It is a new year, but Haiti has yet to turn the corner on persistent challenges facing the country: a cholera outbreak, growing malnutrition and ongoing gang violence.
As of Monday, the nation now also has no democratically elected government officials. The last 10 remaining elected senators left office when their terms in parliament expired two days ago.
The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Widlore Mérancourt, editor-in-chief of AyiboPost, who joined from the captial Port-au-Prince, about the latest situation.
Marco Werman: Widlore, Haiti has no elected officials on a federal level? Explain how that happened.
Widlore Mérancourt: Well, that happened because, during the past years, Haiti and Haitian governments failed multiple times to hold elections. And in 2020, most of the parliament, that is composed of the senate and the deputy chamber, did not have a mandate anymore. One-third of the senate stayed in power. But this third of the senate, its mandate expired this Monday. So basically, Haiti has zero elected officials. Last time that happened was 19 years ago. And remember, we started this democracy adventure in 1987 after the fall of the dictatorship. And this is yet another example, another illustration of the long path that Haiti has to take to work normally as a democratic society.
So, Ariel Henry is still the prime minister. Is he the only one who could organize possible elections?
Well, Ariel Henry is trying to find an agreement with multiple actors on the Haitian political scene to go forward with an election plan. However, there is deep mistrust on both sides. People are saying that Ariel Henry is not negotiating in good faith. Some people even think he should not be in power because his name is implicated in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse] last year in December. Ariel Henry needs an agreement to go forward, but the different discussions that he's engaging in are not fruitful, at least not yet. And it's unclear how you can have elections without a political accord, but without also a climate of security that is basic enough for people to even think about leaving their houses and go and pick people who will represent them.
Well, you make a good point there, because we know Port-au-Prince, and much of Haiti, has been in the grip of multiple, well-armed and violent gangs. Has there been any success in rooting out these gangs or taking back control of the streets?
Well, the situation is unchanged, quite frankly. We have assassinations. We have in different slums, including in cities ... thousands, and sometimes dozens of thousands of people who had to flee their homes last year because of gang violence. And 30% to 60% of the country is still under the control of the gangs. And if you are living in Port-au-Prince, you are, quite frankly, isolated from the rest of the country, because the main roads connecting you to the north are controlled by the gangs, and the gangs are not losing power. And you can even say that they are gaining more power. It's very difficult to see how you can have elections in this climate.
Widlore, what exactly do these gangs want? Is that clear? Is it about money and power? Is there something else to it?
I mean, it's simple. It's money and power. It's more money that gives them more power. And it's more power that gives them more money. It's a sort of cycle. The gangs in Haiti, historically links to the political class. Many politicians use the gangs to gain elections, because there is this famous saying in Haiti that, "You [win] elections not by having the best argument, but by being the most armed."
There's also malnutrition, as I mentioned, across Haiti. Why are so many people going hungry right now?
So, the situation is extremely difficult. There are 4.7 million people facing the food crisis in Haiti. We have this food crisis because of many reasons. The first one is, of course, because of the grip of the gangs. But also, about 70% of what we consume in Haiti comes from the outside would, and customs can't work properly. And some of the help that came for NGOs, etc. could not be delivered to those in need.
And then there's the cholera crisis. Has there been any improvement in that situation?
The cholera epidemic is not improving since last year in October when the first cases were recorded. And cholera is now in the 10th department of the country. We have 10 [administrative] departments, so it's all over the country. We have 23,000 suspected cases and 464 registered deaths, so far.
Desperate Haitians have been fleeing the country, many heading to the US. Where else are they going? Are they finding any places to rebuild their lives?
Haitians have been moving for years, and it is sort of a tradition whenever we have big crises, whether it's the earthquake, whether it was the insecurity under Jovenel Moïse, whether it's the food insecurity, all the massive problems that we are facing today, Haitians are trying to leave. And one thing that illustrates that is the government of the US announced a program where 30,000 people from countries like Haiti or Cuba could come to the US on a legal basis. And if you go today to the immigration bureau where people can get passports, you are going to see lines of dozens and dozens and dozens of people. And that says a lot about the level of desperation that we have in the country today.
There has been talk of military intervention. American forces maybe, or a multilateral force, have both been floated to restore order and provide relief to Haiti's citizens. That's an idea that's long been controversial. But how is it being received in Haiti, especially now?
On one side, you have the camps. And I think most of the population is on that side. They will tell you that interventions, and especially foreign intervention in Haiti, do not work. It did not work, because the last time we had one, it brought a cholera epidemic. And then some would say, there is a clear link between the failure of the minister, the UN peacekeeping mission that we had and the situation that the country is in today. So, there is that. But there are also the problems, the structural problems, the institutional problems of the Haitian police and army forces. It is clear now today that these institutions cannot establish a modicum of security. So, many people will tell you we need some form of help. What this help could be, how it could take into account the past failures of the international decisions and interventions in Haiti? These are open questions that Haitians are debating today.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Related: Haitians face a ‘very dire climate’ one year after Moïse's assassination, journalist says