumentalized gangs, and even as the country devolved into gang warfare.

Now the United States is taking a back role in the ongoing negotiations for the transition government, ceding the position of deal maker to Caricom. That is a mistake. Despite Washington’s less than helpful interventions in the past, Haitians need more forceful U.S. involvement to ensure that gang leaders and those connected with them receive a strong message that this time, the United States will not tacitly support their participation in running the country. The U.S. government should not work with gang affiliates and should guard against the engagement of any of their associates with power in this transition.

And the United States will need to take specific actions. Washington should immediately release funds so that an international force led by Kenya can deploy to help restore order and provide security. The installation of the government will need international security support — or there will be no installation.

Washington has a longer-term role to play as well. It should help ensure over time that the new transition government is both functional and remains unbeholden to gangs. Haiti needs to rebuild its police force and establish effective vetting and other processes that will ensure its independence from corrupt politicians and gangs. The judiciary, too, must be rebuilt so that courts work and prosecutors and judges cannot be bought off. The United States and the international community have sponsored elections in the past, but have not meaningfully invested in building these critical institutions and developing citizens’ participation in the system. Only strong institutions and government agencies can support security and stability — and eventually, democracy.

The new transitional government offers a chance — now it is up to Haitians in every sector of society, the Haitian diaspora, the United States and the international community to support it. Without that, the gangs will keep winning, and will extinguish Haitians’ chance to live in a democratic country without fear.


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