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Latin America Report

Civil Society Solution: Can Non-Governmental Groups Fix Haiti's Governmental Crisis?

Image shows Haitians fleeing violent gang takeover of their communities taking refuge in a sports center turned shelter in Port-au-Prince in September, 2021.
Rodrigo Abd
Hundreds of Haitians fleeing the violent gang takeover of their communities take refuge in a sports center-turned-shelter in Port-au-Prince Haiti this month.

With Haiti's government, economy and public security in collapse, "civil society" organizations propose a reboot of their democracy. Will the U.S. buy into it?

Last week Haitian-Americans in Miami protested the Biden Administration’s treatment of Haitian migrants who’d come to the U.S. southern border seeking asylum — and called for a stop to their deportations. The collapse of Haiti’s government, economy and public security, they said, makes it wrong to send people back there.

But the protesters also urged Biden and the U.S. to play a more constructive role in helping change those awful conditions in Haiti. Most of all: to work with Haitians who are not part of what they call the corrupt, anti-democratic leadership running Haiti.

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“Thirty years of failed U.S. policies have denied the Haitian people" effective government, said protest speaker Marleine Bastien, who heads the Haitian-American nonprofit Family Action Network Movement in Miami.

“We need the U.S. government to engage Haitian civil society, which has organized themselves.”

That term “Haitian civil society” is heard a lot these days in Haiti and in the South Florida diaspora. Non-governmental Haitian groups, from human rights advocates to women's societies to the Roman Catholic Church, are assuming a larger leadership role as the Haitian government all but disappears.

READ MORE: 'We Have Nothing.' Earthquake Aid Arriving - Slowly - in Haiti's Desperate Communities

Gepsie Metellus, who heads the Haitian-American community center Sant La in North Miami, says she saw Haiti’s reality for herself this month.

“The Haitian government is non-existent today," Metellus said.

"What’s happening in Haiti is a widespread gang takeover of the country. I was just in Haiti; there were gunshots in my neighborhood every night.”

Haitian-Americans protest the Biden Administration's treatment of Haitian migrants on the U.S. border last week in front of the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services building in Miami.
Tim Padgett
Haitian-Americans protest the Biden Administration's treatment of Haitian migrants on the U.S. border last week in front of the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services building in Miami.

Unfortunately, Metellus is not exaggerating: politically-affiliated street gangs have taken control of whole districts of Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities in the past few years, spawning a terrifying ransom-kidnapping wave and displacing thousands of Haitians from their homes. (On Sunday, gangsters murdered a Baptist deacon, Sylner Lafaille, at his Port-au-Prince church and abducted his wife.)

The brutal assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July and last month’s earthquake in southwest Haiti are just the latest in a series of recent national trials.

All of which is why diaspora leaders like Metellus support a plan drawn up by an assembly of dozens of Haitian organizations — known as the Montana Group, for the Port-au-Prince hotel where it often meets — to end Haiti’s crisis. Its formal title — the Commission for the Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis — is a detailed proposal that calls for creating a citizens' council to choose leaders for a two-year transitional government.

Haitian civil society got very tired of just saying: This is bad, we condemn, we decry. They decided: Let’s put our money where our mouth is and be active participants.
Monique Clesca

That caretaker administration’s main task would be creating conditions for — and carrying out — a safe, fair election for a new Haitian president and parliament. Above all, to restore public order (confronting the gang crisis through more substantive police reform, for example) and give Haiti’s broken democracy a chance to reboot.

“It’s a very well thought out document," said Metellus, "and it is definitely a starting point to reach a permanent, sustainable solution.”

Haitians who helped draft the proposal say it’s a result of citizens' anger at the decade-long implosion of their country after its catastrophic 2010 earthquake.

“Civil society got very tired of just saying, ‘This is bad, we condemn, decry,’ etcetera," said Haitian communications specialist Monique Clesca, a member of the transitional government plan commission.

"They decided, ‘Let’s put our money where our mouth is. Let’s be active participants.’”


Clesca said the transitional government plan is also meant to prevent the need for U.S. and international intervention in Haiti — since in the past that foreign involvement has often done more harm than good.

“There is certainly an issue of sovereignty involved," said Clesca. "Everybody and their uncle [outside Haiti] is deciding for Haiti what should be done, and it’s demeaning.

"So it was time Haitians listened to one another and find a consensus agenda."

A Haitian gangster poses in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood wrecked by gang warfare.
Rodrigo Abd
A Haitian gangster poses in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood wrecked by gang warfare.

Building nationwide consensus around the Montana Group's transition plan — getting as many Haitian non-governmental and political leaders to sign on to it — will be key to garnering support not only from embattled Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry (who is reportedly in talks with the commission) but from the U.S. as well.

In fact, despite the understandable focus on Haitian sovereignty, a big question still is whether the Montana plan could be adopted, or even work, without financial and other help from the U.S.

“If the U.S. decided that it was going to jump on the bandwagon of this accord, I think that would probably be decisive," said Brian Concannon, who heads the nonprofit Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, based in Boston.

But Concannon says whether the proposal is put into effect or not, it at least signals to the Biden Administration that these non-governmental groups in Haiti are serious players the U.S. should be talking to.

He adds that last week’s Haitian migrant crisis is an added impetus — as is the protest resignation of Biden’s special envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, who had also urged more engagement with Haitian civil society but said the Administration ignored him. (The State Department has refuted Foote's statement.)

“You know, they’ve got to be realizing that there’s a problem with their Haiti policy right now," said Concannon, "and this does provide an opportunity to fundamentally change the [U.S.] approach to Haiti.”

Clesca said the commission hopes to see a council formed and voting on a transitional Haitian President and Prime Minister by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the Miami Heraldthat the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, will speak to those community leaders when he visits Haiti this week along with Biden's top western hemisphere advisor, Juan Gonzalez.

Their aim, Sherman said, will be "to make sure that we are talking to civil society, so that we are hearing from the people of Haiti themselves … to see what we can do to help make the judgments to get to a free and fair election as soon as possible for the Haitian people.”

And, Sherman might have added, to help the Haitian people as soon as possible feel a less desperate need to trek to the U.S. border.

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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