Tensions rise in Haiti as opponents call for PM’s departure


Already struggling to control growing gang violence and kidnappings, Haiti became even more tense Monday as protesters around the country forced the closure of schools, banks and public offices in what opponents of Prime Minister Ariel Henry say is the first of three days of demonstrations aimed at removing him from office.

The protests were preceded with a rush on banks and grocery stores over the weekend. Fearing escalating violence and chaos, Haitians formed long lines at local banks to withdraw money and then crowded grocery stores to stock up. In Port-au-Prince, where tensions were moderate compared to other cities, gunfire was reported in neighborhoods such as La Saline and Cité Soleil. In Delmas, billows of black smoke from burning tires blanketed the sky while a major road was blocked by an oversize truck. After removing barricades from parts of Petionville, police were called to the prime minister’s office where an attempt to stage a sit-in by former Prime Minister Claude Joseph, led to police firing tear gas into the crowd. Joseph was among those doused with gas. He and his political party “Les Engagés pour le développement,” EDE, are among those who have called for for three-days of protesting alongside to force Henry to leave by Wednesday, Feb. 7.

Joseph has accused Henry of failing to deliver during his 30 months in office following the July 7, 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Joseph was prime minister at the time of the still unsolved assassination. Protests were also reported in Les Cayes, where burning barricades and overturned vehicles blocked a national road; and in the cities of Jérémie in the Gran’Anse, Miragoane in the Nippes, and Ouanaminthe and Fort-Liberté in the Northeast. In the northern city of Cap-Haïtien and the cities of Lascahobas and Hinche in the Central Plateau, the demonstrations were carried out by heavily armed agents of a state environmental brigade, the National Agency for Protected Areas.

The group’s head Jeantel Joseph was recently fired by Henry, following a government crackdown. Joseph and members of his rogue brigade have grown powerful in recent months, exchanging gunfire with police, organizing protests against Henry and joining forces with former rebel leader Guy Philippe following his November repatriation to Haiti by the United States where he was jailed on drug trafficking related charges. Philippe has called for a revolution against Henry. After failing to cross a gang-controlled territory to reach Port-au-Prince on Monday, brigade members circulated through Hinche where they were accompanied by members of the public, who later broke into and looted the customs office in the nearby town of Papaye.

The rising tensions come amid a breakdown in talks between Henry and signatories of a Dec. 21, 2022, political accord that consolidated his power and opposition and civil society groups seeking to replace him. The talks broke down in December when a so-called Eminent Persons Group from the 15-member Caribbean Community, CARICOM, visited Port-au-Prince and failed to get the parties to agree on a power-sharing agreement. Members of the international community have insisted such an agreement is necessary for Haiti, which currently doesn’t have a single elected official, to return to democratic order with elections.

Haiti Elections last took place in Haiti in 2016, and since then the country has been embroiled in a deepening political crisis. As part of the signing of the December 21, 2022, agreement, Henry announced general elections for 2023 and for a new government to take office on Feb. 7, 2024. But since the vote has yet to occur, U.S. officials and others in the international community say they consider the deadline to be an artificial one. It was premised, a senior Biden official said, on elections taking place. “He continues to say he’s not going to run for office again and he’s going to leave when there’s a newly elected government,” the official said. The U.S. has repeatedly called on Haiti’s warring political class and members of civil society organizations to find a way to reach a political consensus so the country’s myriad of problems can start to be tackle. “We need to have security on the ground so we can have an election, so that we can have a new government and then [Henry] can retire from office. He is serving his country under very difficult circumstances but we need an elected president and an elected Congress and all the other elected officials in Haiti,” the official said. As Haiti’s security and political crises worsens, the effort to field a Multinational Security Support mission recently hit a roadblock when a court in Kenya barred 1,000 police officers from deploying to Haiti.

Kenyan President William Ruto has said both countries are currently working on the legal paperwork to address the court’s concerns. The senior Biden administration official said while Kenya works on its internal legal issues, the international community has to show greater urgency toward making the security mission, which still lacks money and equipment, a reality. The bigger issue, the official said, is not the Feb. 7 date but “the day-to-day lives of the Haitian people.”


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