Caribbean Stories From Inside The Reef

Tag: Haiti

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.

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?

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