The game is up

Haiti's illegitimate government is not long for this world

I sent my last newsletter a few hours ago, but this one cannot wait. Haiti’s de facto government, which has been on shaky ground for nearly three years, could be days or hours away from collapsing, with consequences that will reverberate in Washington and beyond. Its leader, the unelected Prime Minister turned acting president Ariel Henry, is trapped in Puerto Rico, diverted—some might say held hostage—by his erstwhile sponsors in the United States. The overall events of the last 48 hours in particular have been wild—almost cinematic—in ways that go way beyond even Haiti’s colorful recent history.

I’m going to try to summarize them here, then point to what could happen next. This is, to be clear, the definition of a developing story.

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A little background for the uninitiated (you can skip to the next section if you’re read in): In July 2021, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home in the hills above the capital, Port-au-Prince. He was the first Haitian president killed in office in over a hundred years; the last time one happened, in 1915, a brutal, two-decade-long U.S. occupation ensued.

Moïse was, apparently, shot to death by a commando team that included Colombian mercenaries and a pair of Haitian Americans, at least one of whom had been an informant of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Who ordered the hit remains a source of pertinent controversy. Parallel and somewhat contradictory investigations and prosecutions are underway in the U.S. and Haiti. (In the U.S. version, the assassination was the brainchild of a Florida-based pastor with delusions of grandeur; several alleged minor co-conspirators have already pleaded guilty in federal court, most receiving sentences of life in prison despite their apparent cooperation. In the Haitian allegation, the killing was a much wider conspiracy, involving to varying degrees a former president and Moïse’s erstwhile political patron, Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, as well as Moïse’s wife.)

What matters for the moment is what happened after the murder. Moïse had spent the last years of his life destroying what was left of the Haitian government, which was already in shambles after decades of mostly malevolent U.S. interference (including several invasions, blessing coups in 1991 and 2004, and reversing the results of the 2010 election, thus bringing the pro-business-class, American- and narco-friendly Martelly to power). He and Martelly had squandered and stolen the remaining funds meant to recover from the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of the Haitian capital. Parliament and all local political offices in the country had been emptied, as Moïse—following some previous presidents’ precedent—had refused to hold a single election after coming to office, and was seemingly planning to extend his term past any discernable constitutional limits.

With Moïse’s death, then, there were now no constitutionally elected officials left in Haiti. So, after fumbling around a bit, a group of ambassadors consisting of the United States and its major allies (France, Canada, Brazil, etc) ordered Ariel Henry—a seventy-something neurologist who’d entered Haitian politics as part of the faction that ended up carrying out the 2004 coup—to form a government. (Moïse had announced his intention to nominate Henry as prime minister but didn’t get a chance to put him up for a ratification vote in front of the rump parliament before he was cut to pieces in his bedroom.) The idea was that Henry would crack down on criminal gangs and hold “free, fair, transparent and credible legislative and presidential elections in the shortest possible time.”

That was nearly three years ago. No elections were ever held. A nuanced, detailed political transition plan proposed by a broad-based coalition that included several major Haitian political parties, professional organizations, labor unions, farmers’ alliances, and religious and diaspora organizations was ignored by both Henry and the Biden administration. The gangs grew in power and ambition, the streets exploded with unrest, and some old putschist actors came crawling out of the woodwork. Evidence emerged that Henry himself was, at a minimum, in touch with people accused of plotting Moïse’s assassination—during the assassination. Then came this week.

Just as in Israel and Palestine, where the U.S. has just one idea that they keep running over and over again (bypass the Palestinians to forge relations between Israel and U.S. Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; keep the public hoping for a two-state solution that will never arrive), there seems to be just one State Department playbook stamped “Haiti”: 1. Demand elections. 2. Prepare a multinational armed force to back whatever acceptable government is in place. 3. When that government is no longer useful, get a new one. Rinse and repeat. (An often-used corollary to all three steps: freak out about a real or imagined coming influx of Haitian migrants, and panic accordingly.)

Henry left for Africa last week to help with step 2 of the plan: trying to coax the Kenyan government into going along with a plan for a U.S.-sponsored, Kenyan-led armed force that would crush his rival gangs and buy his government more time to promise and not hold elections. While he was gone, the storm clouds gathered. Gang leader, ex-cop, and would-be revolutionary Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, threatened to unseat Henry’s government in the acting president’s absence.

Jimmy 'Barbeque' Cherizier (center) patrolling with members of his G-9 federation gang on February 22, 2024, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

Also waiting in the wings was Guy Philippe, the babyfaced, 59-year-old former city police chief who led the armed faction that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Philippe had returned to Haiti in November after serving about six years of a nine-year sentence in U.S. federal prison, after being arrested on charges of facilitating cocaine shipments and pleading guilty to a money laundering charge. (The rumors when I lived in Haiti were that the CIA kept helping Philippe evade the DEA; whether that was true, much less provable, eventually his luck ran out.) Backed by two other Haitian politicians—perennial presidential candidate Moise Jean Charles and former senator Jean Hector Anacacis—Philippe declared his intention to overthrow the government.

While the warlords plotted, havoc reigned in the capital. Starting on Feb. 29—the twentieth anniversary to the day of Aristide’s overthrow (and, not incidentally, Guy Philippe’s birthday)—Gangs describing themselves as members of a coalition called Viv Ansanm (“live together”) attacked infrastructure, shut down power plants, set fire to police stations, and battled Haitian National Police officers in the streets. This past Sunday, armed cadres attacked the National Penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, triggering a jailbreak in which 4,000 inmates escaped, including many of the Colombian commandos accused of assassinating the late President Moïse.

Henry tried to fly home from Kenya on Tuesday, the fate of the “multinational security force” still uncertain. The acting president’s advisers knew it would be too dangerous for his private plane to land at Port-au-Prince’s Touissant Louverture International Airport, which is located essentially downtown, a short distance from the emptied National Penitentiary. He planned to land instead outside Santo Domingo, the capital of the neighboring Dominican Republic, then fly over the border under cover of darkness aboard a night vision-equipped helicopter, the Miami Herald reported.

But while Henry was in the air on Tuesday, after a stopover in Newark, New Jersey, he got two startling pieces of information: Dominican officials told him he no longer had permission to land. A separate message came in from the U.S. State Department, ordering him to appoint a new prime minister, form a transitional government, and resign. Someone, it seems, had moved on to step 3 in the Haiti playbook.

(On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters that the Biden administration hadn’t ordered the Haitian president to resign, but was rather “urging him to expedite the transition” to a new government. So, resign slowly.)

Henry’s pilots diverted to Puerto Rico, the next island to the east. Landing in the U.S. territory, he was met, the Herald reports, by U.S. Secret Service agents. He is, at last report, still trapped on the island, trying to get permission to go anywhere else.

The warlords are now champing at the bit. Philippe’s ally, Moise Jean Charles, announced Tuesday that he “urge[s] government ministers under Ariel Henry to resign, otherwise, they will be considered enemies of the Haitian people.” (He added: “Foreign ambassadors will also be called upon to leave the country if they attempt to block this process.”) Barbecue Chérizier held his own press conference, borrowing a term from at least two other world crises in warning: “If Ariel Henry doesn’t resign, if the international community continues to support him, we’ll be heading straight for a civil war that will lead to genocide.”

All major airlines, as well as Haiti’s commuter Sunrise Airways, have suspended flights between the U.S. and Haiti. An unnamed U.S. official told McClatchy’s Washington bureau this morning that “the government could fall at any time … If the [Haitian National Palace] dissolves as an effective counterforce, if we see the airport or the presidential palace fall, it’s over.”

Lives are now at risk in a rapidly deteriorating situation in Haiti. Politically and strategically meanwhile, this will all be a severe headache for the Biden administration, which is already dealing with the collapse of ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas, a steadily escalating war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, setbacks in Ukraine, and the start of a general election campaign against an oathbreaking insurrectionist whose prospects in an ambient of surging xenophobia and fearmongering over the supposed “border crisis” will only be buoyed by an influx of desperate Haitian refugees.

It’s a crisis that everyone with eyes and/or ears, and a book or two of Haitian history, saw coming three years ago. With the advantage of all that hindsight, and a president operating on decades of foreign policy experience, there seems to be no choice but … to flip back in the Haiti playbook to Step 2. On Tuesday, reporters asked White House National Security Communications Adviser John Kirby what the administration planned to do. “Man, right now?” he replied, “the focus has got to be on getting that multinational security element in there.”

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