In November 2021, I was a guest on MSNBC with Jose Diaz-Balart giving his viewers an update on the situation in Haiti. It had been four months since the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse.
The interim administration, to the shock of no one, was struggling to get a handle on the gangs that were wreaking havoc on the vulnerable population. The situation was becoming desperate. People who were fleeing for dear life, with children in tow and meager belongings hoisted on their heads. There was a spike in the number of people taking rickety boats, risking being some sharks’ meal.
At one point, Diaz-Balart asked me what the police should do to combat the gangs, who are better equipped than the Haitian National Police (PNH). Usually, I would give some acceptable answer that would resonate with his audience. Not this time. To my own surprise, I answered that the people should take to the streets and goad the gangs to shoot them.
As expected, Jose pushed back and argued that my comments – while he understood where I was coming from – were jarring, reeking of fatalism. I doubled down on the comments, replying that the gang’s stronghold and the police’s utter weakness left the people with no choice.
Well, a couple weeks ago, the people did just that. They launched the Bwa Kale movement, hunting down and summarily killing suspected gang members. In many instances, the police joined these operations and turned the tables on the gangs.
Being people who tend to speak metaphorically, Haitians have called this movement “Bwa Kale” which literally means ‘shave off or peel off tree bark.’ It is a call for locals to bring sharpened wooden sticks, stones, machetes and any other tool that can be used as weapons to hunt down the bandits.
According to The Haitian Times, one week into the “Bwa Kale” movement, only one case of kidnapping has been reported. No official figures are available as of May 1, but local media estimate that around 100 suspected bandits have been killed by residents and the police in various neighborhoods.
Vigilantism leads to darker path
Most of the Haitian populace and the diaspora are fed up with the gangs, but vigilantism is not the answer to this problem. It is a short-term solution the police must take a hold of immediately, to seize the advantage it affords to rid Port-au-Prince of this menace that has brought the capital city, and by extension the country, to its knees over the last two years.
The police can continue their operations alongside the people to credibly identify alleged gang members. These suspects should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, facing the fullest extent of the law — as feeble as Haiti’s justice system may be right now.
Otherwise, some bad actors can use this moment to settle scores, killing innocent people after wrongly accusing them of being a gang member. This is a road that we don’t want to follow. It leads us to a bad place.
What the US & UN should do
Brian A. Nichols, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs has consistently called for a “Haitian led solution” to address the political and security challenges that have dogged Haiti since Moïse’s grisly murder on July 7, 2021.
Now that the Haitian people have found somewhat of a solution, Nichols should also grab the momentum to give the PNH the support that they need to restore order. It’s a small ask.
I know there are retired Haitian American police officers on the ground advising the PNH, but more resources are needed. The U.S. should use its considerable influence over the United Nations to ensure that BINUH—special political mission to Haiti established by the U.N. Security Council in June 2019—fulfills its mandate and stops playing politics while people are dying. It is the least that they can do.
Sending gangs on the run and restoring some kind of order would pave the way for credible elections. If that happens, I hope the people will feel galvanized and make their choices. I’m also hopeful that the will of the people will be respected and accepted by the international community, particularly the U.S., which has a history of picking winners who don’t win elections outright. That practice must stop.
With a clear mandate from the people, these leaders would realize they are elected to serve the people, not the other way around.
In the long term, these political leaders could work hand and glove with civil society and the business sector to create a more just and equitable society for the Haitian people.
A golden lining
This latest crisis has one golden (not silver) lining: It has shattered all the pre-existing norms and rigid caste system that have plagued Haiti worse than any natural or human-made disaster that has stricken the mountainous nation.
In many ways, Haiti is now a blank canvas awaiting the brush of talented artists to create a majestic piece of artwork. In the last two years, countless Haitian oligarchs and politicians have been sanctioned by the international community. Members of the “mulaterie” find themselves becoming a loathed diaspora, grounded in their Miami homes with no steady income and no job prospects.
This is a seminal moment for the Haitian diaspora, whose remittances account for 23% of Haiti’s GDP, to bring their brushes and put their touches in this mural. We have every right as children of Haiti, whether we live or were born there. The country needs all of its artists in this konbit to rebuild our deeply troubled beloved nation.
In that 2021 interview with Diaz-Balart, I had no expectation that the people would do as I mentioned. I know Haiti well enough to remain humbled and not think that things I say or write will be acted upon. It’s just not the way things are.
Most of the people taking part in Bwa Kale have never watched MSNBC or read The Haitian Times. But I rejoice that their courageous action gave us a window of opportunity. An access point that we should go through to open the door to a prosperous Haiti.