April 15th, 2024

Haitian prime minister lands in Haiti as he tries to return home to quell gang violence

By Evens Sanon And Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press on March 5, 2024.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – Haiti’s embattled prime minister landed in Puerto Rico on Tuesday as he tried to return to Haiti to quell a surge in violent gang attacks, officials said.

Officials told The Associated Press that Ariel Henry landed late in the afternoon at the Luiz Muñoz Marín International Airport in the capital of San Juan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to confirm his arrival.

Henry was expected to travel to the Dominican Republic later to fly to Haiti, but the government of the Caribbean nation closed its air borders as gangs in Haiti continue to escalate their attacks on key targets such as prisons and the main international airport.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – It’s the one question on the minds of all Haitians ever since armed gangs plunged the long-suffering Caribbean nation into near anarchy: Where in the world is Prime Minister Ariel Henry?

The embattled leader, who assumed power following the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, has been notably absent since the country’s latest and most serious outbreak of violence started last week. Henry has stayed silent as he crisscrosses the world, from South America to Africa, with no announced date of return.

Meanwhile, armed groups have seized on the power void. They tried to take control of Haiti’s main international airport on Monday and exchanged gunfire with police and soldiers. The explosion of violence also included a mass escape from the country’s two biggest prisons.

Even a decree declaring a state of emergency and curfew to restore order lacked Henry’s imprint. It was signed by his finance minister, who is serving as acting prime minister.

“It’s the million-dollar question,” said Jake Johnston, a research associate at the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Nobody knows where he is or when he’ll return. The fact that he hasn’t even opened his mouth since the violence began has stoked all sorts of speculation.”

Gangs opened fired on police late Monday outside the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, where Henry would likely land should he return home.

An armored truck could be seen on the tarmac shooting at gangs trying to enter the airport as scores of employees and other workers fled from whizzing bullets. The airport was closed when the attack occurred, with no planes operating and no passengers on site. It remained closed Tuesday.

Schools and banks were also closed Tuesday, and public transport ground to a standstill.

“Haiti is now under the control of the gangs. The government isn’t present,” said Michel St-Louis, 40, standing in front of a burned-down police station in the capital. “I’m hoping they can keep Henry out so whoever takes power can restore order.”

While Haiti’s problems run deep and defy any quick fix, Henry himself is increasingly unpopular. His inability to govern effectively has stoked calls for him to step aside that the gangs are also embracing, if only to advance their own criminal interests, Johnston said.

Henry’s exact whereabouts are unknown. Dan Foote, who served as the Biden administration’s special envoy to Haiti following Moise’s assassination, said he understands the prime minister is in New York weighing his next moves and whether it’s safe to fly home. The Associated Press was unable to verify that account, and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the White House did not know where he is either.

“I don’t know if he’s going to make it home,” Foote said.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said he was aware of the reports that Henry is in New York but said he did not know of any requests for a meeting with Secretary-General Antonio Guteres.

Henry was last seen Friday in Kenya on a mission to salvage a multinational security force the east African nation was set to lead under the auspices of the U.N. He left Haiti more than a week ago to attend a meeting of Caribbean leaders in Guyana, where a deadline was announced – by others, not Henry – to delay repeatedly postponed elections yet again. The balloting was pushed back to mid-2025.

That announcement is what appears to have triggered the latest explosion of violence. It began with a direct challenge from a powerful gang leader, Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who fashions himself as a Robin Hood crusader. Chérizier said he would target government ministers in an effort to prevent Henry’s return and force his resignation.

“With our guns and with the Haitian people, we will free the country,” he said in a video message announcing the offensive.

He appeared to make good on that threat over the next few days as gangs launched attacks on the central bank, the airport, even the national soccer stadium. The culmination of the coordinated offensive came over the weekend when a jailbreak at the National Penitentiary and another prison released onto the streets of the capital more than 5,000 inmates, many of whom had been serving time for murder, kidnapping and other violent crimes.

The prime minister’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor has it said where the prime minister is and when he expects to return.

Henry, a soft-spoken neurosurgeon, positions himself as a transitional figure and peacemaker who has the backing of the U.S. government – long Haiti’s dominant foreign ally and the key to any stabilization effort.

But the Biden administration’s support has not translated into popularity at home, where Henry is reviled. Since he took power more than two years ago, the economy has been in free fall, food prices have skyrocketed and gang violence has surged.

Last year, more than 8,400 people were reported killed, injured or kidnapped, more than double the number reported in 2022. The U.N. estimates that nearly half of Haiti’s 11 million people need humanitarian assistance, but this year’s humanitarian appeal for $674 million has received just $17 million – about 2.5% of what’s needed.

Additionally, Henry has been unable to bring Haiti’s disparate political actors into an agreement on general elections, which have not been held since 2015.

The recent surge in violence has renewed pressure on the U.S. and other foreign powers to quickly deploy a security force to prevent further bloodshed. The Biden administration has pledged funding and logistical support for any multinational force but has steadfastly refused to commit U.S. troops.

Foote, who as the Biden envoy opposed calls for any American boots on the ground in Haiti, said a U.S.-led military intervention can no longer be avoided.

“It’s an absolute necessity now,” Foote said in an interview. “We’ve let this slide from worse to worst all the while abdicating our responsibility to others. But nobody can argue that Haiti isn’t a failed state when the penitentiary gets emptied out.”

Kirby gave no indication the Biden administration was reconsidering its refusal to deploy troops.

Dujarric, the U.N. spokesman, said he was unaware of any discussion of a “formal U.N. peacekeeping mission” separate from the multinational security force the U.N. Security Council endorsed last year. That force would involve 1,000 mostly Kenyan police officers instead of U.N. blue helmet peacekeepers.

While elections remain the best way to stabilize the country once the security is restored, the U.S. will have to abandon its support for Henry for an intervention to succeed, he said.

“Any elections administered by Henry won’t be accepted by the Haitian people,” he said. “If not for our backing, Haitians would’ve thrown Henry out long ago.”


Goodman reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Edith Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.

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