Inside their headquarters in Doral, Florida, the brass of the U.S. Southern Command had convened a group of Haitian American leaders to brief them on their mission in Haiti, following the coup d’etat against Jean-Bertrand Aristide. SouthCom, as it is commonly known, is one of 11 unified combatant commands made up of various military forces in the U.S. Department of Defense.
At the time, the Marines were in Haiti to stabilize the country after Aristide was once again deposed by a ragtag gang made up of former officers from the disbanded Haiti Armed Forces.
During that 2004 briefing in Florida, a question arose about the Marines killing some gang members during a routine patrol through the Bel Air neighborhood.
“If you shoot at my Marines, we’re going to shoot back,” said Gen. James T. Hill, matter-of-factly, to us.
I believe the general’s blunt talk in 2004 is once again needed in 2021. We find ourselves in a similar situation now, as Haiti has been dealing with a rash of crises: the assassination of president Jovenel Moise, a massive earthquake, food insecurity and a general absence of the rule of law.
While Haitians have been subjected to the fear and reality of kidnappings for years, the issue was raised to the international level when a busload of American missionaries were kidnapped last week by the 400 Mawozo gang. They have asked for $17 million for the 17 people they’ve abducted.
I’m asked constantly by colleagues from the mainstream media and friends: What are the solutions to Haiti’s constant problems? So much so that at times, I feel like the character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s book of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies.
What I do know is that concrete steps could be taken both in Washington and Port-au-Prince that would form the contours of a solution.
Step 1: Squash gangs in key areas
The first step is that the international community, with the U.S leading the way, should mount a full assault on the gangs. The gangs should be put on notice that their days of terrorizing the country are coming to an end. The Haitian National Police should blockade the two main gangs that control the Martissant corridors and the Croix-des-Bouquets arteries into and out of Port-an-Prince. This is crucial because in controlling these access points, the gangs have essentially cut off Port-au-Prince, the capital and the country’s most important city, from the rest of the mountainous nation.
As these hubs are under Haitian police control, a warning should be sent to residents to evacuate. The police should give safe passage out of the area to residents and set up temporary shelters to those with no housing options. All the while, loud music should be blasted non-stop in the same way that American forces did when they went into Panama City to fetch Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.
Once residents vacate, using intelligence gathered and other tools, the police should move in, guns blazing with overwhelming force. Afterward, police should be ready to occupy these territories as long as necessary to ensure that gang members are rooted out and those charged are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
While Haiti’s special envoy Daniel Foote was thrown under the bus by the Biden Administration for suggesting some kind of military action against the gangs, he was actually onto something. The current situation has become unbearable and the Haitian police are unable to mount any real operations against these gangs on their own. Their attempts have failed spectacularly, with police officers getting killed and tanks being torched.
This is not an operation for large deployment of U.S troops. Highly trained special forces working in cooperation with the Haitian police can achieve this mission. This would be a signal that kidnapping, armed robbery, rape and other criminal activities will not be tolerated.
People would see that the government has a grip on the country and could instill confidence.
Step 2: Set up a functioning government, create jobs
The second step is for the Haitian government and civil society to build a consensus and organize elections as soon as possible. It’s crucial to have a functioning administration and parliament to enact laws and take actions, both nationally and internationally.
The solution to the gang problem is not strictly a law enforcement issue, however. At its core, it is an economic development challenge. While the gang leaders asked for million-dollar ransoms, the “foot soldiers” are barely eking out a living. They’re paid peanuts and face attacks from rival gangs.
To address that reality long term, the government must create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The Haitian government should make a strong case to foreign donors to invest in infrastructure, one of the biggest job creation mechanisms in the world, as we all know. Haiti infrastructural needs are plentiful: Roads, electricity, potable water, schools and hospitals — to name a few.
The rule of law must be also respected and cherished. I’m reminded of how New York City was able to turn itself around from a no-man’s land to a place where millions of tourists flock to.
The Michel Martelly administration levied a $1.50 fee on all money transfers to Haiti. That money was supposed to go to build schools. Yet, nearly a decade later, we don’t know how many schools have been built or what has happened to that money. I know I speak for many who say that they would be willing to pay even more if there was proof that schools were really being built. It’s cheaper than to open and manage a school from afar, as many Haitians living abroad currently do.
The government needs to really provide the country with a decentralized system. The fact that all of the large cities are overcrowded and are bursting at the seams. The republic of Port-au-Prince, as many people have referred to the city, has to be dismantled. People don’t have to travel to the capital for basic governmental services that should be available at the local level.
The civil service workers should be paid regular salaries. Right now, a government worker can go up to six months without pay, including the police who carry guns. Once these workers are treated as professionals, then you begin an anti-corruption initiative. Anyone caught taking a bribe to issue a passport or any other services should be arrested, fired prosecuted.
What I’m describing is the basic tenets of any functioning state. Haiti needs to join those ranks. If it continues on this path, it will lead the list of failed states.
Step 3: Restore love and respect among Haitians
The third step Haiti must take is for the Haitian people to restore the love and respect for each other. In the last four decades, we’ve witnessed a debasement of a society where those who are at the bottom of the social ladder are shunned and humiliated. The private sector and the government provide little opportunity for social development.
If you’re born in a social class, you’re doomed to remain in that stratum and you’re told that you’re the reason for your lot in life. This mindset is so acute that to improve their economic opportunity, many people leave the country, choosing instead to face racism abroad that some don’t even understand.
For most of us who leave, whether for Chile, Cuba, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, the new place is often a better place than Haiti. It is this class that makes up most of the diaspora, particularly in the last two decades or so.
In Haiti, Haitian Americans like me experience all sorts of micro and macro aggressions, on large and small fronts. I remember the first time I went to a bank there to exchange some traveler’s checks in 1991. The teller, who seemed like a nice young lady, asked me for identification in Creole. When I pulled out my American passport, she changed the language to French.
Fresh off two years of speaking French daily with Togolese, Belgium and French friends of mine in Togo, I mustered my best Gaulois and answered her in a pseudo-Napoleon French. Then she switched back to Creole. Annoyed, I told her in Creole that I can speak French, Creole or English if she wants, but I can’t switch from one language into another after every sentence. It gives me mental whiplash, I explained.
Later, my cousin explained the little exchange, saying that the teller was trying to humiliate me by addressing me in French, the language of the ruling class and their sycophants often used to put a “rich” diaspora like me in his place.
I am able to dismiss these personal affronts because I don’t live in Haiti. I don’t work in Haiti and my social circles are not limited to Haiti. But if I was condemned to live there permanently, I would have to accept whatever is thrown at me. This is what the majority of people do. This is partly what creates the gang epidemic.
This is so true that the gang leader Jimmy “Barbeque” Cherizier fashions himself some kind of Robin Hood and a revolutionary leader preparing to launch a social revolution in Haiti. As absurd as it sounds, he does have a point. However, it is the Haitian people who should be leading that revolution, not two-bit thugs like Cherizier.