By Maria Mitri
Haiti, a small island in the Caribbean that shares a border with the Dominican Republic, is ruled by a democratically elected President with an appointed Prime Minister leading the country and supported by a bicameral parliament. The current Prime Minister is Ariel Henry who also currently serves as the President following the assassination of Haiti’s former President, Jovenel Moïse.
Despite the Haitian Constitution providing universal suffrage in 1950, according to Britannica, ballot tampering interferes with most elections. Furthermore, skepticism of government is widespread among the rural black farming population. After the war of independence, the mixed race elite took governmental control and resided in the urban areas, while the mostly black farming population was left to divide up the rural areas. Thus, the poorer population developed the belief that the government has little concern for and bearing on their own lives. Most black Haitians today believe that the ideals of Haiti’s constitution exist only on paper and actually fails in practice.
To provide some historical context, one of the major political parties was the Lavalas Political Organization which evolved into the populist leftist group known as the Lavalas Family which was led by the President at the time, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The group opposing this was called the Organization of the Struggling People, both of which became leading political forces in the country.
Most recently, the capitol of Port-au-Prince has been dealt a card not of natural disasters, but of gang violence which has consequently led to forced migration of a total of 13,900 people 8. The groups of people behind this violence have inflicted fear on the people of Haiti through strong shows of military force and power in civilian settings. According to the LA Times, up to 40% of the capital of the country of Haiti is controlled by gangs, a percentage which comprises more than 2.8 million people. In Port-au-Prince, these armed gangs have primarily targeted businesses with the intention of stealing food an
d other goods and supplies. Most citizens are internally displaced and forced to seek refuge within Haiti rather than in other countries.
The difference between Haiti a decade ago and modern day Haiti, in terms of gang violence, is the hold they have on neighborhoods in the city. As small time gangs rise up through Haiti, they take on a persona of insurgent and terrorist groups, employing some of their tactics of control, best illustrated by their use of checkpoints. Nothing is transported and no people move with the consent of the gangs controlling these neighborhoods. According to the National Human Rights Defense Network, over 90 gangs populate the country of Haiti with the country suffering from massive unemployment. Because of this, gangs are now one of the biggest informal employers of jobs in the country, filling the income void for so many residents.
Photo By: Claudia Alamini
The gangs vary by name and nature, but the “G9 Family and Allies” gang is generally considered the most powerful. Of the dozens of gangs, only 30 have strongholds in Port-au-Prince and areas that surround the capitol. The presence of rival gangs, according to Relief Web International, has displaced nearly twice as many people in the month of June of 2021 than were displaced in the entirety of 2020 12. Most Haitians, according to internal displacement dot org, are internally displaced with some finding refuge in organized sites, others finding safety in spontaneous sites, while most are un accounted for and assumed to be either living with host families, or stuck in areas of conflict.
According to UNICEF, in the two weeks since the start of the uptick in violence, in summer of 2021, 2,045 women and 2,146 children have been forced to flee Port-au-Prince and seek refuge in neighboring areas. In total, UNICEF has found that about 650,000 people are currently affected by displacement in Haiti. Compounding on the effect of gang violence on displacement is Haiti’s high risk for extreme weather events, most famously the earthquakes that have crippled the country. In August of 2021, Haiti experienced a magnitude 7.2 earthquake which killed more than 1,200 people and devastated buildings and structures around the country 14. This, in conjunction with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse led to a brief release for Haitians from gang activity, but kidnappings surged again shortly after.
The risk that Haitians face on a daily basis is almost insurmountable. The ongoing pandemic combined with the country’s high risk for devastating earthquakes and the current presence of gang violence fighting over territorial control all put Haitian citizens at high risk for future displacement. Historically, the pandemic and domestic politics have not provided enough of a pause in this gang violence to provide for any type of optimistic perspective. The continued risk of COVID-19 in countries like Haiti, combined with the lack of infrastructure and social support in the country, puts all citizens at high risk for displacement, especially considering the fact that the active gangs do not discriminate against women, children, or even schools.
The LA Times reported that the recent increased retaliation of gangs against civilians, rather than just between gangs, are driven by extreme poverty in a country where 60% of the population makes less than $2 a day and millions of people go hungry. Until the country itself can provide citizens with humanitarian aid and the kind of support that prevents them from being driven to this violence, Haitian citizens are living under imminent threat of violence and displacement.