In Haiti, peace starts with listening

Amid a spike in gang violence and a political crisis, civil society groups seek a return to stability that starts with humility.

Men play football next to the Jean Jacques Dessalines monument in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Oct. 12.

Depending on the source, there are anywhere from 90 to 200 armed gangs in Haiti, an island nation of some 12 million people. They are not a new phenomenon. Some have enjoyed close ties to political leaders for decades. In poorer neighborhoods, they often functioned as providers of basic services neglected by the government.

Now, amid perhaps the worst political crisis in the country’s history, their presence has taken a deeply disturbing turn. The United Nations estimates that 934 people in Haiti​ ​were killed in gang violence during the first half of 2022. Kidnappings – a source of revenue – have increased fivefold since 2019. Gangs constrict the flow of goods throughout the capital and wield control over the police forces and businesses.

The threat they pose finally compelled Prime Minister Ariel Henry, Haiti’s unelected leader, to appeal for international intervention on Oct. 7. That call, since backed by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, presents an opportunity for the international community to rethink how to stabilize states in distress. That starts, Haitian reformers say, with listening.

“There are Haitians who have the competence, vision, and commitment to put the country on the path to a better future,” Velina Charlier, a Haitian pro-democracy activist, told the U.S. Congress last month. “Working with and listening to progressive forces of the nation and not the same corrupt figures who have led the country to the disaster we are experiencing today would be a step in the right direction.”

Haiti ranks near the bottom of several indexes of governance and development. It is the world’s 16th most corrupt country on Transparency International’s annual assessment. It is 116th out of 121 nations on the Global Hunger Index. The country’s democratic institutions, meanwhile, are in tatters; it has not held an election since 2016. A gallon of gas costs $30 on the black market.

The current political crisis has its origin in the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Mr. Henry stepped in, vowing to hold elections before the end of the unfinished presidential term in February 2022. The promise was not kept. In the interim, an assembly of more than 200 civil society groups convened to draft a road map back to democracy.

The Biden administration responded to Mr. Henry’s call for intervention by imposing new sanctions on officials with known ties to gang members. And on Wednesday, a delegation from the Pentagon and State Department arrived in Port-au-Prince to consider possible political reforms and security and humanitarian measures.

Foreign intervention is deeply unpopular among Haitians – but unity isn’t. In fact, the civil society groups seeking change through dialogue and the gangs seeking control through violence may have a common goal. As Jean Clarens Renois, a member of the National Union for the Integration and Reconciliation, a political party, told The New Humanitarian, “The solution is social, economic, and it’s about justice. ... Give [gang members] work and they will leave the gangs.”

A young gang member named Ti Zile agreed. “There wouldn’t be war if there was work.”

That offers a starting point for the kind of listening Ms. Charlier, the activist, seeks. As her colleague, Alermy Piervilus, executive secretary of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations, told Congress in the same hearing, rebuilding Haiti rests on “justice, the end of impunity, and citizen participation.” Haiti’s crisis may be complex, but Haitians are saying the solutions are clear to those who are listening.

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