About 90 Canadian navy sailors will soon be getting to know Port-au-Prince Bay as part of a two-ship deployment announced Thursday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Bahamas.
Two Kingston-class coastal defence vessels, typically manned by a mix of regular force and reservists, will anchor off Haiti’s mountainous capital city.
Other than that, though, there was limited visible progress to solving Haiti’s multifaceted crisis at the 50th anniversary summit of the Caribbean community of nations CARICOM in Nassau, Bahamas.
Meanwhile there were reminders that Haiti itself remains deeply divided over foreign intervention, and that any outside force might not only have to fight dozens of armed groups, but also could face resistance from a wide section of Haitian society.
Perhaps for that reason, the Trudeau government preferred to get its feet wet with a naval deployment offshore of Port-au-Prince, rather than sending forces directly onto the mean streets of the city.
At his closing news conference, Trudeau was pressed on how ships at sea can help defeat street gangs on land.
One Canadian official told CBC the gangs have increasingly been venturing onto the water, partly to engage in the business of stealing shipping containers.
One in particular, the 5 Seconds gang of the Village de Dieu neighbourhood in southern Haiti, has used speedboats not only for piratical raids on the water but also to launch amphibious attacks on other districts across the bay.
Canadian officials hope the presence of armed naval vessels will at least restore order to the waters off Port-au-Prince.
The ships will also be able to provide intelligence to Haitian police through their ability to intercept electronic communications.
Canada facing increasing pressure to help Haiti
Canada is facing increasing pressure to help Haiti as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to meet with Caribbean leaders at the CARICOM conference in the Bahamas. The country has been in crisis since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
But it was unclear whether they will be able to board and search other vessels. Shipping, coming mostly from the U.S., is considered the main route of entry for the arms and ammunition that have empowered the gangs.
A government source said the rules of engagement are still being determined.
‘Worse and worse’
The ships will find a capital where the government-controlled area continues to shrink.
“The situation is getting worse and worse,” Haiti’s acting prime minister Ariel Henry told Trudeau at a bilateral meeting in Nassau. “It can’t be allowed to go on like this.”
Those sentiments were echoed this week by Canada’s ambassador in Haiti, Sébastien Carrière, who told CBC News “I think you’d have to be blind to not realize that it’s gotten worse.”
That assessment is one of the few things everyone can agree on.
Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae and Sébastien Carrière, ambassador of Canada to Haiti, speak to reporters during the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Nassau, Bahamas, on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
There is also fairly uniform consensus that the unelected Henry government lacks legitimacy, and that this hampers Haiti’s ability to unite in a battle against the gangs. And most everyone also seems to agree that the solution to that problem — free and fair elections — remains out of reach under current conditions of insecurity.
Beyond those points, there is much less consensus. Canada and the rest of the so-called Core Group of foreign powers often accused of calling the shots in Haiti want to keep Henry in place while trying to restore security and negotiate a political accord that will allow a transition to a new elected government.
But many in Haiti see Henry as a puppet of the Core Group, which effectively installed him in office following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, and accuse his government of fomenting gang warfare for its own purposes. They see his departure as a pre-condition for any further progress.
Harsh words for ‘former colonial powers’
“The actions taken by this so-called prime minister are the expressions of the will of the Core Group and not that of the Haitian people,” reads a letter sent by a coalition of Haitian civil society groups and labour unions to the CARICOM leaders.
“Sister Nations of CARICOM, it is time for the Caribbean to stop being the amplifiers of the former colonial powers.”
The letter, which refers to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by name, says the gangs are “a criminal fabrication who bear the imprimatur of the Core Group, which is a gang of ambassadors which includes, among others, the OAS, Canada, France and the United States, who enjoy the unfailing complicity of the … regime of oligarchs and corrupt and criminal Haitian politicians.”
Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, discusses the situation in Haiti and what role the Canadian government might play.
“All of the prescriptions of the Haitian Constitution and the right to self-determination of the Haitian people are presently being trampled upon. Consequently, Ariel Henry, the Core Group’s prime minister, has no title, no capacity, and no legitimacy authorizing him to decide or speak on behalf of the Haitian people.”
The harshly-worded letter was a reminder that some in Haiti will never accept the presence of Canadian troops or police which, in any case, Canada has not offered.
No substitute for Haitians themselves
“We believe very strongly that Haitian institutions themselves have to play the leadership role,” said Canada’s UN ambassador Bob Rae in Nassau. “We don’t think it works for Canada or any other country to substitute itself for institutions that should be able to do the job.”
The government of Canada’s strategy depends entirely on the survival and success of the embattled Haitian National Police.
“Obviously there’s going to have to be a massive building up of the capacity of the police force in Haiti,” said Rae. “Haiti is going to have to decide whether or not, like most countries, it’s going to have an army.” (Haiti abolished its armed forces in 1994, and although it formally reconstituted them five years ago, they remain small and ineffective.)
Then-governor general Michaëlle Jean speaks in Jacmel, Haiti, on March 9, 2010 during a two-day visit to her birth country following the devastating earthquake there. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
Rae says no foreign force can take the place of Haiti’s own security forces.
“I think we have to come to grips a bit with the history of large military interventions where basically you’re just pushing aside all of the Haitian institutions and saying, we’ll do this. And then the pressures come back from home saying, well, how long are those troops going to be there? So the troops come out again, and then where are you?”
Not enough to win
But some Haitians and foreigners say the task is now beyond Haiti’s own police force, which has suffered dozens of losses in the past year, including senior officers.
“We’re still not doing enough to be able to win this fight at this stage,” said Helen La Lime, head of the UN’s political office in Haiti, following a special UN Security Council session last week that produced no new commitments. “We will not win this fight without significant levels of additional support.”
One prominent Haitian-Canadian agreed with that assessment.
Former governor general Michaëlle Jean, who also served as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) envoy to Haiti, told CBC’s Power and Politics that “just as the state governance is corrupt, so is the police governance.”
What the police lack, she says, is “co-ordination, communication, and intelligence. Because of the lack of intelligence, police operations are carried out blindly, with disastrous consequences.”
She acknowledged that there was resistance in Haiti to the entry of security forces from Core Group countries such as Canada. “Police teams from countries in the region would be better accepted by the Haitian population.”
‘A failed state’
While two of Haiti’s Caribbean neighbours — the Bahamas and Jamaica — have committed to send their own forces to any eventual mission, others have not.
And Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis has warned that, even collectively, Caribbean nations are not able to reverse the situation in Haiti, a nation with more people than the other 14 CARICOM countries combined.
Meanwhile the Haitian National Police, with a mere 9,000 members, appears to be shrinking rather than growing. Defections are expected to accelerate as disillusioned officers take advantage of a new US visa program that allows Haitians with family members in the U.S. to emigrate.
As the police force shrinks, gang-controlled territory is expanding.
“Haiti is already a failed state,” said Jean.