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Cherfilus-McCormick: U.S. must bring Haitian civic leaders to the table, not rush into another intervention

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Dieu Nalio Chery
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AP via Miami Herald

Despite calling the political climate in Haiti near 'anarchy', South Florida Congresswoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick is cautioning the U.S. government against foreign intervention — especially without consulting with Haitian civic leaders.

Cherfilus-McCormick, the first Haitian-American Democrat to be elected to Congress, told WLRN she is also urging President Biden to withdraw support for the nation's de facto prime minister Ariel Henry, echoing the sentiments of many prominent Haitians in the diaspora.

In September, Henry announced a cut to subsidies for fuel. After weeks of violent protests, a powerful confederation of gangs known as G9 blocked access to a key fuel terminal, causing widespread shortages in water. As a result, the nation is suffering from a resurgence of cholera, while hunger has creeped to “catastrophic” levels.

“Right now, since he's been prime minister, the government structure of Haiti has dissolved. We don't have anybody in parliament. We don't have senators. There's just no governmental structure and the gangs have taken over,” says Cherfilus-McCormick, who serves parts of Palm Beach County and Broward. More than 300,000 Haitians in the diaspora live in Florida.

Haiti has been in a political and economic free fall since foreign mercenaries last year assassinated President Jovenel Moïse, who had been leading the democratic nation by decree. Political leaders in Haiti were fearful of a power vacuum — it has now been filled by territorial gangs with business and political ties to various interest groups.

The gangs were gradually gaining strength for years, becoming “stronger without any kind of accountability,” Cherfilus-McCormick says. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), 60% of key roads and ports in Port-Au-Prince, the capitol, are controlled by more than 200 gangs.

As WLRN reported, many Haitian political and business leaders have used them as enforcers. As US agencies ramp up its effort to stop the smuggling of military style weapons to gang leaders, there has been no major attempt by the Haitian government to stop the influence of G9.

The Congresswoman says many of the gangs have money ties to wealthy interest groups in the U.S, including Haitian families.

“And that's where I believe the U.S. has to step in, because we know a lot of the money is coming from rich families and rich people who have houses in the U.S., who live part-time in the U.S. and go back,” Cherfilus-McCormick said.

Cherfilus-McCormick is also requesting “that we put a terrorist designation on these gang members.”

“We've been hearing that G9 now has people who are infiltrating the police force. So if we understand what's actually going on right now in the corruption, it's not enough just to stop their financial resources," she said.

The U.S. government recently announced that it is pulling visas belonging to Haitian government officials suspected of being involved with criminal organizations.

Haitians unite against intervention

The United Nations secretary general António Guterres has backed Ariel Henry's formal request for foreign intervention to quell anti-government protests. Details remain unclear, but the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council are preparing for the “immediate deployment of a multinational rapid action force,” according to the Miami Herald, who received a copy of a draft resolution.

But Haiti's long, fraught history of foreign intervention, from the United States’ 19 year occupation to the controversial United Nations peacekeeping mission, hasn't helped improve political stability in Haiti nor does it have a track record of economically benefiting the people.

In 2010, former U.S. President and UN Special Envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton, issued an apology for his “devil's bargain" — trade policies that forced Haiti to dramatically reduce its tariffs on imported US rice, which effectively demolished rice farming there.

At a press conference last week, Haitian civic leaders and organizations in South Florida stood united against the Henry government's request, warning that it could empower the prime minister.

Although Cherfilus-McCormick calls the situation in Haiti 'anarchy', she is also against foreign intervention until the State Department can provide a detailed assessment of the situation.

“We haven't really had a clear understanding of what's going on. And I think that military intervention into Haiti will be something that is going to be a tough sell for everyone, even for myself,” she said.

If military intervention were to happen, Cherfilus-McCormick said she’d request to have short and long-term safeguards in place.

“For example, how long will this mission be? What is the precise mission? What are you going to be doing there?” she said. “So we need to flesh it out of what it looks like. It can't just be, 'Let's have military intervention' — and they're there forever.”

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Photo curtesy of a representative
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Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick greets supporters as she arrives at an election night party, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Cherfilus-McCormick says she’s focused on safeguarding Haitians and meeting the immediate food and health needs of the people. She is looking for the international community to send supplies and to appoint a special envoy to Haiti to help assess and address the humanitarian crisis.

While she believes security is the top priority — and is reluctant to support 'any kind of government' while gangs control neighborhoods and an organized election is unrealistic — she has joined others in asking the Biden administration to consider the approach of a group of civic leaders dubbed the Montana Group.

The Commission for a Search to a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, or Montana Group, is an influential, unelected body of civic leaders asking President Biden to meet with them so that they can discuss how Haitians themselves could form a transitional government through what's called The Montana Accord.

“I think that the Montana Group has shown that they have a consensus. They have been the most organized,” Cherfilus-McCormick said. “And if they can figure out how to make it constitutional for them to facilitate the transition, then I wouldn't oppose it."

In a joint mission last week, the U.S. and Canada equipped the Haitian National Police (HNP) with “vital Haitian government-purchased security equipment, including tactical and armored vehicles” and other supplies.

US officials met with Prime Minister Ariel Henry, the Montana Group, a coalition of Haitian civic leaders, and “private sector leaders, and broader civil society groups” to assess the security and humanitarian crisis.

Former U.S. special envoy for Haiti Daniel Foote, in his resignation letter last year, called on the US to help support Haiti in charting “a timely path to the democratic selection of their next president and parliament.”

He wrote that "what our Haitian friends really want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course without international puppeteering and favorite candidates but with genuine support for that course."

A spokesperson for the United States Southern Command in Doral told WLRN “there’s no additional mission other than the one one Saturday, at the moment. That was done at the request of the US state department.”

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.