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Creation of transitional council that will select Haiti's next prime minister is imminent, US says

An armored police car on a street.
Odelyn Joseph
An armored police car patrols the General Hospital area, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, April 2, 2024.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The creation of a transitional council responsible for choosing Haiti’s next leaders is imminent, a U.S. diplomat said Wednesday during a heated forum about Haiti’s spiraling crisis.

The nine-member council could be formally established in Haiti as early as this week, Brian A. Nichols, U.S. assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, said at a New York-based event organized by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Officials are eager to see the council in place as Haiti staggers under a power vacuum, with the prime minister locked out of a country suffering relentless gang violence that has choked the Port-au-Prince capital and surrounding communities, forcing more than 53,000 people to flee the area in recent weeks.

Haiti’s main seaport and airport remain closed, cutting off critical aid as experts warn that hunger and illnesses are skyrocketing.

“There is no greater humanitarian crisis in the world today than what is going on in Haiti,” Nichols said.

READ MORE: Haiti's gangs are saying — with guns — 'talk to us' if you want the nation back

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, D-Miramar, joined with two other lawmakers, and Haitian advocates nationwide, in pressing the Biden administration and congressional colleagues to help Haiti during what she called "an unprecedented crisis."

"The lives of countless Haitians are being torn apart by ongoing violence and borderline famine imposed by influential gangs," she said in a statement. "The time has come for us to stand in solidarity with the people of Haiti and their fight for peace, order, and stability.”

Cherfilus-McCormick and Democratic U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts, and Cori Bush, of Missouri, are requesting the administration and Congress:

  • Extend Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to Haitians in the U.S.
  • Stop plans detain Haitians interdicted at sea at Guantanamo Bay or other offshore detention centers.
  • Halt deportation of Haitians and release all Haitians in detention.
  • Expedite the humanitarian parole applications of those from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

“The crisis in Haiti has reached a never before seen level of cruelty and dehumanization," said Tessa Petit, Executive Director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). "The country has been closed since February 29th. People have been dying at a rapid rate, access to healthcare is now practically nonexistent, and access to food is getting more scarce.”

Gangs began attacking key government institutions across Port-au-Prince on Feb. 29, opening fire on the main international airport that remains closed and storming police stations and Haiti’s two biggest prisons, releasing more than 4,000 inmates.

The U.N. Human Rights Office has called the situation “cataclysmic,” noting more than 1,550 people have been killed and more than 800 injured as of late March.

The creation of the transition council, which will have seven members with voting powers to choose Haiti's next prime minister and Cabinet, is not expected to immediately solve the country’s deep-rooted troubles.

Nichols said there's not just “one single thing” needed to solve the country's problems.

During the hourlong forum, Nichols came under fire by Monique Clesca, a Haitian writer and member of the Montana Group, a coalition of civil, business and political leaders that was awarded a position on the transitional council.

She criticized the U.S. for having supported Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who she accused of being incompetent and responsible for the country's deteriorating conditions. Henry was installed as an interim leader with the backing of the international community following the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Haiti’s most powerful gangs also have opposed Henry, noting that he was not democratically elected, and he has promised to resign once the council is created.

“You dropped him like a hot potato,” Clesca told Nichols as she questioned why the U.S. ever supported Henry in the first place. “If we are going forward … we have to think about that policy. Was it bad? What can we learn from it? Can we admit that there was a failure?

The country's gangs started launching large-scale attacks against government targets while Henry was in Kenya in February to push for the U.N.-backed deployment of a police force from the East African country. He has been locked out of the country since then, as the violence has forced the closure of major ports of entry.

Panelists in New York were asked why the gangs that control 80% of Port-au-Prince were not involved in negotiations or the creation of a transitional council.

“Having a broad, inclusive dialogue among all segments of society is certainly something that is worth doing,” Nichols said, but he said that the interest of the gangs "cannot be put ahead of ordinary, law-abiding citizens.”

He said solutions are needed to target why people join gangs in the first place. “There has to be access to education and job opportunities and training programs,” he said.

Clesca added that there’s a need to change social identity so that it focuses more on school and jobs.

Also on the panel was Garry Pierre-Pierre, founder of the Brooklyn-based online news site The Haitian Times. He alleged that Haitian politicians and the country’s elite have long secretly backed gangs to serve their interests, and he lamented that the Haitian diaspora has not been adequately consulted amid the crisis.

“Security is a short-term problem that can be dealt with,” he said. “But stitching back Haitian society, that’s going to be a real challenge.”

WLRN News Staff contributed to this story.

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