In 1991, Haitian Army General Raoul Cédras, Army Chief of Staff Philippe Biamby and Chief of the Haitian National Police Michel François led a bloody coup that toppled the democratically elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide.

After protracted negotiations to return to democratic rule, the international community, led by the United Nations, imposed a crippling embargo on Haiti to force the hands of the junta leaders. At that time, the word embargo was a foreign concept to Haitians and few people knew what it meant. 

I remember the response of a rank-and-file soldier interviewed by local journalists, as he was asked for his thoughts on the embargo.

‘If it comes by air, I’m going to shoot it,’ the soldier replied, with no hint of irony. ‘If it comes by sea, I’m going to shoot at it.’

In today’s world, that video would have gone viral. While I haven’t heard such a deep misunderstanding of what an embargo is since, there now appears to be similar confusion about what it means for the international community to impose sanctions against Haiti’s cabal of gang leaders, business moguls, prime ministers and senators.

I’m asked repeatedly why former president Michel Martelly and two of his prime ministers – Laurent Lamothe and Jean Henry Ceant — are still walking freely after the United States,  Canada and Switzerland imposed economic sanctions on them for their alleged ties to gang leaders and suspected drug activities in Haiti. 

For one thing, in the U.S. and most likely in the other countries, economic sanctions are the domain of the treasury department, not the justice department, of the government. The aim is to squeeze the financial life out of a suspected wrongdoer by freezing their assets, including real estate holdings, luxury goods and bank accounts. Jailing them doesn’t mean that their crimes, which they direct others to commit, would cease with prosecution. 

I’m being told that sanctions against these Haitians appear to be having their intended consequences. The loquacious Martelly has gone silent. He is despondent over his financial situation and living under duress. He has kept an unusually low profile during the usually lucrative holiday party scene that he once dominated as a musician. 

Lamothe, for his part, is in the same boat and has no access to his accounts, including a bank account in South Africa. He has taken to Twitter to defend himself, asking for the international authorities to show proof of his illegal activities. Ceant has done the same. 

As we Haitians like to say in our metaphoric way of speaking, ‘figi w du’ — in English, you have a cynical face. These leaders know the sanctions are not whimsical because these governments respect the rule of law and have no reason to target Haitians without any proof. 

I believe these sanctioned guys were caught off guard. They did not anticipate becoming the target of any sanctions, wrongly thinking their well-calibrated game of fooling the embassy staff in Haiti and Washington had somehow shielded them from the reach of the law. After all, they are the gatekeepers and, to some extent, the rotating diplomatic staff at the embassy depend on them for the context of Haiti. 

These diplomats may appear naïve and easily manipulated, but the truth couldn’t be farther than that. Harboring such hubris, the sanctioned group failed to hide their assets before the authorities pounced on them. The Treasury Department moved first on the gang leaders, which appeared risible because we all know that Jimmy “Barbeque” Cherizier has no bank accounts to his name and a travel ban does nothing to deter him from continuing to lead his G9 gang’s reign of terror in the country. 

In bed with the gangs

I, for one, was surprised to see the sanctions on the politicians and members of the oligarchy like Gilbert Bigiot and Sheriff Abdallah. As we’ve documented here and others have written about, every president and their prime ministers — since Rene Preval to the current regime — have coddled and played footsie with the gangs. 

Initially, the politicians and businesspeople used these gangs to settle scores with each other. The gangs basically replaced the disbanded Haitian military, known by its acronym FADH, as the shock troops of political opposition and business rivals. It was a system akin to a mob boss having his lieutenant order a hit on an enemy. 

No political candidate can campaign without the support of at least the gangs who control their district. Gangs were paid handsomely by parliamentarians and presidential candidates to assure their election.  

However, the power dynamic has shifted with the gangs calling the shots and wielding power, operating as equals to their former patrons. Therefore, in this scenario, not the theater of the absurd, Haiti has been rendered unlivable and people are fleeing, legally or illegally, to a safe haven. Anywhere to escape the daily fusillade of the raging gang battles. 

Keep the sanctions coming

I hope that sanctions continue to rain upon these bad actors because of their illicit activities and because they’ve turned Haiti into a hellscape. Sanctions will send a strong message and set a precedent that criminals cannot continue to operate with impunity in this new world order in Haiti. 

If you’re an elected official or a businessperson cuddling with criminals, you are susceptible to sanctions and other legal measures. The days of impunity are over. 

At least, that’s the lesson I hope will be imparted to aspiring leaders. Too many of them seem to pivot quickly from altruism to gangsterism after once they get into office. 

The sanctions are tools to force the hands of those determined to paralyze the country until they get what they want — economic and political hegemony where no one wins except themselves. 

There is the issue of restoring security and eradicating the gangs, of which more than 200 have fanned out across Haiti. That decision is fraught and will not be taken lightly because international actors know well that if the past is prologue, they must plan carefully to achieve whatever it is they want to do. When it comes to Haiti, they realize, there is no more room for error. 

I wonder what the gang leaders will do when the actual cavalry comes. Will they shoot at it if it comes via air and sea, like that soldier thought way back? They might have to. But it would not end well for them. 

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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