Haiti prepares for a transition of power as deadly violence escalates

A burning barricade during a protest in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Burning barricades in Port-au-Prince, Haiti March 1. (Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters)
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Since early February, Haiti has been crippled by deadly violence at the hands of a group of gangs who forced the resignation of the country’s unpopular prime minister, Ariel Henry. As conditions deteriorate, the U.S. — which supports a transition of power— has deployed a team of U.S. Marines to Haiti and is set to announce millions of dollars in humanitarian and military support.

🇭🇹 Haiti prepares for a transition of power

Haiti has not held any parliamentary or general elections since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, after which Henry stepped in to serve as the country’s interim leader.

On Feb. 29, Henry left Haiti for Kenya to secure support from the United Nations for a multinational security mission to rein in the widespread killings, sexual assaults and kidnappings plaguing his country.

During his absence, the gang alliance leader, Jimmy Chérizier, claimed responsibility for all of the street violence in a video posted on social media. He vowed to “use all strategies” to force Henry to cede power.

Heny has not returned to his country since, but on March 11, he announced he would be stepping down in a video posted to official government channels.

"The government that I am leading cannot remain indifferent to this situation,” Henry said. “There is no sacrifice too big for our country.”

Henry will remain the interim leader until a transitional council is chosen by CARICOM — a 15-member coalition of Caribbean leaders convened to oversee a transition to a new government for Haiti.

🚨 Gang leader says Henry's resignation is ‘a first step in the battle’

Chérizer, an ex-police officer turned gang leader, is the ringleader of the G9 Family and Allies that now controls about 80% of the Haiti capital, Port-au-Prince. The alliance is made up of nine capital area gangs that have thrown the country into chaos with deadly fighting.

The alliance’s recent activities include setting fire to police stations, a failed attack on Haiti’s main airport, mass killings of police and private citizens, the escape of thousands from two large prisons, as well as widespread sexual assault, property damage and theft.

Late on Wednesday, gangs coordinated a shooting in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood. The next day, a police academy was attacked. A nationwide nightly curfew has also been extended through Sunday.

According to the U.N., more than 360,000 people have been displaced in Haiti due to the violence.

On Wednesday, Chérizer said in an audio message shared on the messaging app Whats App that Henry’s resignation was only "a first step in the battle," accusing Henry of the country’s deterioration and threatening politicians’ families.

The gangs have accused opposition leaders and police of plotting to kill Moïse, the former president who was assassinated in 2021, and have threatened to instigate a civil war within the country unless new leadership is installed. However, whether Chérizer’s gangs will support the transitional council remains to be seen.

🇺🇸 The U.S. response

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, at an emergency meeting on Haiti convened by member states of CARICOM, in Kingston, Jamaica, March 11. (Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters)

The U.S. has also pushed for Henry to step down amid the political unrest and has said that it supports the move to establish a presidential transitional council so that the country can hold “free and fair elections.”

In the meantime, U.S. Southern Command has deployed Marines to Haiti to bolster security around the U.S. Embassy as American citizens evacuate the country. Bestselling author Mitch Albom, who runs an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, posted on X Tuesday that he and nine other Americans had been evacuated via helicopter. Albom had been sheltering in place since early March, when a state of emergency was first declared in the country.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Southern Command also deployed a U.S. Marine Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team “to maintain strong security capabilities at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has also sent aircraft, ships, about 200 state law enforcement officers and 50 members of the National Guard to combat what he called “illegal vessels” arriving in South Florida as Haitians flee the country.

According to CNN, the White House has weighed using Guantanamo Bay as a migrant processing center for those migrants.

In an urgent bipartisan vote on Thursday, the Senate confirmed Dennis Hankins as U.S. ambassador to Haiti. The appointment filled a vacancy to oversee a multinational security mission, which will be led by Kenya. Support for the multinational mission is a requirement for candidates interested in joining the presidential transitional council — a rule that has been resisted by some within Haiti.

On Friday, USAID chief Samantha Power was set to announce an additional $25 million in humanitarian aid for Haiti. That is in addition to the $33 million that Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged on Monday during talks with dozens of Haitian representatives in Kingston, Jamaica, via Zoom.