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Gangs, guns and private ports: How Haiti’s elites, politicians fuel its violence | Opinion

After Jean Bertrand Aristide was deposed in 1991, one of many conditions the United States imposed for his return to Haiti was that the Haitian government sell off several key assets and create private-public partnerships.

But the cagey Aristide never had any intentions of honoring his word. He opened a bureau of privatization, but the office’s recommendations were not followed. The Haitian government was supposed to sell the flour and cement mills.

The seaports and the airports were the top prizes in this deal, and the U.S. insisted a private-public partnership would be a win-win for everyone. To U.S. officials, Haiti’s private sector would provide efficiency while its government would receive much-needed revenue from the ports operations.

Instead, the airports and seaports served another, more important role in the annals of the Haitian bureaucracy: Patronage. They became the prime mechanism for Haitian government officials to take care of their backers and supporters.

By the late 1990s, the private sector was grumbling that its businesses were struggling because the ports of Haiti were considered among the most expensive in the world, stifling the country’s import-export industry. 

As a compromise, Aristide allowed the private sector to build their own ports instead of opening the government ports that would require outside oversight. In 2015, Port Lafito opened with grand fanfare. Terminal Varreux, another private port, flourished and was tied to reports of drug trafficking. 

Today, with Port-au-Prince becoming cut off from the rest of the country by heavily armed gangs, the role of these private ports has come to the forefront. Many observers inside and outside of Haiti are asking this salient question: How can a country, under strict limits on the arms and ammunition that it can purchase for its police force, be awash in a seemingly endless flow of heavy weapons and bullets?

One place to start looking for an answer is at these ports, which face little, if any, scrutiny or oversight from the authorities. While the Haitian government is nominally part of Port Lafito, the bureaucrats dare not regulate the provenance of goods entering or leaving the country. 

The government should appoint a special investigator tasked with monitoring the activities going through these entities. I’m not sure whether or not there is money for such a project, but letting them operate with near impunity should no longer be an option. 

Out-of-control gangs and guns 

The gang situation is growing more out of control by the day. The rash of kidnappings continues unabated. Churches, homes, sidewalks — nothing is off limits. People are worrying and those who can leave the country have done so in droves. The situation is untenable. 

For almost two years, the arteries leading into and out of Port-au-Prince have been rendered impassable and dangerous. If you want to go to the southern region, you risk death crossing Martissant. You’d like to go to the north and central plateau area? Forget about it. Croix-des-Bouquets is as dangerous as the Bermuda Triangle, with its propensity for people to go missing. 

Just last week, a gang leader in Delmas ordered local residents not to go out for three days. After his edict was respected, he lifted it, satisfied that he had full control of the neighborhood. What his next decree will be, no one knows. But stay tuned. 

In another alarming development, the gangs have moved their operations to the mountainous ex-burbs of Kenscoff, Montagne Noir and beyond. Over the decades, these hilltop areas with their breathtaking vistas had become prime real estate for the political and business elites who fled the increasingly trouble-filled city center and Pétion-ville. 

With only two main roads leading to and from the area, the gangs easily cut off access, leaving people stranded and in fear for their lives. Things continue to escalate by the day. I asked a political science professor who knows Haiti well if we were experiencing the worst of it. I argued that in the last 30 years, we’ve had some rough patches, but nothing like this. 

The professor told me that the worst is yet to come, adding that we should not be surprised to see the gangs taking power officially and governing the country. I replied that the international community would not accept them and would cut off aid to them. 

As he saw it, if they can show they have power and control, the international community would sit down and negotiate with them, just like the U.S. has done with some entreaties to the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

So this is where we find ourselves, a country where gangs are the lawmakers, with its citizens adrift across the world and being returned to a place no one wants to live, by the thousands. This tinder is about to explode soon. 

High time for port, border oversight

The Biden administration knows this, and it appears to have run out of new ideas. It is instead recycling folks with sketchy track records in dealing with the country. I had called for the administration to try a novel idea by giving some high-profile Haitian-Americans a chance to help lead their ancestral homeland out of its morass. 

But that’s not the way they want to do it. At some point, they will pivot to that idea, having replayed the same card. It would be too late by then, and the damage may be irreparably done. But the onus is not only on the American government.

To be honest, most of it rests on the shoulders of Haitian political and business leaders who have never cared much about Haiti and the well- being of the large swath of the population living in dire poverty. To them, Haiti is, or was until recently, a place where they can work little and enjoy a stress-free lifestyle. They used to scoff at the diaspora, who had to work hard and face racism in their adopted country. They were sinister and now, they are seeing the fruit of their labor, or lack thereof. 

The gig is up and, now, the gangs that the elites helped create to sow chaos are now calling the shots. The lifestyle is not so easy now and there are no clear solutions out. But one place they can start is by enlisting the help of these American officials who have been rotating in and out of Haiti in search of a solution, to address the question of where these gangs are getting their supply and cut it off. 

They can start with stronger border and port surveillance. Until then, the gangs of Port-au-Prince are here to stay. 

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