Haiti at breaking point amid rampant poverty, gang violence, instability

Haiti has reached the breaking point.

Already one of the world’s most impoverished countries, Haiti has endured a hellish 2021 marked by historic natural disasters, shocking political violence and rampant gang activity that reached new heights Saturday with the kidnappings of 17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries near the capital of Port-au-Prince. The Biden administration worked behind the scenes Monday to secure the hostages’ release after a team of FBI agents arrived in the Caribbean nation overnight to assist with the search.

Five children are among those held by 400 Mawozo, a dangerous Haitian gang with a history of targeting Christians.

U.S. rescue efforts rely largely on the help of a Haitian government that can be described as dysfunctional at best and is facing growing outrage from its people, many of whom are desperate to flee.

The frustration was on clear display Monday as unions and other groups launched a nationwide strike to protest the growing lack of security and dangerous conditions. In much of the country, armed gangs often operate with little to fear from law enforcement. 

International officials said the demonstration shines a light on deep-seated anger among Haitians, who have endured a string of tragedies and crises that have left the country on the brink of collapse.

“Empty roads this morning in [the capital of Port-au-Prince]. General strike, no commercial activities, no public transport, no fuel, no schools, no life. The population is exhausted,” Giuseppe Loprete, Haiti chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration, wrote in a Twitter post Monday that included a photo of a near-deserted stretch of road in Port-au-Prince.

“Instability, violence and chaos are pushing [people] to leave more than poverty,” he said.

Indeed, Haitian workers echoed that sentiment.

“The population cannot take it anymore,” Holin Alexis, a motorcycle taxi driver in the nation’s capital, told The Associated Press.

Long-standing poverty and dysfunction across Haiti have led to an exodus that captured Americans’ attention last month. Thousands of Haitians, many of whom had fled to South America, headed to the U.S. and gathered near Del Rio, Texas. Several thousand were deported to Haiti, but many thousands more were allowed to enter while their requests for asylum were processed. 

The shocking images of the migrants near Del Rio cast attention on a litany of problems gripping Haiti that no amount of domestic political reform or international support appears to be able to address.

Fraught with poverty and struggling to rebuild after a 2010 earthquake, the ill-equipped nation was confronted by COVID-19. Although official case and death counts appear to be relatively low, the State Department warns against travel to the country in part because of a “very high level of COVID-19.”

‘Institutional vacuum’ 

Conditions in Haiti have grown from bad to worse in the past several months. In June, Haitian Supreme Court Chief Justice Rene Sylvestre died from COVID-19. 

Weeks later, Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated at home by a squad of foreign mercenaries. Questions remain about who was behind the brazen killing.

Haiti’s fragile institutions have yet to recover, United Nations officials say.

“The circumstances of President Moise’s violent death remain unclear, and progress is further complicated by the alleged transnational dimension of the crime. As a result, speculation abounds over who financed and masterminded the assassination,” the U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti said. “The assassination further aggravated the institutional vacuum in Haiti” after Sylvestre’s death.

“The country’s three branches of power are now dysfunctional,” the U.N. report said.

The lack of a strong central government and fully functional law enforcement agencies has led to a significant spike in gang activity. Since June, at least 19,000 Haitians have been displaced by turf wars across the country, the U.N reported. Those gang wars also have led to road closures that have blocked the delivery of food, medicine and other crucial goods to southern reaches of the country, exacerbating the high poverty and disease rates.

In many parts of the country, analysts say, violent gangs have developed a sense of legitimacy among the population and in some quarters are viewed as perhaps the only institutions capable of projecting power and maintaining some semblance of order. The bands of criminals also have increasingly turned to kidnapping as a way to finance their operations.

The 320 official reports of kidnapping to the National Police this year have greatly exceeded the total for all of last year.

Outside organizations put the number at well over 600. 

Against that grim backdrop of political chaos and gang warfare, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on Aug. 14, killing more than 2,200 and injuring and displacing many thousands more. It also destroyed roads, water systems and other critical infrastructure. 

The political chaos, rising gang violence and historic earthquake, analysts said, have led Haiti to one of its lowest points in decades and accelerated mass emigration.

“On their own, natural disasters and violence fuel displacement and migration. The combination of the two will amplify this risk, almost ensuring that Haitian migrants will begin to head to the Americas — including to U.S. shores,” Jason Marczak and Wazim Mowla, analysts with the Atlantic Council who study the region, wrote after the August earthquake.

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers say the administration should keep all options on the table, including the military, to rescue the kidnapped missionaries.

“We need to track down where they are and see if negotiations without paying ransom are possible or do whatever we need to on a military front or police front,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican, told CNN on Sunday.

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