For many people in Haiti, home has mostly been a place called hell.
So it was, starting in 1625, when France used enslaved Africans for chattel labor.
So it was after a revolt drove out the French, who returned with warships and forced acquiescence to an agreement to pay compensation of 150 million francs in 1825 – equivalent to $60 billion today – that took 122 years to pay off, in a perverse version of reparation.
So it was during the autocracy of Dr. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and then his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and their brutal Tonton Macoute paramilitary and secret police, from 1957 to 1986. So it was in the years of civil unrest, a period which included a United States-backed coup that ousted the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Salesian priest turned politician.
So it was when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck in 2010, killing 250,000, injuring another 300,000 and overall affecting three million people. Another magnitude 7.2 earthquake on Aug. 14, 2021, killed 2,200 and injured more than 12,200.
So too it was when a United Nations peacekeeping force caused an outbreak of cholera, also in 2010, that infected 820,000 people, killing 10,000 – in addition to instances of rape and other sexual abuse and exploitation, including of minors.
And so too it is now when more than 200 gangs preside over a reign of terror, controlling about 80 percent of the capital Port-au-Prince and overwhelming the 9,000-member police force in a country of 11 million. This latest iteration of hell took shape after assassins, including Colombian mercenaries, killed President Jovenel Moise in his bedroom on July 7, 2021.
Kidnappings by gangs have become big business, with the U.N. reporting, according to CNN, that more than 1,000 people were taken hostage for ransom in the ﬁrst six months of this year alone. The terror which the gangs inflict, “with rape, torture and killing as they vie for territorial control,” CNN reported, has forced thousands to flee their homes.
As if that is not enough, “gang members are not independent warlords operating apart from the state. They are part of the way the state functions – and how political leaders assert power,” Pierre Espérance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network in Haiti, wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine.
Whatever the power dynamics, it is ordinary Haitians whom the gangs victimize, some armed with weapons that, according to The Washington Post, include belt-fed machine guns. Firearms are smuggled in from the U.S., especially Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis made it easy to obtain them legally. Following a visit in June, Catherine Russell, the UNICEF executive director, warned that the “ongoing humanitarian crisis could soon become a catastrophe.” Russell is also principal advocate on Haiti for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a collective body of senior humanitarian leaders. “Close to half of the country’s population urgently needs humanitarian assistance, including almost three million children,” she said. “Nearly ﬁve million people are experiencing acute food insecurity. And, in the last year, we have seen an unprecedented 30 percent increase in the number of severely malnourished children, which we expect to reach around 115,000 over the course of 2023.”
The international community gives the impression of agonizing over how to respond to the near anarchy. The most likely response will be an international police – not military – intervention by a force headed by Kenya, an African country 7,543 miles away, which has pledged 1,000 ofﬁcers. Bahamas and Jamaica which, like Haiti, are members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), have pledged a few hundred more.
The impending action is in response to a call which U.N. Secretary General António Guterres made since last year and repeated again last month. The U.N. Security Council unanimously signed off on his appeal for “a non-U.N. multinational force” – a plan which Haiti’s transitional government headed by the controversial Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who is also the acting president, endorses.
Unlike for Ukraine, “friends are hard to ﬁnd on Haiti,” Politico reported, adding that President Joe Biden “doesn’t want the United States to take the lead, partly because of Haitian resentment over past U.S. interventions.” Instead, the administration has been asking other countries to step up but has been met “with questions and polite deflections,” Politico said. “Even some of America’s best friends hesitate to come to its side when they see no endgame, especially in a place such as Haiti, a highly dangerous environment where past armed foreign intervention has failed to achieve lasting stability.”
According to Riyad Insanally, a former Guyanese ambassador to the United States, “The great dilemma with Haiti is you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But to give up on Haiti would be to damn a country that’s already been damned time and time again,” he told Politico.
Another Guyana-born diplomat, Ronald Sanders, said the focus on any intervention should be to help Haiti set up a transitional government that has the conﬁdence of the people, including those who’ve joined gangs because they saw no other institution was functioning. Otherwise, he told Politico, “the gangs aren’t going to give up arms.” Sanders, who is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador in Washington and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States and to the Organization of American States, led an Organization of American States mission to Haiti during a 2016 political crisis.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has not adopted a complete hands-off approach. Along with Canada, it has sent armored vehicles and other equipment to boost the capability of the police to take on the gangs. And, conﬁrming the claim by the National Human Rights Defense Network’s Espérance, the two countries also imposed sanctions earlier this month on Senate President Joseph Lambert and a predecessor, Youri Latortue, who have been accused, Politico said, “of drug trafﬁcking and collaborating with gangs.” Their assets in the two countries have been frozen. Also, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged seven gangsters with crimes that include abduction of Americans. The FBI offered rewards of up to $1 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of three gang leaders wanted in the kidnapping of a group of Christian missionaries from the U.S. and Canada on Oct. 16, 2021.
Back home, some Haitians started earlier this year to take matters into their own hands, especially members of a vigilante group, “Bwa Kale,” loosely translated as “swift justice.” It has been “stoning and burning suspected gang members in the street,” killing hundreds of them, Politico reported.
In the midst of all of this, to be sure, if Haitians are living through hell, there must also be angels somewhere. And there are, in the form of Les Grenadieres, who played in the current World Cup games. It was the ﬁrst time a Haitian women’s soccer team qualiﬁed for the competition; a men’s squad made it once, in 1974.
“Flying the flag for a crisis-stricken nation at the biggest event in your sport is no easy task,” CNN noted as it spotlighted midﬁelder Danielle Etienne. “We know how much joy the game of football brings back to Haiti,” Etienne said.
But even World Cup soccer played it safe when the trophy with a spiral and a football on top was displayed in Haiti on April 15, as is customary for all teams that qualify. “It was deemed too dangerous to organize a public parade or large-scale event, as was done in other countries,” The Athletic reported. “Instead, the trophy was quietly displayed in a small ceremony, brought in and out of the country under tight security.” The only player who was able to view the trophy was Haiti‘s goalkeeper, Kerly Theus, a member of the FC Miami City club. And the team’s two years of training had to take place in neighboring Dominican Republic, not at home, because of security concerns.
C’est la vie, as some Haitians who speak French may want to say. Such is life. Or hell.