Exclusive: Rushing home on a rerouted jet, Haiti’s prime minister is pressured by U.S. to resign

Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry, left, speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, September 22, 2023 ahead of a meeting on Haiti’s security.
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Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry was attempting to fly home on Tuesday to a country in crisis, returning from a critical diplomatic mission overseas, when he received a message midair from the U.S. State Department.

The Biden administration had been proposing for months that Henry, in power since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse nearly three years ago, lead a political transition toward democratic elections. With gangs now overrunning Port-au-Prince, time had run out. Henry was midflight when the administration asked him to agree to a new transitional government — and resign.

It was a dramatic capstone to a day of urgent meetings in Washington, where administration officials who had quietly referred to the prospect of Haiti’s collapse as their nightmare scenario were now forced to address their worst fears. And it was an about-face that few in Haiti were expecting from a White House that had long pushed back against calls for Henry’s resignation, only now to press for his hasty departure in a moment of peril.

Secretly, Henry had been in the United States after arriving from Nairobi, Kenya over the weekend, negotiating a stealth return home with diplomats from the neighboring Dominican Republic. Dominican officials initially discussed having Henry, 74, fly to Santo Domingo before taking a helicopter across the border, a plan that had been briefed to U.S. and United Nations officials, perhaps using a rotorcraft with night vision for the mission.

Everyone privy to the plan knew that Henry’s charter plane, a 13-seat Gulfstream, could not land directly in Port-au-Prince, where gangs had encircled the main airport, part of a broad and unprecedented assault on the country’s core institutions.

But after Henry and his delegation departed Newark, N.J., on Tuesday, Santo Domingo unexpectedly reversed course, refusing clearance to allow his plane to land. Henry faced a choice whether to detour to Puerto Rico or to one of a number of neighboring Caribbean countries whose leaders have been pushing for his resignation.

He chose the U.S. territory. While en route, he received the U.S. proposal. Henry’s plane landed in San Juan, where it was immediately met by U.S. Secret Service agents and created confusion at the White House.

As Henry awaited permission to deplane, several Caribbean Community leaders and three former prime ministers met over Zoom with opposition leaders in Haiti. During the calls, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Motley in a meeting with seven Haitian political leaders asked for their position on how to navigate the current crisis. In another call at 6 p.m. Tuesday with members of the private sector, Henry’s resignation came up, two individuals with involved in the discussions said, prompting mixed reactions.

The Miami Herald and McClatchy spoke with sources across the U.S. government, Haiti and the region with direct knowledge of Tuesday’s events to reconstruct how the pressure on Henry unfolded. The Dominican Foreign Ministry’s office did not respond to a Herald request for comment.

‘A narco state’

Foreign diplomats agree that Henry, who remains in Puerto Rico, needs to return to Haiti with a plan. Where there is disagreement is whether that plan, as being proposed by Washington and the 15-member regional Caribbean Community bloc known as CARICOM, should include his resignation.

Those opposed to the idea fear the void left by his departure will open the door for gang leaders and unfavorable politicians seeking to step into the power vacuum. Others say that, given the population’s loss of confidence in Henry’s ability to govern, there is no choice.

“It’s a very complex situation. The insecurity wasn’t given birth with Ariel Henry. It’s something that has been building for years now,” said Joel “Pacha” Vorbe, a representative of Fanmi Lavalas political party, who took part in one of the Zoom calls.

“You have Haiti as a narco state today so the narco state doesn’t just disappear,” Vorbe said. “We can’t just blame it on Henry, but Henry was unable to address it properly, so things are getting worse by the day. It’s a very, very difficult situation. It will take time to get out of it, but we also do need a police force that is more professional, and that can really address this issue. It is not something that will happen overnight.”

In Henry’s absence, Finance Minister Michel Patrick Boisvert has served as acting prime minister and on Sunday issued a 72-hour state of emergency and curfew for the capital and surrounding cities.

A neurosurgeon who had held posts in previous governments, Henry was asked by Moïse to serve as his seventh prime minister about two months before the president’s shocking assassination in July 2021. Moïse, who was facing his own political crisis after failing to hold elections during his four years in office, died before he could install Henry into office.

The timing plunged Henry into a three-way power struggle, and later raised questions about his legitimacy when he emerged victorious. While he has supported U.S. reforms such as lifting fuel subsidies and increasing the country’s financial reserves by cracking down on contraband at the seaports, Henry also has faced criticism over his slowness to act and failure to deal with Haiti’s multidimensional crisis.

Visit to Kenya

Henry had been in Kenya last week working to finalize plans to deploy a multinational force to assist the Haiti National Police in its long-running battle against well-armed gangs when the latest escalation in violence erupted. The Multinational Security Mission, known as the MSS, has been in the works for months. With Henry in Kenya, Haiti’s most powerful gangs united behind an assault on the government late last week. Pushing openly for the overthrow of Henry, the gangs are opposed to the entry of the force into Haiti.

“If Ariel Henry doesn’t resign, if the international community continues to support him, we’ll be heading straight for a civil war that will lead to genocide,” Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, 46, a former police officer now turned gang leader, who is under U.S. and United Nations sanctions for human-rights abuses, said Tuesday during a press conference.

Since the coordinated violent attacks began, gangs have successfully released thousands of inmates from Haiti’s two largest prisons, blocked its major roadways and seaport, and overtaken police substations, killing several officers. They have attacked the two main airports in the Haitian capital with heavy gunfire and openly threatened to take the presidential palace. The civil unrest led to the cancellation of international flights into Haiti, and the country has been declared a no-go zone for charter pilots.

A National Security Council official told McClatchy and the Herald on Tuesday night that the administration is “not providing any assistance to help the prime minister return to Haiti.”

“Our support is focused on helping the [Haiti National Police] restore security, expediting the deployment of the MSS mission, and accelerating a peaceful transition of power via free and fair elections,” the official said. “Our dialogue with Prime Minister Henry has been focused on these efforts and the need for security and a peaceful political transition.”

The U.S. proposal to Henry, which is expected to be raised during a 3 p.m. closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting on Wednesday, caught international observers and the U.N.’s political office in Haiti by surprise. Critics call it “delusional.” They warn that while it may succeed in getting someone else in Haiti’s presidential palace, the plan will not solve the acute security crisis that risks plunging the gang-ridden country deeper into anarchy as gangs and others fight for control of the government.

Henry was in Kenya to sign a bilateral security-sharing agreement allowing for the deployment of 1,000 police officers as part of the U.N.-backed MSS mission. Though outside help is being welcomed by many Haitians, opposition remains among some of the very people who would like to replace Henry and take charge of the country. If that faction gains power, it would annul the agreement inviting Kenya’s assistance.

The U.S. proposal would have Henry usher in a new government structure in which a new prime minister and presidential board will lead a transition to elections and prepare for the Kenya-led mission. He would agree to step down once the new structure has been established, and a new prime minister is appointed or the security mission has deployed — whichever comes first.

Caribbean leaders also want Henry to fly to Jamaica on Wednesday, at his own expense, to announce his agreement to the plan and his eventual resignation. And they want him to videotape a message announcing the formation of the transitional government, including a presidential panel with broad powers that would appoint a new interim prime minister. Last week, during a meeting in Guyana, CARICOM leaders dismissed Henry’s efforts to present a power-sharing agreement he had been working on.

Those privy to the conversations behind the scenes say Henry is determined to return to Haiti. But his security remains at risk.

Henry’s proposed departure from power is just one pillar of an emerging U.S. plan to respond to the crisis. The administration is also pushing to expedite the deployment of the Kenyan force — a mission first proposed by Washington over 16 months ago that finally appeared on track in recent weeks, before the upsurge in violence began.

“Man, right now, the focus has got to be on getting that multinational security element in there,” John Kirby, White House National Security Communications Adviser, told reporters on Tuesday.

The State Department issued a travel alert to U.S. citizens over the weekend urging them to leave Haiti immediately. But with the main international airport under attack, and with gangs controlling access in and out of the capital, it was unclear what avenues are available for Americans to depart.

Asked by McClatchy where Americans should turn, Kirby referred inquiries to the State Department, saying: “There are other ways to leave.”