After Kenyan police aid is blocked, Haitians ask: what now?

Gangs have taken over entire neighborhoods of Haiti’s capital and murders have more than doubled in the past year, but for organizers of the Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival the show simply had to go on.

So, while judges an ocean away decided whether to send a contingent of agents to pacify the violence-plagued streets of Haiti, the festival’s organizers contented themselves with reducing the event’s duration from eight to four days, moving the shows from a public stage to a private hotel. venue and replacing the handful of artists who canceled.

As 11.5 million Haitians struggle to feed their families, catch the bus or get to work because they fear becoming victims of gunmen or kidnappers, they also move forward, struggling to regain a secure sense of routine – regardless of whether whether or not this is accompanied by the assistance of international soldiers.

“We need something normal,” said Miléna Sandler, executive director of the Haiti Jazz Foundation, whose festival takes place this weekend in Port-au-Prince, the capital. “We need elections.”

A Kenyan court on Friday blocked a plan to deploy 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti, the key element of a multinational force intended to help stabilize a nation besieged by killings, kidnappings and gang violence.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has descended into deepening turmoil in the nearly three years since the president’s assassination. The terms of all the country’s mayors ended almost four years ago, and the prime minister is deeply unpopular largely because he was appointed, not elected, and has been unable to restore order.

With the U.N.-backed and largely U.S.-funded deployment plan on hold, Haitians are wondering: Now what?

Kenya’s government has said it will appeal the court’s ruling, but it is unclear if and when its mission will proceed. And without any other nation, including the United States and Canada, showing the will to lead an international force, there is no apparent Plan B.

Therefore, for many Haitians, the Kenyan court’s decision left the Caribbean country to find its own solutions. If there is anything the Court’s ruling suggests, experts say, it is that if there is any hope of avoiding the complete collapse of the Haitian state, it is necessary to rebuild the government, the police force, the Parliament and other institutions.

“We no longer want to be a colony of the United States,” said Monique Clesca, a women and democracy activist who was a member of the Commission for Finding a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, a group that sought to find a solution plan to address the country’s problems. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want help. It means that it must be negotiated with legitimate people who have Haiti’s best interest at heart.”

Ms. Clesca, a former United Nations official, said she hopes the Kenyan court’s decision will lead the United States, Canada and France — countries that have long been deeply intertwined with Haiti — to rethink their policies.

He criticized the Biden administration and leaders of other countries for supporting Haiti’s current prime minister, Ariel Henry, who took office after the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

The commission he worked on made broad proposals for an interim government that would set the stage for elections, but its work was rejected in favor of supporting Henry, who pushed for international intervention, he said.

As a personal act of resistance and a sign that Haiti must move forward, Ms. Clesca braced herself against unsafe streets and attended the jazz festival on Thursday.

“The place was packed,” he said.

Jean-Junior Joseph, a spokesman for Haiti’s prime minister, declined to comment on the Kenyan court’s decision, except to say that Mr. Henry was “pursuing a diplomatic approach.”

A United Nations spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, stressed that Secretary-General António Guterres did not choose Kenya to provide help to the police; Kenya, however, has stepped up.

“We thank them for doing this while so many countries are not stepping up,” Dujarric said. “The need for this Security Council-authorized multinational force remains extremely high. We need urgent action, we need urgent funding and we hope that Member States will continue to do their part and more.”

In Washington, John F. Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, reminded reporters that the Kenyan government has appealed the court’s ruling.

“We are still very grateful for the Kenyan government’s willingness to participate,” he said. “We still think it’s really important because gangs and thugs and criminals continue to cause a lot of chaos, mayhem, murder, violence, and the people of Haiti deserve so much better.”

Although Washington was a strong supporter of the mission in Kenya, it did not offer to provide American personnel.

The U.S. government has set aside $200 million for the multinational mission, money that many Haitians say could instead strengthen Haitian institutions, including the police, which has seen at least 3,000 of its 15,000 officers walk off the job in the past two years.

The US State Department has already allocated around $185 million to the Haitian National Police, which has helped fund equipment, but the forces are still unprepared to deal with the heavily armed gangs.

“Should we wait forever for a force to arrive?” said Lionel Lazarre, who heads one of Haiti’s two police unions. “NO! We already have a police force.”

Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University who follows Haiti closely, said that without international intervention, a more strategic policy by the United States and a long-overdue and seemingly impossible strengthening of the Haitian state, a less favorable option would probably be the most likely. : The rise of someone like Guy Philippe, a former police commander who led a 2004 coup in Haiti and who recently tried to mobilize people against the government.

Mr. Philippe arrived in Haiti in November after serving a prison sentence in the United States and being deported. He has known ties to drug traffickers and has allied himself with a paramilitary group in northern Haiti, but it is unclear whether he has the popular support and financial backing to lead the “revolution” he has publicly called for.

“Someone has to take some leadership,” Gamarra said, adding that it would preferably not be Philippe.

Ashley Laraque, leader of the Haitian Military Association, a veterans group, said she believes Kenya will eventually succeed, but that Kenya’s government will likely need more financial incentives.

“I’m sure the Kenyan government will send troops,” Laraque said. “I don’t know when, but I’m sure it will happen as soon as this money issue is resolved.”

Joseph Lambert, former president of the Haitian Senate, said the need is critical.

“It is time more than ever to understand that we must at all costs strengthen our capacity both at the level of the police and at the level of the armed forces of Haiti,” he said, “so that, as a sovereign state, we can meet our needs of security through our own security forces.”

Although Haiti has a history of disastrous outside interventions, Judes Jonathan, a consultant who works on development projects in the country, said many Haitians were disappointed by the court’s decision because, more than anything, they want the security of such a contingent of police officers. could deliver.

“If you ask people in Haiti what they need, it’s security,” he said. “They don’t think about food or school. We don’t have food, for safety reasons. People don’t go to school for safety reasons.”

Indeed, there are neighborhoods without cooking gas because gangs have blocked main arteries. Rural farmers often find it too dangerous to sell their produce in city markets. The national electricity company also had to move its employees from its headquarters due to gang activity nearby.

The gangs have such control in Port-au-Prince that they sometimes kidnap busloads of passengers and demand ransom.

The gangs, Jonathan said, have grown stronger in the face of the government’s failure to meaningfully address them, and the legal barrier to an international deployment has left Haitians to fend for themselves.

“I don’t think international actors really understand what’s happening in Haiti,” he said. “We just don’t see a future.”

Farnaz Fassihi AND André Paultre contributed to the reporting.