Motorist pass a burning barricade during Port-au-Prince protest, March 7, 2024 (OSV News photo/Ralph Tedy Erol, Reuters).

In recent weeks, Haiti has been engulfed in gang violence, with more than three hundred gangs taking control of most of the country, including 80 percent of the capital, Port-au-Prince. These groups, which had been at war with one another for years, took advantage of President Ariel Henry’s absence from the country in early March to band together and force his resignation. The gangs attacked the airport and police stations, took control of ports and water facilities, and released 4,600 people from jail. They have been looting homes, raping women and girls, and withholding food and water supplies to control the population. The result has been the most severe humanitarian crisis in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. Half the country doesn’t have enough food, and fifteen thousand Haitians have been displaced. Finally, on Monday, March 11, President Henry agreed to step down following the “installation of [a transitional] council.”

Gang violence has been a growing problem in Haiti for years; in 2023, more than four thousand people were murdered, and thousands of others were kidnapped. In October, the United Nations Security Council approved the deployment of an international security force, largely funded by the United States and led by Kenya, to fight the gang violence. When the gangs took over Port-au-Prince, Henry was out of the country finalizing plans for the Kenyan deployment.

By then, most Haitians had soured on Henry, who first came to power in 2021 when then-president Jovenel Moïse appointed him prime minister. Moïse was assassinated a few days later, and Henry, who was never elected, assumed the presidency on what was supposed to be an interim basis. The United States and other countries supported his claim to power, betting on him to establish a stable government despite his autocratic tendencies. Instead, Henry has repeatedly postponed elections.

The United States and other countries supported his claim to power, betting on him to establish a stable government despite his autocratic tendencies.

In March, Caribbean leaders met in Jamaica to create a transitional council for Haiti. They released a plan for the council to be made up of representatives from different factions, including opposition parties, the private sector, and religious and civic organizations. But the plan drew immediate backlash from the gangs, who will not be included. Some gang leaders are attempting to build support for their own presidential bids. The Haitian democracy activist Monique Clesca has accused the international community of “meddling” and opposes the requirement that those on the council must accept the Kenyan deployment. Some Haitians feel like the United States or the United Nations is choosing a new leader without their input. 

The United States has pledged $333 million in aid to Haiti, but concern is growing about an influx of Haitian migrants into an already overwhelmed immigration system. President Joe Biden is reportedly considering a plan to use the facilities at Guantanamo Bay—separate from those where terrorism suspects are currently held—to process Haitian migrants. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has deployed hundreds of officers and soldiers as well as ships and planes to the southern coast of his state to protect against Haitians making the dangerous seven-hundred-mile journey by sea to Florida. “When a state faces the possibility of invasion, it has the right and duty to defend its territory and people,” a statement from DeSantis’s office said. (It did not note that many of the state’s first Cuban residents arrived the same way.)

Much of the gang violence in Haiti has been fueled by weapons smuggled from states with lax gun laws, such as Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and, yes, Florida. Americans—who in the past hundred years have occupied Haiti, meddled in its affairs, and embargoed it to death—are implicated in what the country is suffering today. If Haitian refugees, fleeing the chaos into which their homeland has descended, make it to our borders and shores, we must not turn them back. 

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents
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