POLITICS

Haitian PM arrives in Puerto Rico after long absence as he struggles to get home to quell violence

Mar 5, 2024, 9:51 AM | Updated: 8:36 pm

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti’s prime minister landed in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, answering a key 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 he?

The embattled Ariel Henry, 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, exchanging gunfire with police at Haiti’s main international airport on Monday and instigating 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. “The fact that he hasn’t even opened his mouth since the violence began has stoked all sorts of speculation.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the mystery seemed to ease after officials said Henry landed in Puerto Rico. He arrived late in the afternoon to San Juan on a chartered flight that originated in New Jersey. Tracking data showed the flight was heading toward Dominican Republic, which shares with Haiti the island of Hispaniola, but circled mid-flight before diverting to Puerto Rico.

Hours before he arrived in Puerto Rico, the Dominican government announced that it was immediately suspending all air traffic with Haiti.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer who leads a federation of gangs that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, repeated Tuesday his goal of blocking Henry’s return and forcing his resignation.

“Our goal is to break the system,” Chérizier, who fashions himself a Robin Hood crusader and goes by the name of Barbecue, told journalists at an impromptu news conference in a slum in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. The gang leader was surrounded by men in ski masks carrying heavy assault rifles.

“We are fighting against Ariel with the last drop of our blood,” he said.

Gangs opened fired on police late Monday outside the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, 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 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 United Nations. 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 Chérizier, who said he would target government ministers in an effort to prevent Henry’s return and force his resignation.

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 when Henry expects to return.

A soft-spoken neurosurgeon, Henry 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.

Dan 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.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric 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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Haitian PM arrives in Puerto Rico after long absence as he struggles to get home to quell violence