After Kenya Police Aid Blocked Haitians Ask What Now

After Kenya Police Aid Blocked, Haitians Ask: What Now? – The New York Times

Gangs have taken over entire neighborhoods in Haiti's capital and murders have more than doubled in the past year, but for organizers of the Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival the show simply had to go on.

While judges an ocean away considered whether to send a contingent of officers to calm Haiti's violent streets, festival organizers settled for shortening the event's length from eight days to four and suspending performances a public stage to a restricted hotel venue and replace the handful of artists who canceled.

While 11.5 million Haitians struggle to feed their families, ride the bus or go to work for fear of becoming victims of gunmen or kidnappers, they are also pushing forward and struggling to maintain a secure sense of routine to win back – whether or not that involves support from international soldiers.

“We need something normal,” said Miléna Sandler, executive director of the Haiti Jazz Foundation, whose festival is taking place this weekend in the capital Port-au-Prince. “We need elections.”

A Kenyan court on Friday blocked a plan to send 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti, the key element of a multinational force designed to help stabilize a nation besieged by killings, kidnappings and gang violence.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has sunk deeper into turmoil in the nearly three years since the president's assassination. The terms of office of all the country's mayors ended almost four years ago, and the prime minister is deeply unpopular, largely because he was appointed rather than elected and has failed to restore order.

With the U.N.-backed and largely U.S.-funded response plan on hold, Haitians are wondering: What now?

The Kenyan government said it would appeal the court ruling, but it was unclear if and when its mission would continue. And since no other country, including the United States and Canada, demonstrates a willingness to lead an international force, there is no apparent Plan B.

For many Haitians, the Kenyan court decision has left the Caribbean country to find its own solutions. If the court ruling suggests anything, experts say, it is that the government, police, parliament and other institutions must be rebuilt if there is any hope of saving Haiti from total state collapse.

“We no longer want to be a colony of the United States,” said Monique Clesca, a women and democracy activist who was a member of the Commission to Find a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, a group that tried to come up with a plan to address the country's problems. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want help. That means it has to be negotiated with people who are legitimate and who have the well-being of Haiti at heart.”

Ms. Clesca, a former United Nations official, said she hoped the Kenyan court's decision would prompt the United States, Canada and France – countries that have long had close ties to Haiti – to reconsider their policies.

She criticized the Biden administration and leaders of other countries for supporting Haiti's current Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who took office after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.

The commission she worked on put forward extensive proposals for an interim government that would set the stage for elections, but its work was rejected in favor of supporting Mr. Henry, who pushed for international intervention, she said.

As a personal act of resistance and a sign that Haiti must move forward, Ms. Clesca pushed against the unsafe streets and attended the jazz festival on Thursday.

“The store was full,” she said.

Jean-Junior Joseph, a spokesman for the Haitian prime minister, declined to comment on the Kenyan court's decision but said that Mr. Henry was “taking a diplomatic approach.”

A United Nations spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, stressed that Secretary-General António Guterres did not select Kenya to provide police assistance – Kenya stepped forward instead.

“We thank them for doing this while so many countries are not taking a step forward,” Mr. Dujarric said. “The need for this Security Council-authorized multinational force remains extremely high. We urgently need action, we urgently need funding and we hope that Member States continue to do their part and more.”

In Washington, John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, reminded reporters that the Kenyan government was appealing the court ruling.

“We are still very grateful to the Kenyan government for their willingness to participate,” he said. “We still think this is really important because the gangs, the thugs and the criminals are still causing a lot of mayhem, mayhem, murder and violence, and the people of Haiti deserve much better.”

Although Washington was a strong supporter of the Kenya mission, it did not offer American personnel.

The U.S. government has pledged $200 million to the multinational mission, money that many Haitians say could instead bolster Haitian institutions, including the police force, which has lost at least 3,000 of its 15,000 officers in the past two years Job tasks.

The US State Department has already transferred around $185 million to the Haitian National Police, which has helped finance equipment, but the force remains woefully ill-prepared to fight the heavily armed gangs.

“Should we wait forever for a force to arrive?” said Lionel Lazarre, who heads one of Haiti’s two police unions. “NO! We already have a police force.”

Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University who follows Haiti closely, said that without international intervention, more strategic policies from the United States and a long-overdue and seemingly impossible strengthening of the Haitian state, a less favorable option is probably the most likely: the rise of someone like Guy Philippe, a former police commander who led a coup in Haiti in 2004 and has recently tried to mobilize people against the government.

Mr. Philippe arrived in Haiti in November after serving a prison sentence in the United States and being deported. He is known to have ties to drug traffickers and has allied himself with a paramilitary group in northern Haiti. However, it is unclear whether he has the public support and financial backing to lead the “revolution” he has publicly called for.

“Someone has to take the lead,” Mr. Gamarra said, adding that it would best not be Mr. Philippe.

Ashley Laraque, a leader of the Haitian Military Association, a veterans group, said he believes Kenya will eventually pull through but that the Kenyan government would likely need more financial incentives.

“I am sure the Kenyan government will send troops,” Mr Laraque said. “I don’t know when, but I’m sure it will happen as soon as this money matter is resolved.”

Joseph Lambert, the former president of the Haitian Senate, said the need was critical.

“It is time more than ever to understand that we must, at all costs, strengthen our capacities both at the level of the police and at the level of the armed forces of Haiti,” he said, “so that we as a sovereign state.” “We can meet our security needs through our own security forces.”

Although Haiti has a history of disastrous outside interventions, Judes Jonathas, a consultant who works on development projects in the country, said many Haitians were disappointed by the court decision because they longed more than anything for the security of such a contingent of police officers to deliver could.

“If you ask the people of Haiti what they need, it is security,” he said. “They don’t think about food or school. For security reasons we don't have any food. People don’t go to school for safety reasons.”

In fact, there are parts of the city where there is no cooking gas because gangs have blocked major roads. Farmers in rural areas often find it too dangerous to sell their goods in city markets. Even the state-owned electric company had to move its employees from its headquarters because of gang activity nearby.

Gangs have such a hold on Port-au-Prince that they sometimes kidnap busloads of passengers and demand ransom.

The gangs, Mr. Jonathas said, have become bolder in the face of the government's inability to meaningfully confront them, and the legal hurdle to international deployment has left the Haitians on their own.

“I don’t really think the international actors really understand what’s happening in Haiti,” he said. “We just don’t see a future.”

Farnaz Fassihi and Andre Paultre contributed reporting.