Op-Ed: Haiti in Crisis Again: What Does It Mean for the V.I.?

Mark and Gemma Wenner (Photo courtesy Mark Wenner)

Haiti has been a fragile state, marked with political instability, wracked with violence, mired in deep poverty, suffering from extensive deforestation and environmental degradation, heavily dependent on foreign external assistance and remittances, and highly vulnerable to natural disasters for some time.

Developments in recent weeks suggest that Haiti, a country of 11 million, is careening toward anarchy. This grave situation is likely to trigger massive movements of people internally, from the capital, Port au Prince, with a population of approximately 3 million, to provincial towns and successive waves of outmigration to nearby countries and territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The U.S. and CARICOM have pressured the beleaguered unelected Prime Minister Ariel Henry to resign and hastily proposed a transitional government and presented its plan to the Haitian people. On the security front, the United Nations has been trying to mobilize a multilateral police force for over a year to help restore order and a modicum of security, but it has not come to fruition.

As of February 29, only five countries, Bahamas, Benin, Bangladesh, Barbados, and Chad, have pledged a small number of police personnel. Only $10.8 million has been deposited into a trust fund to support the mission. The U.S. offered $300 million to the Kenyan government to dispatch 1,000 special police force officers, but the Kenyan government and people are divided. While the country’s president supports deployment, the Supreme Court and many others in civil society are opposed to dispatching Kenyan special police to Haiti. The pledged forces to date from the Bahamas, Barbados, Benin, Bangladesh, and Chad are a tiny fraction of the total number of estimated gang members, 20-30,000.

The CARICOM political plan calls for a nine-person presidential council that includes representatives from different parts of society, traditional political parties, civil society organizations, the private business sector, and the religious sector with a mission to restore the rule of law and organize immediate elections. There are no duly elected officials; everyone’s term has long expired. The prospects of stabilizing Haiti, however, lie beyond traditional political actors; it lies mainly with the disposition of the approximately 200 armed gangs that have between 20-30,000 members and who have essentially overrun the country. One of the prominent gang leaders, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, has unequivocally denounced the transitional plan, rejects the use of foreign troops and police to restore order, and is calling for a “revolution” against the traditional elite that he claims has ruined Haiti.

Since Feb. 29, the 23 largest and most dominant gangs have escalated violence and wrought chaos. They have come to control 80 percent of Port au Prince, the capital, seized control of 3 of 4 main highways entering the capital, establishing roadblocks, forced the closure of both the International Airport Toussaint Louverture and La Saline, the principal cargo and container port, freed over 4,000 prisoners from two prisons, attacked and burned a dozen police stations, looted and ransacked over 30 government offices, burned scores of private businesses and vehicles, raided United Nations World Food Program trucks delivering food to people experiencing poverty, and ransacked two consulates. In the rural areas, gangs affect the flow of humanitarian aid in 60 percent of the interior. The 9,000-person Haitian police and the 500-member military have proven totally inadequate in containing, let alone neutralizing, the gangs. The Haitian security forces are grossly underfunded, outmanned, outgunned, and demoralized. In the last year, over 3,000 police officers have resigned, a fifth of the original size of the police force.

Looking to the near term, four questions come to mind. How they are answered will have implications for the magnitude of people that will be displaced and the outflow of immigrants and refugees.

First, will the international community rally and commit to sending a right-sized military expedition? It seems unlikely that the armed gangs will voluntarily surrender arms and peacefully end their reign of chaos. Historically, political personages and political parties would hire gangs to intimidate and brutalize the supporters of rival politicians and political groups and, in return, would give the gangs protection from legal prosecution for their sundry criminal activities -drug smuggling, extortion, and kidnappings. Since the mid-1980s, the upper echelons of the Haitian government, military, and police became increasingly engaged in the drug trafficking trade, transshipping Colombian cocaine and Jamaican cannabis to US markets. The gangs were the foot soldiers in the enterprise—protecting routes, moving products, and washing money. But it seems that the gangs have become more independent of the corrupt elite over time and now want to run the show by themselves. Thus, a division-sized (10-15,000) military expeditionary force with helicopters, drones, advanced communications gear, and armored vehicles will be needed to complete the task, not a tiny multilateral police force numbering 2-3000 with light arms and little or no aerial assets.

The U.S., Canada, and France have all declined to send military forces. The leaders of these countries seem exhausted trying to “fix” Haiti and are risk-averse to being caught in a costly and long-lasting quagmire. The US alone has had four military interventions in the last 40 years. Foreign interventions in Haiti have been mainly botched and ineffective.

Second, the CARICOM proposed nine-person presidential council and transition plans have been opposed by two traditional political parties and the gangs to date. Haiti’s dysfunctional political culture and inability to unite despite grave crises seem to manifest again. The traditional elites and the gangs must place the good of the country, the restoration of democracy and the rule of law above narrow ambitions of monopolizing power.

Third, the United States is in midst of a presidential election cycle when uncontrolled immigration is top concern among the public and anti-immigrant sentiments are rising. The Biden administration knows that hundreds of rickety boats overloaded with desperate Haitians sailing for Florida would hurt his reelection efforts. Republican Florida Ron DeSantis would make political footballs of any Haitian refugees landing, embarrassing the administration. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, would exploit the situation to fan feelings of xenophobia. Thus, the U.S. administration is making plans to use Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as a holding facility for Haitians interdicted on the high seas.

The Biden administration has a political non-winner. Suppose the U.S. accepts an appreciable number of Haitian refugees. In that case, it would be honoring international law and being compassionate, but it would not play well with many voters and could negatively affect Biden’s reelection hopes. Suppose the U.S. were to transfer the interdicted Haitians to third countries or repatriate them back to Haiti and summarily reject asylum claims or refuse to grant temporary protected status, it will make the U.S. look callous and hypocritical to world.

Fourth, will surrounding Caribbean neighboring states and territories be willing and able to accept an uptick in Hattian immigrants that is likely to be very high if the CARICOM-UN stabilization plan fails. If the CARICOM-UN political plan for transition works and gang violence is somewhat suppressed,  outflows could still be positive. If the USA mainland is viewed as unattainable for most Haitians fleeing a bad situation, two U.S. territories in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with dollar-based economies, could become prime destinations.

The expected local impact in St. Thomas, V.I. will be an explosion in the numbers at the Nisky and Home Depot Informal Casual Day Laborer Markets, an increase in the rental rates in areas with lower-cost housing stock, more in public school enrollments, and more demand for English as a Second Language program resources.

Dr. Mark Wenner is an economist and Dr. Gemma Wenner is a professor of tourism/hospitality. Both are residents of St. Thomas.