Local Haitian leaders grapple with Caribbean nation’s humanitarian crisis

Originally published in The Bay State Banner by Mandile Mpofu

For Patrick Sylvain, Haiti’s current crisis was inevitable. But that doesn’t erase the sorrow he has felt while watching gangs take over the country and the international community left at a loss for action.

“It is very painful to see a country [descending] into … irreversible chaos,” said the Haitian American Simmons University professor. Haiti, he added, “has always been at a state of emergency, except that it was announced by the state.”

The official declaration of a state of emergency was announced March 4 after Prime Minister Ariel Henry left the country and violent gangs overran the capital city of Port-au-Prince, leaving hundreds of thousands displaced and hordes of Haitians trapped in their homes without food, the AP reported. On Tuesday it also reported that the Prime Minister will resign once a transitional council is created.

The crisis is a culmination of the nation’s long-running instability, which stems from colonial times and has proliferated in recent decades, particularly since the 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Over the last 15 years, the country’s Haitian Tèt Kale Party, known as the PHTK, has refused to hold elections, preventing a transfer of power, which, along with press intimidation, a breakdown in law enforcement and the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, has left the Caribbean nation in shambles.

Adding to the drama, Henry himself has been implicated in the death of Moise.

Years of tension, corruption and a dismantling democracy converged recently, sparking an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Caribbean nations of the regional trade group CARICOM responded to the mounting crisis by calling an emergency convention in Jamaica on Monday, March 11, a meeting that included U.S., French, Canadian and U.N. leaders, according to the AP.

In Boston, home of the third-largest Haitian community in the U.S., after Miami and New York, Haitian leaders are mobilizing to assist their homeland.

“It’s devastating to see what’s happening, but the analysis has been solid throughout the years. We [knew] things would get worse,” said Carline Desire, executive director of the Association of Haitian Women in Boston, a grassroots organization that assists low-income Haitian women and children.

Desire said collective grieving is taking place as women, students and other Haitians remain stuck inside while confronting atrocities such as kidnappings and deaths.

“This situation is like a cancer that’s killing the country,” she said.

Desire and Dieufort Fleurissaint, a pastor and executive director of the Haitian immigrant advocacy organization True Alliance Center, were among the local Haitian leaders who convened for an emergency meeting on the evening of Thursday, March 7.

Fleurissaint said representatives for U.S. Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley were present during the meeting, as the Haitian leaders shared their concerns and discussed how best the elected officials could assist the Haitian community in Boston and those caught in Haiti.

The leaders drafted a letter, he said, to send to elected officials requesting that the U.S. work diplomatically with the Haitian civil society to ensure safety and security for the civilian population in Haiti; stop the deportations of Haitians who come to the U.S. fleeing danger; and work with the Haitian civil society to establish a transitional government and stop “propping up any corrupted government in Haiti.”

“We know that Haiti has seen many evil days … in the past, but this is by far the worst we have seen so far when it comes to the history of the country,” said Fleurissaint.

Since the meeting, Pressley has released a press statement calling for the immediate resignation of Henry and the formation of a transitional government, adding that “no one’s personal ambition is worth the blood of innocent Haitian lives.”

“We urge our colleagues in Congress to join the Biden-Harris administration and the international community in funding urgent assistance to restore security for the Haitian people,” the press release read. “Every day we wait for this critical funding, more Haitians will die. The clock is ticking.”

Also present at the meeting was Boston City Council President Ruthzee Louijeune, the first Haitian American to hold the position. Louijeune said in an interview that it’s important to consider the role the U.S. can play in supporting the country’s stability and being an ally to the Haitian people.

“We need to make sure we are putting resources in the hands and being allies with the Haitian people in trying to think about how [we work] with the Haitian National Police, how we work with civil society, and how we work with the residents of Haiti to really help stabilize the country,” she said.

She called the instability saddening, frustrating and unsettling, adding that other Haitians around her have been trying to balance worry with finding solutions for transitional leadership.

The National Haitian American Elected Officials Network has been “lucky” to partner with the Biden administration to elevate the concerns of Haitians, she said. The organization wrote a letter to President Biden denouncing military intervention, The Hill reported.

To the question of foreign intervention, Louijeune said the situation is complicated.

“We always have to be wary of foreign intervention, given the history of Haiti and given what the history of foreign intervention has done and has been to Haiti,” she said. “And at the same time, we need [to understand] it’s a difficult and dire situation right now.”

A U.N.-backed intervention involving the deployment of Kenyan police officers to Haiti was halted after Kenya’s high court ruled the potential move unconstitutional in January, the AP reported.

Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, sees the role of the U.S. in the crisis as one of complicity and said Haitians strongly oppose the idea of intervention.

“Haitians are pretty clear that an international intervention that is sent to support the repressive PHTK government is not a solution to these problems,” he said.

His organization, IJDH, collaborates with its sister organization in Haiti, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, in the fight to bring justice to Haiti on the ground and abroad, where he said decisions about Haitians’ rights are made. The organization has been documenting the repression occurring in Haiti and fighting for women who have been victims of sexual assault in the violence-torn country.

Concannon said the international community should allow Haitians to bring their country back onto the democratic track and back their efforts to create their own legitimate transitional government. He predicted that in the coming weeks, a widely supported platform will emerge from Haitian civil society, and “the next step is for the U.S. to not get in the way of that.”

Previous efforts to get the U.S. to prioritize an agenda proposed by the Montana Group, a broad coalition of civil society figures, ended in failure.

Sylvain, the Simmons professor, said if Haiti is to get itself out of this crisis, strong leadership will be essential.

“I hope that one day we will have a Haitian leader,” he said, “who would truly be in love and enamored by his or her country to truly push this country forward in a positive light.”