Why Canada should tread lightly as Haiti’s prime minister quits

Originally published in The Star by Allan Woods

Haiti is one of the few countries where Canada has had real clout and impact, both diplomatically and practically.

Chalk it up to the large and influential Haitian diaspora in Montreal, or that Canada and Haiti are both French-speaking countries in a hemisphere dominated by the Spanish and English languages.

Canada has a long history of intervening in the troubled affairs of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, be it to push ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004, to recover from the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, or through military, police and civilian participation in the various assistance and peacekeeping missions that Haiti has known.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted to stay largely on the sidelines through much of Haiti’s current crisis, a political psychodrama sparked by a presidential assassination that has left the country dealing with shocking levels of gang violence.

With Monday’s long-awaited announcement that interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry would resign his post, Canada will be eager to get back into the game, keen to exert influence in a country where it sends tens of millions of dollars each year, making it among the top donors of financial aid.

In an interview with the Star on Tuesday, Canada’s United Nations Ambassador Bob Rae described the Haitian crisis as a key foreign policy priority, with fears that instability, gang violence, illicit trafficking and sexual exploitation could spiral out of the chaos in the Caribbean nation. He noted that Canada is helping train Haitian police and supporting the proposed Kenyan-led UN mission to get “boots on the ground” to help beleaguered authorities restore order in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where the UN said 80 per cent of the city is now controlled by armed gangs. 

While Canada isn’t pledging any personnel to join that mission, it has committed more than $80 million to support it, along with millions more to provide equipment, Rae said. 

Canada initially looked into the possibility of leading the Haiti security force, but decided against it. Instead, Ottawa’s help during the political and security crisis was largely limited to providing funding and equipment to the Haitian National Police, which has been fighting a losing battle with the country’s gangs; announcing sanctions against individuals suspected of corruption; and providing aid and humanitarian assistance.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Kenya would put the UN mission on hold until a new government is formed in Haiti.  

“A significant majority of Haitians want this nightmare to end, and they know that the (Haitian National Police) needs help to do it. So I think that’s something that we’re determined to see happen,” he said. 

But Canada could best serve the Haitian people by acting as a counterweight to U.S. pressure on the committee that will be tasked with running the country until free, fair — and safe — elections can be held, according to a human rights lawyer and Haiti expert.

“I think there are going to be opportunities to push back and negotiate in terms of what happens going forward, and I think Canada can play a role being the democratic voice in the room when there’s discussions about Haiti,” said Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

For some in Canada’s Haitian diaspora, it is difficult to watch the crisis unfold from afar. Max François, a contractor from Haiti who now lives in Toronto, said his brother and sister live in Haiti outside the capital, but are still living in fear. 

“All you can do is just try to hide or stay somewhere safe,” François told the Star. “It’s very sad.” 

Henry resigned days after returning from Kenya, where he signed a controversial deal that would see the UN-sanctioned force of police officers from that country deployed to Haiti — one of the 75-year-old neurosurgeon’s last acts in office.

While absent, gangs seized control of the Port-au-Prince airport, preventing his return and paralyzing the capital. Neighbouring Dominican Republic also turned Henry’s plane away, forcing him to land in Puerto Rico, the U.S.-island from where he finally surrendered his hold on power.

He made the announcement late Monday night in a Creole-language video statement following marathon negotiations with Caribbean leaders, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken, Trudeau and others.

Henry’s resignation will take effect once a presidential council is named to run Haiti, appoint an interim prime minister, government and national security council. It will govern until such time as an election can be held.

“We implore all parties … all Haitians to be patient,” Ali said Monday in Jamaica. “Let us give a bit, let us sacrifice a bit, and give this agreement a chance to work.”

Rae, who was present in Jamaica as the negotiated terms of Henry’s resignation and the path forward were laid out by Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali for reporters, told the Star that it’s now up to the Haitian leadership to take the steps necessary to establish the transition council, get the Kenyan-led UN mission into the country, and set the stage for the free and fair elections that Canada, the U.S. and others in the Caribbean are calling for. 

“The creation of this council and the agreement to get it going is the first step, but they got to keep walking. It’s going to take more than one step, it’s going to take a lot of steps to get us to a better place,” Rae said.

Less than a day into the new arrangement, there is some sunshine on the island nation’s political horizon, but also troubling clouds that could close in.

Henry’s resignation is what the armed gangs who have strategic control over a wide swath of Haiti have been demanding for months. It is not yet clear if, or under what conditions, the gangs would lay down their weapons.

Henry took control of the country after the assassination of ex-president Jovenel Moise in July 2021, and stayed in power well beyond Feb. 7, 2022, when Moise’s presidential term expired.

He delayed calling a new election due to the security situation at the time. This sparked a political crisis that provoked starker displays of violence. Gang factions laid siege to Port-au-Prince, part of a strategy designed to increase the pressure on Henry and force him from office.

Haiti’s political opposition is now celebrating.

“God is great. (Henry) has resigned … and now I pray for the people of Haiti,” wrote Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born rapper who flirted with a presidential bid in 2010. “Let’s show the world that we can take destiny into our own hands.”

Clarens Renois, general co-ordinator for Union Nationale pour l’Intégrité et la Réconciliation, a Haitian political party, wrote on X, the social media platform, that Henry’s departure was “the end of a nightmare” that needed to be followed by reconciliation and national reconstruction.

But some Haitians are troubled by the conditions set for membership on the presidential council.

Six of the seven voting members will be nominated by leading Haitian political parties, while a seventh will come from the business community. There will be two other observing members: one from civil society and another representing the country’s faith communities.

To be eligible, nominees must not be charged or convicted of a criminal offense, not be under economic sanctions, and not plan on running in the next elections.

This will rightly weed out destabilizing elements: those seeking personal political power; gang members like Jimmy “Barbeque” Chérizier, who have wreaked havoc on Haiti; or the allegedly corrupt and gang-linked Haitian politicians and entrepreneurs who have been sanctioned by Canada and others.

But the last condition is potentially troublesome: nominees cannot oppose the deployment of the Kenyan police force in Haiti. The mission is controversial among Haitians because it was long seen as a strategy to extend Henry’s grip on power rather than an honest bid to secure the country.

“To require a mission that was designed to prop up a corrupt, repressive government as a condition for starting a new, democratic one makes it much less of a sovereign exercise,” Concannon said.

As Haitians ponder their political future the day after yet another of its leaders had fallen from power, some suggested that the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be spent putting foreign boots on the country’s sovereign soil would be better invested in its own Haitian-led police and military solutions.

“There obviously is a lot of conflict in Haiti, but there’s also this underlying capacity to come to consensus,” said Concannon.

He was referring to the relative calm that has followed the stormy rule of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier. Known respectively as “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc,” the Duvaliers’ regime of terror lasted from 1957 to 1986.

The same sense of unity emerged when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from Haiti in a 2004 coup d’etat, Concannon said.

“Once Haitians kind of feel that there is consensus, there’s a very strong willingness to go along with that and for people to put aside their personal agendas if they think it’s for the collective good,” he said. “But that is deeply undermined when the international community is coming in and telling people, ‘Hey, you get to power if you (support the Kenyan police deployment), even if everybody else disagrees with you.’”

With files from Alex Ballingall