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Haitians from all walks of life must take ownership of the political transition.

By Monique Clesca —

One morning this spring, as the sun’s orange tints seeped through my windows in the mountains east of Port-au-Prince, machine-gun detonations jolted me awake. I reached over and picked up my phone: 6:30 a.m., and already it was jammed with text messages from friends and neighbors. Images of armed, masked and hooded men walking unbothered along my town’s main thoroughfare flashed on the screen.

The thing I had most feared was happening: The gangs that have been menacing Haiti were laying claim to my neighborhood.
I ran through the evacuation plan I had in mind in the event that gangs were to attack my street or, worse, my house. I stepped out into the yard to tell my longtime gardener, Calixte, not to idle on the balcony, to avoid being hit by stray bullets. I explained my plan for evacuating if the gangs were to enter our street — which we could gauge from the proximity of the shooting or from a neighbor’s signal. I whispered the name of the place we would escape to, as if the air could carry the sound down the hill to them. I saw fear in his eyes, and I assume he saw it in mine. There were no police I could call for help. Hollowed to the core, the Haitian state exists in name only.

Weeks earlier, on Feb. 29, gang leaders had declared a confederation they cynically called “Viv Ansanm,” which means “living together” in Haitian Creole. They went on to announce their macabre agenda: to overthrow the government and attack neighborhoods in the hills above the capital — the area where I live. In video messages, some gang leaders apologized for the violence. But even as they apologized, they raped and burned and terrorized people in their homes. More than 4,000 people have been killed in gang-related violence since the beginning of the year.

In the ensuing period, the gangs stormed prisons, releasing close to 4,600 inmates, attacked police stations and government buildings, and surrounded the airport to prevent Prime Minister Ariel Henry from returning to the country. On March 6, Henry was on a private jet to the Dominican Republic, seeking to reenter Haiti by helicopter, when he received word that the U.S. State Department had called for his resignation.

Henry’s entanglement with various armed groups, along with his utter inability to govern, had driven our country toward this disaster. But once he was gone, we were faced with a terrifying power vacuum — and the ravaging gangs’ near-total control over metropolitan Port-au-Prince.

Their presence echoed in everything. ATMs were empty because the banks had closed down. Grocery stores offered scant food because the gangs had closed the ports and blocked the roads. We watched on our phones videos of the gangs, which had enrolled even children in their ranks, tearing through Port-au-Prince, shooting, pillaging and burning schools and universities — including a century-old teachers’ college, the national school of arts and a center for children with disabilities, as well as pharmacies, courthouses, state agencies and entire neighborhoods. We communicated our outrage over WhatsApp while family and friends abroad called to offer sympathy and solidarity. But there was nothing they could do.

Nearly 580,000 Haitians have been displaced from their homes, many making do with minimal food, water and hygiene in makeshift camps in parks or other open spaces, schools and government offices. Cholera is on the rise. Thousands continue to head for the seas or to trek through Latin America in hopes of reaching the United States.

Along with the shock, fear and humiliation I felt the day the gangs came to my neighborhood was the fury that it had come to this. The nation of Haiti had failed me and its 11.5 million people. Various estimates from the past few years suggested that 80 to 90 percent of Port-au-Prince, a metropolitan area of close to 4 million people, was controlled by gangs, many of which are fueled by the drug trade. This was our new reality. I hurried back to my bedroom to comb my hair, get dressed and secure my emergency kit in case I had to flee.

I wasn’t alone. My entire neighborhood sprang into resistance mode. Within a day of the gangs’ arrival, citizen groups had created night patrols and erected barricades — using rocks, tree branches, tires, metal and broken glass.
It had always been this way. When I moved into the neighborhood around 1996 and there was no electricity, my neighbors and I pooled our money to install the pylons and transformers needed to bring in power. In 2022, we came together to pave our dirt roads. My household water comes from a rainwater cistern, and four years ago, after three months without electricity from the state provider, I installed a solar grid. As Haitians, we obtain what we need for ourselves.

Our self-sufficiency extends back generations. Haitian leaders such as Francois Duvalier in the mid-20th century and, more recently, Michel Martelly and Jovenel Moïse, did little to provide social services to Haitians — things such as health care, education, protection from sexual violence and protection from armed gangs. For the most part, they also failed to invest in infrastructure.

Luckily for my neighborhood, the gangs eventually retreated. The day after, I could see traces of their occupation: the body of a homeless man in a narrow sidewalk gutter and the corpses of several other people in an upside-down pick-up. I don’t know why the gangs left, but they often rampage through neighborhoods, destroying lives and homes, and then disappear as quickly as they materialized.

The collapse of the Haitian state has been long coming. In 2010, U.S. officials, the head of the U.N. force in Haiti and other international authorities interfered in the Haitian presidential elections. Alleging systemic fraud, without evidence, they removed one of the two top candidates so that Martelly, the third-place contender and pop star known as “Sweet Micky,” advanced to the second round — and won.

Martelly, who has since been sanctioned by Canada, brought drug traffickers, kidnappers and gang leaders to the corridors of power. A U.N. report last fall noted that Martelly himself had founded one gang and sponsored others in efforts to protect his power. In the end, his government was implicated in the biggest corruption scandal in Haiti’s history: the theft and misuse of nearly $2 billion of the PetroCaribe loan program extended by the Venezuelan government.

Martelly’s chosen successor, Moïse, won the next election, in 2016, with record low turnout. It appeared that Haitians had lost faith in the system, no longer believing their votes mattered.

Moïse, too, employed gang violence as a governing tool. In 2018, 2019 and 2020, when masses of young people took to the streets of Port-au Prince to demand social justice and an end to corruption and impunity, Moïse’s gangs responded with violence. When Moïse was assassinated in 2021, gunned down in his own bedroom with his wife by his side, Henry, the recently appointed prime minister, named justice and interior ministers who were later sanctioned by Canada for their gang entanglements.

Lawlessness spiraled out of control. None of the new government’s leaders had any interest in providing electricity, clean water or viable roads, schools and hospitals. Their neglect led to the state’s collapse.

For a long time, I hated my own helplessness. It terrified me to hear friends talk about being kidnapped, or about the rapes of girls as young as 10 or women in their 60s — some by multiple gang members — in front of family members. Inevitably, I wondered: Would I be next?

Finally, in 2018, I decided to join the protests against corruption and impunity. I rolled my gray hair under a hat and wore two pairs of socks to absorb the shock of the hot concrete streets. I listened to women in the countryside talk of actions they were taking to resolve their own problems in the absence of state services — and helped devise strategies for women to take on local and national political positions.

In consultation with political parties and civil society groups across Haiti and in the diaspora in August 2021, we developed what became known as the Montana Accord, an agreement and road map for transparent, nonviolent, participatory, ethical transition governance that was signed by more than 1,000 individuals and organizations. But Henry’s government had no interest in our consensus against the criminality of his political culture. And though I and fellow commissioners met with officials from the United States, France, Canada, the European Union and the United Nations’ Haiti bureau, the international community also declined to support our effort.

I left Haiti on April 1. The international airport had been shuttered for weeks, and all commercial flights had been canceled. On a dirt field in Port-au-Prince, protected by muscular, armed security agents, I clutched my large African carryall and walked hurriedly into a sturdy, old Soviet-era U.N. helicopter that had touched down seconds before amid clouds of dust and earsplitting noise. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the other 18 men, women and children on board for fear of descending into mutual despair. Twenty minutes later, after hovering north over dense plains and desert-like mountains, we landed in Cap-Haïtien, on Haiti’s northern coast, in time for me to catch a Sunrise Airlines flight to Miami.

It was unfair that I could leave when most Haitians could not. Nearly half of my compatriots do not even have enough to eat.

Of course, I missed my life in Port-au-Prince. The pleasure of tending the bougainvillea, lilies, irises, orchids and medicinal plants in my garden. My daily mango and avocado. I also missed the Port-au-Prince I knew long ago, the city I grew up in, whose streets I walked freely with my sister holding my hand.

But I did not miss passing dead bodies covered with white sheets on the streets, or hearing constant gunfire, or seeing the distress on people’s faces at the supermarket.

Now, nearly two months after Henry’s humiliating fall from power, almost three years since Moïse’s assassination, and days before a menacing hurricane season begins in earnest, Haiti is experimenting with a new governance model: a presidential council of nine members, including one from the Montana movement.

Unfortunately, most of the groups represented on the council are from the old guard, connected with gangs and oligarchs. But this is what we’ve got for now. On May 28, the council selected Garry Conille, a doctor by training and seasoned U.N. official who served as prime minister in 2011, to be interim prime minister.

In the meantime, the United States and the United Nations have organized a Kenyan-led police force, expected to arrive soon in Haiti, to help restore security. But the interim government has not been involved in decision-making, and Haitians still know little about what the force will do, how it will function and who will be responsible when things go wrong.

I believe in Haitians. I believe in our capacity to organize, to transform; throwing off the yoke of the French colonizers in 1804, we were the first independent Black republic, after all.

Across Haiti today, farmers, city residents and diverse others are banding together to help one another survive, thrive and build.
All of us, from all walks of life, must take ownership of the political transition. We must demand robust checks and balances to monitor the presidential council, the prime minister and his government, the multinational security force and the elections. We must help build a government that works for us all. In Haitian Creole, the word “konbit” means “communal labor,” and konbit is what it’s going to take.

I returned to Port-au-Prince on June 2.

Monique Clesca is a journalist and former U.N. official in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Featured image: People walk past a damaged car in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood, which was deserted due to gang violence, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti March 19, 2024. REUTERS/Ralph Tedy Erol


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.