Haitian gangs stormed the prison and freed 4000 detainees

Kseniya Sabaleuskaya

Belarus (Brussels Morning Newspaper), Haiti was one of the first territories discovered by Cristopher Columbus and one of the first territories of the Caribbean Islands to proclaim independence from the Spanish colonizers. However, its history after the end of Spanish governance was not as joyful and peaceful as it was expected by the Haitians.

After years of political and economic struggles, in 1915 island was occupied by the United States forces. Despite Haitian resistance against the U.S. presence on the island, the troops left Haiti only 20 years later. The history of coup d’etats followed by the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier taking another century of possibilities from the Haitian people. In 1988 despite the establishment of the new constitution and providing a bicameral parliament, Haiti still was ruled by the military. Attempts to hold presidential elections had been boycotted or elected presidents had been ousted by the military.

The first actual change in the internal situation of the island happened under the presidency of René Préval, who was the first Haitian head of state to serve a full term since independence. René Préval received education abroad, studying agronomy and geothermal sciences in Belgium and Italy. During his term in office, several economic and agrarian reforms has been instituted, including major privatization program. The unemployment rate has been reduced. Several investigations concerning human rights violations have been carried out to increase the quality of the country´s safety for its citizens. Préval has been trying to deepen Haiti´s cooperation with other Latin American states, which resulted in numerous agreements with Venezuela, Cuba, Panama, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic. Due to his popularity, Préval has been elected for the second term in office in the year 2006. After René Préval´s term had come to an end, he officially left the office leaving a peaceful transition of power to another representative.

Two other presidents, former musician Michel Martelly and businessman Jovenel Moise, could not stay in the chair for more than one term. Both of them were accused of enormous corruption scandals and were forced to leave their posts. Michel Martelly was even included in the Canadian government sanctions list due to the involvement in “gross and systematic human rights violations in Haiti.”

Centuries of political and economic instability led to the rise of gun and sexual violence, illegal drug and arms trade, and massacres. Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world ranking 163 out of 191 in the UN Human Development Index. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods make the situation on the island more complicated as its public and private infrastructure is not sufficiently prepared for the natural cataclysms. In addition to natural disasters, Haiti is suffering from the cholera outbreak resulting in high mortality rates among old and young population of Haiti.

The current president of Haiti, Ariel Henry, has been seen to slightly improve the state’s condition as a continuator of René Préval´s policy.  As his former supporter, Henry was appointed as a director general of the Ministery of Health during René Préval’s presidency and has been serving afterward as a ministry’s chief of staff. Ariel Henry received high-quality education in France and the United States studying neurophysiology and neuropathology at the University of Montpellier and later graduating with a master’s degree in international health management methods from the University of Boston. Subsequently, Ariel Henry has been working as a professor in different French and Haiti higher education institutions, practicing neurosurgeon and a consultant to the Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization.  Ahead of taking a presidential chair, Ariel Henry served as the Prime Minister of Haiti from the year 2021.

As a Prime Minister, his main concern was the reduction of the crime rate in Haiti. In order to simplify the procedure of the policymaking, Ariel Henry proposed a new constitution, abolished the post of Prime Minister giving the President of the State more power. Consequently, the Prime Minister transferred into the President of Haiti and from that time forward Ariel Henry is the head of the government and the head of the state.

First steps in the reduction of crime on the island were taken in the form of investigations of massacres committed by the local gangs, what resulted in mafia’s brutal response and more violence on the streets. Nonetheless, the new President continued his policy. From the positive sides of Ariel Henry’s presidentship is needed to name the increase in export and GDP, declining unemployment rate and slightly decreasing national debt in relation to gross domestic product. However, the consolidation of power in the hands of one person has never benefited anyone, and the same can be said about Ariel Henry.

At a unified conference on January 17, representatives of several accords, including the Montana Accord, selected Fritz Jean as Haiti’s interim president. Henry, however, appeared to be dismissing attempts at a transitional administration when he tweeted that the Haitian people would choose the future president. Henry refused to recognize the Montana Accord on February 7, even though its members had selected Jean as the acting president and Steven Benoît as prime minister in late January. On top of that, he pledged to make the election date public as soon as possible, but his opponents insisted he resign since the late president Jovenel Moïse’s official term had officially ended on that day.

Ariel Henry’s stay in power is seen as an official reason for the gangs’ leaders to try to bring him down by the violent means. “People have been calling for him to step down since he stepped up.”- said Greg Beckett, an associate professor of anthropology at Western University. “They’ve got together and decided they’re not going to wait [for a deal with Kenya]. (Kenya has offered its help to quell gang violence in Haiti last year by sending 1000 police officers and is going to help this time as well). They’re going to take up as much territory and as much reinforcements as possible to eventually resist whatever’s coming in for them.”- said about the gangs’ motivations one of the founders of the Lakou Lapè peace-building organization.

On Saturday night, the National Penitentiary was overrun by bandits led by former police officer Jimmy Cherizier “Barbecue”, who had declared war on the prime minister. Nearly 4,000 inmates were liberated when armed gangs broke into a jail in the capital of the Caribbean Island nation of Haiti. Haitian president at that time fled to Guyana. He went to Kenya several days before that to sign a contract committing 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti. He attempted to land at Port-au-Prince International Airport, but it was closed due to gang violence. “Present-day gangs enjoy a much higher degree of military capacity than those a decade ago.”- was stated by the Global Initiative report. “This has largely been driven by the gangs’ ability to acquire high-caliber weapons.”

Much of police officers has been taken sides of the mafia due to the inability of the government to improve the safety of the region and destroy the gangs’ system to the bottom. In the previous year, Haiti has experienced a massive protest of the police officers, who came out on the streets in response to a rise in killings of fellow officers. The protesters were trying to topple the government by attacking an official residence of Ariel Henry, however, the president escaped.

At present, the state is functioning without the government, Haitians are suffering unhuman treatment and the whole country is starving. Mafia controls around 80% of the territory of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. From the day when jails were stormed, there were multiple shootings, four police officers were murdered and five injured, bandits attacked the airport, causing numerous flights to be canceled, several students were taken hostage, and one of them was hurt. Haitian president as well as the international community is waiting for foreign help.

In Henry’s absence, interim prime minister Michel Patrick Boisvert, the minister of finance, issued a proclamation of the state of emergency. The first country to offer a helping hand was Canada. It has announced that it would provide $80 million to support the multinational force to be led by Kenya, including police personal protective equipment and communications equipment for the police. Some other steps are seen to be taken by the nearest neighbours of the islands in order to restore peace.

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Kseniya Sabaleuskaya is a multilingual student hailing from Belarus but currently pursuing her academic journey in Poland, where she is fluent in Russian and Belarusian. She is now embarking on an Erasmus adventure in Granada, studying Political Science and Sociology in English while honing her Spanish skills. With a background in tutoring Polish and crafting insightful articles on various political subjects, Kseniya is passionate about researching, analyzing, and drawing her own conclusions.