Hiking path to the Citadelle fortress outside Cap-Haitien, long a symbol of resistance.

As international efforts are underway to establish a Transition Council in Haiti made up of various political factions to replace PM Ariel Henry and take control of the country until elections can be held, parts of Haiti have already begun to assert unprecedented autonomy. The violent gangs that have largely taken over Port-au-Prince and paralyzed the capital have also essentially evaporated the power of the central government to govern the country. That has left the door open for local governments to fill the void, particularly in the North. Indeed, an informal council in and around Cap-Haitien has been coordinating with local mayors and civic leaders to govern themselves. Working under-the-radar, they have been able to keep the gangs at bay while providing a measure of stability that has allowed daily commerce to proceed.

For most of Haiti’s history, highly centralized government has always undercut local power and ability to provide local services. Almost everything, even minor permits, had to be approved by authorities in the capital, which created an inflexible bureaucracy that constrained local initiatives. At the same time, almost all taxes collected were funneled to Port-au-Prince with very little flowing back to the towns and cities outside the capital. All of that is changing and will be hard to reverse.

Typical traffic in Cap-Haitien

Local power in the North will be further augmented if container ships begin to prefer Cap-Haitien as the primary port of entry for Haiti. Indeed, most ships have stopped calling on the port in Port-au-Prince because it is too dangerous. While Cap-Haitien’s port is much smaller than the port in the capital, it remains the only significant alternative. The same could be said for the Cap-Haitien Airport. Although flights stopped landing in Cap-Haitian for a few days, more out of precaution than any attacks (unlike the airport in Port-au-Prince), some flights into Cap-Haitien have since resumed and others are likely to follow. The runway is very long and can handle all types of aircraft, including large jets.

It is hard to see how any reconstituted central government is going to exert its will on the northern region to give up its newfound power. Indeed, the actual implementation of a Transitional Council at this point seems problematic unless they have some security force to back them up. Currently, the police and army are barely hanging on in Port-au-Prince against the gangs and thus won’t be of much help. The proposed Kenyan police force of 1000 (perhaps augmented with troops from other African countries) is unlikely to be much of a stabilizing factor to allow for Transitional Council governance–assuming it ever leaves Kenya. The deployment of the police is being held up due to Kenyan constitutional challenges.

But even if the Kenyan police force does enter Haiti, they will face battle hardened gangs armed with automatic weapons fighting on very familiar gang territory. Any Transitional Council will be consumed with trying to establish order in the capital and unlikely to exert energy and resources to bring local governments back into the fold. In short, the reach and authority of the Transition Council will be quite limited. Working with the emerging power players in the North, as well as other regions outside Port-au-Prince, may be the best hope for a Transition Council to unite Haiti. But the price will be far greater autonomy for the regions outside Port-au-Prince.

All of these developments suggest a major power shift away from the capital to Cap-Haitien that may well become the dominant player in Haiti’s future.

Expressive Haitian art