Caribbean Stories From Inside The Reef

Tag: Cap-Haitien

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

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