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Haiti 'has a road map — but gangs are still the elephant in the room'

Relatives grieve in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on May 18, 2024, during a burial service for 16-year-old Jhon-Roselet Joseph, killed by a stray bullet during clashes between police and gang members who were trying to invade the capital's Solino neighborhood.
Odelyn Joseph
/
AP
Relatives grieve in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on May 18, 2024, during a burial service for 16-year-old Jhon-Roselet Joseph, killed by a stray bullet during clashes between police and gang members who were trying to invade the capital's Solino neighborhood.

Leslie Voltaire is known inside and outside Haiti for being honest about elephants in the room.

A year after Haiti's apocalyptic 2010 earthquake, when disputes rang out over why so little recovery progress had been made, Voltaire — an urban architect, democracy advocate and former Haitian education minister — was a prominent voice pointing out what should have been obvious: only 5% of the quake's mammoth debris field had been cleared.

"Nothing can really be done," Voltaire said then, "until the rubble is removed."

Voltaire still wears pragmatic glasses as he assesses Haiti's current calamity: its violent collapse of governance in the face of virtual gang rule — a crisis the newly appointed Transitional Presidential Council he's a member of is tasked with solving.

Last week the Council, which was formed in late April, finally selected a new interim Prime Minister — development expert Garry Conille, who was briefly Haiti's PM a decade ago — to head a transitional government until desperately needed new elections can be held in 2026. Conille had to be hospitalized over the weekend, reportedly for a respiratory condition; he was soon released, but the episode seemed a a reminder of the struggle Haiti faces as it tries to emerge from gang terror.

"We have a roadmap for Haiti that we have to execute, and we can begin efforts like new elections," Voltaire told WLRN from Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. "But if the public security situation is not dealt with first, we will have a lot of trouble achieving them.

"The elephant in the room," he says, "is the gangs."

READ MORE: Haitians say they need a national overhaul for 'the day after' gang rule

That's particularly true, Voltaire adds, because the gangs have now embedded themselves in many Haitian neighborhoods — "where they've replaced the state. They are imitating [the late Colombian drug lord] Pablo Escobar, giving money to families, helping them with food and other necessities. We have to replace that; we have to dismantle the gangs and re-consolidate those neighborhoods."

But to neutralize the gangs, which control 80% of Port-au-Prince and were responsible for some 2,500 murders in the first quarter of 2024 alone, Haitians are still waiting for the deployment of a Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission — an international police assistance force of a thousand police officers, led by Kenya and funded mostly by the U.S.

Voltaire told WLRN he expects the MSS personnel to begin arriving in Haiti as early as this weekend.

"I've been to the camps the American government is building for the Kenyans," he said. "In my last visit, it was like 95% finished."

Asked if he thought the MSS will be adequate to confront the gangs, Voltaire sounded optimistic.

Haitian architect, politician and Transitional Presidential Council member Leslie Voltaire
Conseil Présidentiel de Transition
Haitian architect, politician and Transitional Presidential Council member Leslie Voltaire

"I don't think the gangs in the end will be able to confront the combination of the Kenyans and the Haitian National Police, which we are fortifying now and which will guide the multinational forces. I think the job will be done very well," he said.

The one uncertainty, Voltaire noted, is a delay in getting more MSS funds released by the U.S. Congress, especially the U.S. House, many of whose Republican members are balking until, they say, they get more information about the effort.

If and when that's resolved and public security is restored in Haiti, the nine-member Transitional Presidential Council can start tackling other items on its long to-do list. The group, which has been criticized for being heavy with Haiti's political old guard, includes only one woman and had a rocky, fractured start. "But it's doing things in a more collegial direction now," Voltaire insists.

Among their priorities, Voltaire said, are "establishing a mini-parliament, an organ to control the actions of the [interim] government.

"Then we have to put in place an electoral council to inventory the country's electoral resources...and reform the electoral chaos. For example, we have over 300 political parties in Haiti. That needs to be reduced to about a dozen. That will facilitate registration and turnout — because during the last election here, we only had about 10% or 20% of voters come out. We want at least 60% or 70% in the new election.

We want Haiti's constitutional reform to make the diaspora more integrated in the economics and politics of Haiti. We want to put aside the past constraints.
Leslie Voltaire

"And we have to have a national conference, in Port-au-Prince, all the provinces and also in the [Haitian] diaspora, to know what the Haitians want for a new constitutions, because we are going to have a reform of the constitution."

A reform, he emphasized, that will have a significant role for the diaspora in places like Miami, with the ultimate intent of making expats "more integrated in the economics and politics of Haiti."

"We want to put aside [past] constraints against the diaspora." For starters, he added, "We are hoping the new electoral council, if we have the money, can have booths in New York, Miami, in the consulates, so Haitians can vote there in the States, in Canada or Europe."

Most Haitian expats would of course consider that a welcome if not long overdue step.

Child soldiers

For the moment, however, Voltaire knows the focus is on Conille and on the transitional government he's formed this week — and on why the Transitional Presidential Council's seven voting members tapped him in the first place.

"We all voted in favor of Garry Conille," Voltaire said. "He's worked in a lot of troubled countries. He has been a U.N. officer and he knows the language of the international community. He knows how the Haitian public administration works. So we have a humanitarian situation and we think that he's well prepared for that."

"Humanitarian situation" is an understatement. The gang violence has left some 370,000 Haitians displaced, many desperate for food, water, shelter and other basics like medical care.

New Haitian interim Prime Minister Garry Conille, left, speaks with the president of the country's Transitional Presidential Council, Edgard Leblanc Fils, during Conille's swearing-in ceremony in Port-au-Prince on June 3, 2024.
Odelyn Joseph
/
AP
New Haitian interim Prime Minister Garry Conille, left, speaks with the president of the country's Transitional Presidential Council, Edgard Leblanc Fils, during Conille's swearing-in ceremony in Port-au-Prince on June 3, 2024.

But even amid those emergencies, Voltaire stressed, the nightmare for Haiti's children stands out — not just the gangs' youth victims, but their kid conscripts.

"We have to deal with that fight against the gangs, of course, because psychologically the population is terrorized, because the gangs are terrorists," Voltaire said.

"But perhaps especially because they are using a lot of kids, putting them, like, in slavery. They use them as soldiers, child soldiers. All the kids that were in the streets begging, they have been recruited by the gangs — and they are the ones that they send to burn schools, burn libraries, hospitals, to burn police stations.

"So that will be a big problem" once Haiti's public security is stabilized: "to reintegrate those kids in society, because a lot of them are orphans, and they don't know what a family is, don't know what is good, what is bad.

"There [are] a lot of kids that are lost — because there has for too long been impunity in Haiti." An impunity, he adds, that for too long has been fueled by "the financing of these gangs" by too many of Haiti's political and business elites.

Toward that end of giving gang-coopted Haitian youths better school and job opportunities, Voltaire stressed that international development institutions like World Bank, InterAmerican Development Bank, USAID and the E.U. need to do more thorough follow-up than they have in the past after peacekeeping missions make the streets safe again.

Even so, Voltaire recognizes "there is Haiti fatigue" in the international community, and that donors are not so ready to put more money into the Haiti basket yet. To him, the MSS situation "hasbeen an example.

"We also realize we are competing for U.S and international aid with Ukraine and Gaza when it comes to addressing our own economic recovery in Haiti," Voltaire said. "On top of that, we are experiencing a brain drain during this crisis — in the past five years, hundreds of thousands of Haitians fleeing to the U.S., Brazil, Chile.

"Once our public security is restored, we will need more than just international aid," Voltaire said. "We will need those people back."

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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