Ben Stubenberg

Caribbean Stories From Inside The Reef

Haiti’s Gangs Gain Local Support

Just a few months ago, Haiti’s notorious gangs in Port-au-Prince gained a well-deserved reputation for grisly violence and gruesome cruelty as they staked out their turf in the city’s sprawling neighborhoods. Despite the best efforts of an outgunned, outmanned police force, kidnapping, extortion, killing, and rapes continued. But in a new twist, the gangs have also begun to gain a measure of popular support by providing security, food, and medical treatment to residents within their territories.

In other words, gangs, sufficiently financed from an array of illicit enterprises, have morphed into quasi governing bodies that have partially replaced the mayhem that once reined–a mayhem that also displaced hundreds of thousands of people to towns in other parts of Haiti. One might call it a bargain with the devil to survive, but the consolidation of local support follows a not-so-unusual pattern in other cities around the world where the local mafia often provide social services that the government once did in a bid to gain local support. It’s really a modern-day feudal arrangement where gang leaders exchange benefits in return for letting them rule unhindered.

Now, the extent of popular support for gangs varies widely among the scores of gangs in Port-au-Prince. But the emergence in some gang controlled neighborhoods of something akin to an alternative authority brings relative stability (I emphasize the word “relative”) will likely strengthen their position and make it more difficult to eradicate them. This change aligns with the establishment of a loose accord among gangs called Vivre Ensemble or “Living Together.” This informal understanding has reduced inter-gang fighting and allowed them to focus more on dealing with bigger external threats. At the same time, the consolidation of power by gang leaders has boosted the egos of gang leaders who have come to enjoy the limelight, including courting the foreign press.

These changing gang dynamics present a much greater challenge for foreign troops, notably the UN peacekeeping Kenyan troops that arrived two weeks ago. Indeed, the Kenyans have restricted their patrols largely to “safe zones” around the US Embassy and have not sought confrontation with the gangs. The Kenyans are no-doubt keenly aware of the formidable gang capabilities in the areas they control, which is about 80% of the city. And they may well have decided to mitigate their risks of taking casualties and losing a firefight against a gang foe that can match them in weapons capabilities while enjoying home turf advantage.

Gangs have learned from mistakes in battles with police and refined their tactics while gaining more local support. Notably, gangs have recruited (or coerced) young teens or even pre-teens to act as spotters on the edges of the neighborhoods to be on the lookout for a potential incursions by police or foreign troops as a sort of early warning system. The gang leaders have seemingly managed to frame the struggle as “us” against “them.” In this sense they have cast themselves as akin to “freedom fighters” in the battle between Haitian autonomy and foreigners seeking to dominate–even if those foreigners have been invited by the recently established government led by Interim Prime Minister Garry Conille.

These and other “force multipliers” all work in favor of gangs and could result in a longterm standoff where the Kenyan and other peacekeeping troops have next to zero impact on the gang control of most of Port-au-Prince. In short, the gangs aren’t going anywhere soon.

Face-to-Face with Boat People

As predicted in earlier blog in March, the mass exodus of Haitians fleeing chaos did not materialize. While the Turks & Caicos, Bahamas, and South Florida were all on high alert for an armada of boat people about to descend en-mass on the shores, the numbers did not change much if at all. Which calls into question the quality of the information authorities are relying on about Haiti. Do they really understand the situation there with all its nuances? I’m skeptical.

In recent weeks, the steady migrations of people in rickety boats continues to depart from the coast of Northern Haiti at roughly the same pace as before. Indeed, over the past few weeks we have seen interceptions of boats close to the west side of Provo and some making it to the beach, which is more or less “normal.” Not for the first time, a boat recently arrived near the super luxury resort of Amanyara, which, of course, dramatically highlights the stunning contrast of vast wealth coming face-to-face with desperate poverty.

That image of Haitians scrambling off their sloop with nothing but the clothes on their backs onto beach next to where high-end tourists are paying upwards of $15,000 a night for a room reflects an emerging new social reality. And that is that the very rich and the very poor are going to be seeing more of each other and maybe even spending some quality time side by side. How exactly is that going to go over when it becomes clear that it’s not a one-off? Will the very wealthy, upon seeing extreme deprivation and desperation up close, be repelled? Will they want to vacation somewhere else where such unpleasant encounters with the impoverished can be avoided and allow them to properly enjoy their tropical sojourn? Or will the sight be an eye-opener that spurs them to take action, to find a way to lessen the pain of the destitute? The über-wealthy can at times be quite empathetic and generous to the unfortunate and thus transformative.

Either way, the harsh reality of the very rich and very poor in close contact–jarring, perhaps for both–is only likely to increase since neither poverty in Haiti nor the opening of luxury accommodations in Turks & Caicos is about to recede anytime soon. The temptation pay $2000 to human traffickers to cross the dangerous 130 miles of ocean in hopes of reaching the shores of a land with the prospect of work is simply too great. Meanwhile, TCI residents–locals and expats–are already living in proximity to poor Haitians, many undocumented and dwelling on the fringe in hidden shantytowns or in the bush with barely a tarp overhead. Nobody knows, but some have suggested that as many as 4000 people fall into that category or around 10% of the entire population of 40,000. Is that something we just get used to, a underclass that becomes a “new-normal?” Or does it create a backlash? My guess is both.

Watch this blog for thoughts on how that will shape the future of these islands and perhaps foreshadow what’s to come in other societies.

A “Canary” In The Islands

Last week some 50,000 people in the Canary Islands (Spain) demonstrated in the streets to protest the mass tourism that has driven up the cost of renting or owning house so much that is now out of reach for many locals. They were not protesting against tourists, the major source of revenue, but to demand a more balanced approach to tourism development. Their quite legitimate concerns should give us pause to consider our own overdevelopment on Provo which is heading in the same direction.

On Provo, the construction of numerous new resorts funded and financed by foreigners has also dramatically pushed the price of rentals and housing for locals. At the same time, the infrastructure, specifically the airport, roads and water supply, is not able to keep up with the current level of development, much less for projects already in the works. Indeed, real estate sales in the first quarter of 2024 show the demand has not subsided even though most of the projects are still one, two or three years from completion. The good news is that the government is taking in tens of millions of dollars in revenue from stamp duty (10%) on condo and villa sales, as well as duty from increased imports. The bad news is that native islanders can’t afford to live in here. As the disparity between wealth and poverty widens, a despairing sense of loss has set in for many.

My article in the winter issue of the Times of the Islands, “Who Gets A Piece Of Paradise,” calls attention to this alarming trend here and world-wide that is finally getting some push-back. What is taking place in the Canary Islands can be seen as one of many bellwethers of what’s to come and the consequent urgent need to adjust policies accordingly. Specifically, slow or stop development now lest it destroy us. Once big resorts blanket the island, there is no going back. Luxury accommodations will give way to mass tourism followed by stagnation that can only hurt the island more. It doesn’t have to be this way if we act now.

Meanwhile, the contrast with Haiti, just 130 miles to the south and on the opposite end of the financial/investment spectrum, could not be sharper. There is no spillover of luxury resort construction from Turks & Caicos to Haiti. The violent gangs who control 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and have put more than a million people at risk of famine (and diseases that hunger aggravates) are not going away anytime soon. It’s easy to close our eyes to this tragic reality as we deal with our own very different challenges. But we should not because our fates are linked by geographic proximity, historical relationships, and population movement. We should also note that while many Haitians seek to flee north to TCI in rickety boats despite the high costs ($1500-$2000 per person) and risk of drowning during the crossing or being intercepted by Marine Police, many more choose to stay. They are the ones striving to create a new and more secure and stable Haiti that looks beyond the seemingly intractable problems of today. Those are the leaders TCI (along with the US, Canada, and other Caribbean countries) should work with, particularly in the north, to enhance economic opportunity while pushing back on the human traffickers and other criminals whose havoc there inevitably impacts us here.

Everything Goes Through Cap-Haitien

Amid the hopefulness of the formal establishment of the nine member transitional council in Haiti on Friday, one must ask how effective it can be in view of gang control of most of Port-au-Prince. Indeed, what exactly can the council do when the gangs have more powerful assault weapons than the police and call the shots, literally and figuratively? President Biden’s release of millions of dollars for better weapons and protection gear for the police has the potential to finally start evening the weapons matchup after years of officially restricting the export of powerful guns to Haiti’s police. Gangs, of course, have never had to operate under any constraints. They just bought the assault weapons in the US from any number of stores and had them smuggled to Haiti, thus giving them the huge advantage they enjoy.

Since the council will have no real power to enforce anything and be largely focused on their own security in the capital, Northern Haiti will fill the vacuum and continue to rise in prominence and power. With the complete shutdown of the airport and near closure of the port in Port-au-Prince, all international flights and almost all cargo are being diverted to Cap-Haitien, which remains relatively calm. In short, Cap-Haitien is replacing Port-au-Prince economically and will soon dominate politically. Port-au-Prince, sadly, is a dying city that is not likely to recover soon.

As people flee Port-au-Prince, close to 100,000 now according to UN estimates, and famine looms for many more in and out of the city, the most urgent question is how to ensure that food aid arrives and is properly distributed without gang interference. Agencies shipping food aid through Cap-Haitien must first contend with delays in offloading because the port of Cap-Haitien does not have the capacity to quickly process all the ships arriving. (Some ships have opted to unload in the port of Manzanillo in the Dominican Republic and truck the supplies across the nearby border to Haiti.)

Second, once the aid is offloaded, it must be transported by trucks over Haiti’s main highway, Route National, to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where the threat of famine is most acute This involves crossing two mountain ranges over perilous switchback roads hugging steep cliffs that sometimes get washed out. The trip takes about 7 hours.

Third, it is still an open question as to how these trucks will be protected once they get close to Port-au-Prince or even into the largely gang controlled city. The police are simply not numerous or well enough equipped to take on gangs that will likely attack and try to steal the aid. Earlier in the week, a gang actually hijacked a ship in Port-au-Prince transporting rice that resulted in a five hour gun battle with police. In a rare but significant victory, the police managed to beat back the gangs, but not before the gang took around 10,000 pounds of rice.

Assistance by foreign troops from other Caribbean islands supported by Americans and Canadians could be the best option for ensuring safe passage of the aid shipments moving from Cap-Haitien to Port-au-Prince. Of course, there is also the Kenyan troop option, if the judicial and political hold-ups there are ever resolved in that country. But the Kenyan troops, however well-trained, are the not the best option for Haiti, since this is foreign territory for them.

Regardless, any foreign military intervention is fraught with political ramifications and thus must be done in close cooperation with Haitian authorities. Haitians must be involved in the planning and execution from the beginning. This is where the council could provide some legitimacy for foreign troop assistance. But the council will also have to recognize and accept the significant power shift to the North and work closely with police and political authorities there. The North cannot be relegated back to secondary status, as was the case before the gangs took over almost all of Port-au-Prince. There is a new reality in Haiti that isn’t going away.

A Separate Haiti?

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

Fleeing Haiti: Challenging Assumptions

Boat ferry heading into village of Labadie in Northern Haiti. Photo by Ben Stubenberg

Just 130 miles (210 km) south of the economically booming high-end tourist destination of Turks & Caicos Islands lies a country on the opposite end of the spectrum: Haiti. That was the name given by the original Taino Indian people who lived there when Columbus made landfall in December 1492. In their language Haiti means land of high mountains. For more than two centuries, TCI and Haiti have been connected by refuge and trade. When Haiti won its freedom in 1803 following the biggest slave revolt in the world since Spartacus fought the Romans, dozens of enslaved people in the TCI would sail boats under the cover of darkness to Northern Haiti. On those shores they could find a welcome and a refuge from oppression, as well as a chance to start a new life in freedom. The escapes, particularly from Grand Turk, became so prevalent that slaveholders of the day had to organize their own private coast guard to try to intercept the sailboats leaving.

220 years later, it is Haitians who are fleeing north to TCI in small sloops to escape poverty, despair and gang violence. The irony of the reverse movement, of course, is not lost. These northward migrations have actually been going on since the 1980s when dictatorial governments imprisoned, tortured or killed people opposing the regimes. Launching under the cover of darkness from beaches in Northern Haiti, these sloops typically carry 100-200 people crammed together sometimes under sail, sometimes with a small outboard motor. Some never make it, capsizing midway and drowning everyone. Nobody has any idea how many. Some almost make it before crashing on the reefs where most of the passengers drown or are eaten by sharks . Some are intercepted by the marine police and repatriated back to Haiti. And some make it to a beach undetected and scramble into the bush before finding their way to hidden communities living off the land or in the back alleys of shanty towns.

For those that make it to TCI, the hope, naturally, is to find work, preferably in construction, but anything that pays hard cash dollars and allows them survive, gain a toehold on the island, and send money back to Haiti. Indeed, for those that make it to TCI, relatives back in Haiti expect and pressure them to send regular wire transfers.

Boat from Haiti abandoned on Provo beach. Photo by Ben Stubenberg

Amidst the increasing chaos, violence and breakdown of order in Port-au-Prince, there is an assumption that more people will flee Haiti in boats and threaten to overwhelm the capacity to stop them as they approach the coast. That perception has been exacerbated by gang led attacks on two main prisons in and near Port-au-Prince that enabled thousands of prisoners to break out. As a result, TCI has put its police and border control on high alert, as have the Bahamas and the US. On the surface, it seems logical that more displaced and desperate people will clamor on to boats to get out. The term “Armada” has even been invoked to suggest TCI will be overwhelmed with boat people fleeing en mass from Haiti. But I challenge this assumption and doubt that will happen.

Here’s why: First, there aren’t that many boats available to simply sail or motor away packed with migrants. Second, ruthless human traffickers demand money, anywhere between $1500 and $2000 to squeeze on board–a hefty amount of cash in Haiti. These traffickers control the business of fleeing Haiti and are not about to offer discounts to escaped prisoners or anyone else who can’t pay. In fact, many of those clamoring for a chance to leave Haiti receive money through remittances wired in from relatives in the US, Canada, or Europe. Anyone who gets that kind of funding and wants to leave doesn’t wait around. Third, TCI has been increasingly effective in detecting boats approaching the coast through radar and drones. While that has not stopped efforts to evade them, there is at least an awareness that the chances of reaching shore without being intercepted are getting smaller. And fourth, the situation outside of Port-au-Prince, particularly in the north, is not nearly as dire. In fact, local authorities have taken it upon themselves to keep their towns relatively peaceful, even with the meager resources they have. People will still continue to pay to take the huge risk of sailing across the sea to TCI. And there may even be a bump in boat launches. But don’t expect an Armada.

Update: With the resignation of Haitian PM Ariel Henry to make way for a transitional council, the situation has calmed somewhat in Port-au-Prince. But the continued lack of security in Port-au-Prince is unlikely to ameliorate the situation for long and could flare up at anytime.

Next Blog: “A Separate Haiti.” Could Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien and Northern Haiti be the new center of power?

Which Direction?

For the past 30 years, Provo has stood out among other Caribbean island tourist destinations as a uniquely compelling luxury experience. Mesmerizing turquoise water, miles of stunning white sand beaches, and a low-key vibe all invited unhurried tranquility and relaxation with breathtaking splendor. But the approved construction of several new resorts, including another 12 story high-rise overlooking Grace Bay, will inevitably put extreme pressure on the infrastructure. And that in turn could change Provo special appeal.

As a longtime student of the Caribbean over the last 50 years, I have witnessed development at its attractive best and disappointingly mundane. I have seen island destinations that dazzle and engage the senses, like Turks & Caicos, and those that were lured into the fateful decision to embrace mass tourism with the hopeful promise of economic gain with all its attendant costs.

Not surprisingly, most of the destinations that have managed to hold on to their high-end magic are also the ones without big airports and thus harder to bring in big jet loads of visitors. These include the British Virgin Islands, Bequia (St. Vincent & The Grenadines), and St. Barth’s. They have continued to do extremely well. But even a few with jet airports with flights from Miami have managed to avoid unbridled development. These would include, so far, San Salvador (Bahamas) and Anguilla. Where is Provo in this mix?

The irony is that for decades Provo uniquely managed to attract high-end tourists from the US, Canada, and now the UK with direct flights while still managing to preserve that low-key, uncrowded vibe along with the splendor. So, it really didn’t have much competition. But that specialness may be sorely tested if Provo continues to lean in the direction of mass tourist destinations like St. Maarten, Aruba, Nassau, St. Thomas, and Cayman–all of which also have beautiful ocean and splendid beaches–even as they became crowded and congested.

Does Provo really want to become like those islands that process many times more visitors and have essentially turned tourism into a commodity? Or does this island remain a destination that nurtures the soul like no other while still drawing in healthy tourist dollars? If yes to the latter, the time to change course is now.

Time to hit pause on tourism development?

In my article, “Who Gets A Piece Of Paradise” published in the winter issue of Times of the Islands, I ask if TCI should hit pause on tourism development. Implied in the question is another question: Who do we want to be as a destination and ultimately as a society?

With six or seven new resort developments going up on Provo and projections for 1.1 million stay-over tourists by 2032 (more than double the current number of 490,000), the question takes on new urgency. In my view, the island seems to be racing toward mass tourism and losing the special magic that draws in the luxury tourists that sustained TCI.

Sure, the resorts going up are luxury in nature, but the congestion they will bring is anything but luxurious. Indeed, for the past 30 years, Provo has been without peer or competition in the Caribbean when taking into account direct flights from the US and Canada (and now UK), spectacular beaches, gorgeous turquoise water, and, above all, a sense of serenity without crowds. That’s what distinguished us.

If we keep going down the path of unbridled tourism development, we risk losing that uniqueness–some say we already have. When that happens, we become just another tourism commodity that, ironically, puts Provo in direct competition with other Caribbean Region countries that have gone down this path. In other words, we are trading in the specialness that distinguished us from everyone else to carve out a market share that, until now, was irrelevant.

I fully understand the need to generate wealth to benefit the local people and wholeheartedly support that through luxury tourism. However, if that luxury that set us apart disappears, none of us will benefit except for investors/developers who built and sold early enough. Why would anyone seeking a luxury vacation and having the means to afford it come to a place that is congested with resorts, never mind the airport and highways. In short, the benefits of sprawling development will be short-lived and lead to stagnation, as per tourism development trajectories addressed in earlier blogs and the article “Who Gets A Piece of Paradise.”

I just hope the momentum is not too great to slow down and remember who we are and what we stand for.

The Life Cycle of Tourism

View from the beach in front of Club Med, the first major resort on Provo.

The trajectory of tourism development has been well established over the last four decades. In 1980 Professor Richard Butler at the University of Western Ontario published a study of the life cycle of tourist destinations. Referred to as the Tourism Area Life Cycle (TALC), the model identifies six or seven predictable stages that a resort destination goes through regardless of location. It is worth examining the elements of TALC, which has held up remarkably well over the decades, to see where the Turks & Caicos Islands currently fits into the cycle and what to anticipate.

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Who Gets A Piece of Paradise (Continued)

With experiences like this, the lure of moving to TCI is undeniable. But the privilege needs to come with a commitment to give back to the islands.

Most North Americans or Europeans or Caribbean islanders who come to live on Provo don’t want to go back. Same with many visitors to Provo who want to stay longer and often opt to buy a place. Everyone, it seems, wants their piece of this paradise. With today’s modern infrastructure, paradise can indeed be home, full-time or part-time. In the past, it was usually the adventurous with a high tolerance for lack of amenities. Like pirates and, later, eccentric malcontents with an aversion for social rules in their homeland who made their way to a tropical island. But the islands are no longer for malcontents (though a few of them can be spotted). Settling comfortably in paradise has become a much more viable option. As new people move in, however, new issues arise. Who are these people? 

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