This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
From The New York Times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise, and this is The Daily.
The small island nation of Haiti is unraveling. Gangs control much of the capital, thousands of Haitians have been displaced, hundreds more are dead. In recent weeks, the government took the extraordinary step of asking for armed intervention from abroad. My colleague Natalie Kitroeff went to Haiti to bear witness. Today, I talk to her about what she saw there and what the government’s request might mean for the people of Haiti.
It’s Thursday, December 8.
So Natalie, the last time we talked about Haiti on the show, the president had been assassinated, and there was this question of who had done it and who would fill the power vacuum that had been left in the wake of that assassination. So catch me up. What’s been happening in Haiti since then?
So first of all, the crime of the assassination remains unsolved. We really don’t know who did it. But there is this huge power vacuum that’s left behind when the former president was killed. And into it steps these increasingly dominant gangs that start taking over more and more territory. They get more and more powerful. And recently, this gang activity — this violence has really plunged the country into the depths of a dire humanitarian crisis. And that’s what I went to Haiti to see. A few weeks ago, I flew into Haiti, to the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Where are we, on the outer edge now, Andre?
And right next to the airport, there’s this huge public park. It’s called Hugo Chavez Plaza.
It’s just an open-air refugee camp, basically.
And when I was there, it was filled with thousands of people who were living there, just sleeping on the concrete. They were there because they’d been driven out of their homes by these gangs.
— people here. There’s children everywhere. Everywhere. It seems like it’s mostly children.
And I went there with a local reporter, Andre Paultre, to talk to these people.
We just met a kid who was shot in his stomach. it was an open wound. Another little boy has a scar from a bullet on his shoulder.
There were a lot of kids who were clearly wounded. They had bandages that were over bullet wounds. There were people who were still recovering, very obviously, from a severe attack.
People are sleeping on sheets and cardboard — pregnant women, babies.
There’s human waste, there’s trash, and there’s a little outdoor gym.
I mean, it wasn’t hard to visually understand how this was a crisis.
There’s water everywhere.
This is where we take water for bath. But the water is not clean, because when we use it for bath, after that, we scratch our skin. So that means it’s not good enough. But this is what we have.
Yeah. Where are we going?
While I was there, I had no idea exactly how many people were in the park. But I asked UNICEF later, and they told me that as many as 8,000 people were living there.
And most of these people have fled violence, have fled gang violence. And that’s why this plaza — it really symbolized these interlocking overlapping crises that are gripping Haiti right now. You have this spiraling gang violence. You have hunger that is soaring. There’s disease spreading. And in the midst of it all, there’s a government that seems completely powerless to stop any of it.
Natalie, how did we get from the assassination to this total chaos in the square? How did things get to that point?
Right. So the former President, the one who was assassinated — he had already been consolidating power before he died and really gutting the democratic institutions of the country. And so when he’s killed and this new prime minister, Ariel Henry, comes in, he doesn’t really have any legitimacy, because there is no parliament there to confirm him. And he wasn’t elected, so it’s not like he has a bunch of voters backing him. And the apparatus of the state — it’s really been completely hollowed out. So there’s not a lot behind him, and his weakness is obvious.
And so the gangs that have already been growing stronger and stronger really have this opportunity that they seize to become increasingly dominant, to take over growing sections of the capital.
So this guy is really weak. They see that, they sense that, and they go for it. They take over swaths of territory.
Yes. They step up their attacks, not just on each other, but on the population. They’re fighting with the police. They’re also subjecting people to just unimaginable violence as they try to really demonstrate their control. They’re kidnapping people at a horrific rate. And all of this really comes to a head in July of this past summer in this vast slum, Cité Soleil — the largest slum in Haiti. Fighting between gangs erupts.
One group is battling for territory with the other invading enemy territory, setting fire to entire communities, going house to house killing and raping women. This continues for days — more than a week. They retreat. They come back. This is like a war.
And the worst of the violence seems to have occurred along this road that was left open by the gangs fighting over this territory. It was really the only exit route for a lot of people living there.
So they were trying to get out.
That’s right. And as they’re trying to get out, or as they’re just walking back and forth into their neighborhood, they are killed. Hundreds were shot. It became truly horrific.
I met parents whose children had just been shot walking home, playing outside. There were mothers, many mothers, who couldn’t bury their children because it was too dangerous to even leave their homes. That’s the kind of indignity we’re talking about. And that’s how thousands of people ended up in the plaza that I went to right when I arrived. They fled this.
And where is the government in all of this? What’s it doing?
Yeah, it’s a good question. The answer is almost nowhere to be found. I mean, the reality is that the police in Haiti are underpaid, and they’re outgunned by these gangs. They just do not have the wherewithal to put up a real fight. Honestly, even in peaceful times, the police are not going into some of these neighborhoods, because the gangs control them. And so when war broke out — when this gang war broke out, they were completely absent.
So Natalie, this just seems like a full-on collapsed state. Gangs killing people, controlling territory with complete impunity, government nowhere to be found. Is that how you see what’s going on in Haiti?
Yeah. So I mean, the government is trying to maintain control, but very obviously failing. And Haiti is no stranger to crisis, to calamity, to despair. But the reality is that if you talk to Haitians, they will tell you they have never seen their country in the grips of something quite like this. And the extent of that total breakdown becomes apparent in September, when something really dramatic happens.
Haiti faces a growing humanitarian crisis. Armed gangs have blocked access to the main fuel port as they protect —
There’s this key port for fuel in the capital.
— the most important in the country, which stores more than 70 percent of the country’s fuel supply.
And the gangs suddenly take it over. They seize it.
These gangs have blocked the island nation’s main port, leading to a shortage of fuel and bottled water.
They move in on this port, and they block off all entry and exit points. And that is a huge deal in Haiti, because there is no functional electrical power grid in Haiti. Everything runs on diesel generators. Everything.
So suddenly, they control the power supply.
That’s right. If you control fuel in Haiti, you can put the entire country in a choke hold.
Hospitals, schools, and businesses have had to close. It’s also —
And that’s exactly what the gangs did.
It’s an absolutely nightmarish situation for the population of Haiti, especially Port-au-Prince.
So this seems like an entirely other level, right? A port is pretty different than just scrapping around over territory.
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, this is a huge move. It takes a lot of organization and coordination to take over a port. And what it suggests is that these groups are not just petty criminals. They’re something much bigger than that. And part of the reason, experts will tell, you is that they’re not acting alone.
Experts will tell you that the political and economic elite of the country have these really intricate ties with the gangs. They provide funds. They provide support. They have long used armed groups — these power brokers — to cement their own hold on the country, to foment chaos when it suits them, to bring calm when it’s needed. They pay off these guys to keep their goods flowing throughout the country. And these ties — these are really profound connections. And they’re at play here.
So the gangs aren’t just random criminals. Part of Haiti’s political class is actually behind them.
Right. That’s what everybody who knows anything about gangs will tell you. It’s what the US government believes. And that’s part of the reason why they are able to really challenge the state.
But what do the gangs and their power broker backers want? Do they want to run the government — be prime minister or something?
We don’t really know. One of the main gang leaders said publicly that he wanted the prime minister to resign. But the connections between these armed groups and the political and economic elite are really complicated. And it’s impossible to disentangle what all the motivations might be. But what did become clear is that these groups have the strength and the power to put their feet on the neck of the country and essentially hold the entire nation hostage.
So Natalie, what happens to this port?
So two months of a standstill ended when I was there in Haiti. The government did take back control. Fuel started to flow throughout the country. But I visited the port with the police. I was riding with them in an armored vehicle. And when we went just outside the main entry point to the shantytown that surrounds this port, the gang’s stronghold, the police would not even step outside of this armored vehicle.
So much for the government being in control, right?
Right. Exactly. I mean, the police may try to fight back, but what we saw is that the gangs are still really in charge of much of the country. And that period of two months of a total shutdown inflicts serious pain on Haiti. The government struggles to provide basic services. Trash collection ceases in much of the capital. There wasn’t enough clean water being pumped, because you can’t operate the pumps without diesel. And all of this comes together to produce a serious health emergency — a new outbreak of cholera that starts ravaging the country.
The outbreak is a real escalation. It gets the attention of the international community and the United States on a new level. And that’s when the Haitian government decides it has no choice but to ask for help.
We’ll be right back.
So Natalie, it sounds like this health crisis you’re talking about was sort of a tipping point in Haiti. It raised the stakes to a new level. But why is cholera in particular so significant? Why is that the thing that catches the world’s attention?
So I think when foreign country’s governments are looking at Haiti from the outside, and even when Haitians are looking at their own country from the inside, the degrees of just how bad things are can be hard to distinguish from one another. Just figuring out how much worse this moment is than the last — it can be difficult. Cholera removes any mystery. Cholera doesn’t exist in most countries. It’s a disease that spreads through contaminated water.
So in much of modern life in most countries around the world, you don’t really have cholera outbreaks, because you have clean water.
Right. But in Haiti, this is a disease that they had just declared victory in eradicating earlier this year, and now it’s back. And its return was seen as a sign that something is deeply wrong here.
It’s like a canary in the coal mine type thing.
Right. And I wanted to see what that actually looked like up close. And so I went and spent time inside this cholera treatment center that was right in the middle of one of the most violent areas in the capital.
OK, now what’s this road, Andre?
The cholera treatment center is run by Doctors Without Borders, and it’s actually in the middle of that same neighborhood where the gang war broke out in July.
So we’re riding into to Cité Soleil right now on a road that was turned into a slaughterhouse by the gangs when fighting broke out in July.
Even getting there for me was difficult. I mean, we went down that same road that had become a real place of murder and violence during the gang war.
The slaughterhouse road.
So we’re getting into the clinic.
And once you get into the hospital grounds, you go down this path, and you reach the cholera treatment area.
OK, we’ve got to wash our hands.
You walk in, and there are these rows of white tents that are where they are really seeing patients — the doctors.
And there’s a little waiting room. It’s about half and half kids and adults here, but there are a lot of little babies and little kids — toddlers with their mothers, mostly.
These are the patients who are waiting to be treated. And you go in, and the first tent is this kind of triage area where people are being evaluated to see whether what they have is cholera.
There’s a man here getting an IV. And they’re sitting on chairs that have holes in them.
The way that cholera affects people is that it dehydrates them. And so they are expelling large amounts of waste.
And so you have a hole so that people can have diarrhea, and you have a bucket next to the chairs so that they can vomit if they need to. And you have doctors evaluating people right there on the spot. And what they’re looking for is to see whether people need immediate treatment, because the way that cholera works — the way it kills people is that it dehydrates them so rapidly that their organs ultimately fail, and they die. And in order to prevent that, you need to rehydrate people as quickly as possible.
It’s actually a really simple treatment. I mean, mostly, people are drinking re-hydration fluid. But in the most extreme cases, you’re rehydrating people intravenously.
They’re looking for the vein in a three-month-old baby.
As I was there, I actually saw this nurse who is struggling to find a vein in this tiny baby.
And the nurse is making her little, tiny hand into a fist, putting a rubber band around her little arm.
She found it. She found it. It looks like she found the vein. Thank goodness, because this child does not look well.
Ultimately, she did, and everybody breathes a sigh of relief.
Wow, and this baby is somehow asleep now.
What a brave little kid.
That gives you a sense of just how quickly these medical professionals need to move. In extreme cases, children can progress very quickly from dehydration to death.
So it’s about speed, and children are particularly susceptible.
Right. And that’s why the gang hold on these neighborhoods is so painful, because I talked to a lot of people in the clinic who had delayed coming in because there was shooting in their neighborhood. They literally did not feel safe enough to leave, even though they had children at home who were vomiting, who were really, really sick. But you’re faced with this question — am I going to risk having my child die from this disease, or am I going to risk having all of us die in gunfire?
And these are the decisions that these parents were having to make on the fly at every single moment. And you can just imagine the number of people who made the other decision, who decided not to come in. And doctors will tell you that that delay has often left people to die at home.
Wow. Natalie, this is just a crazy situation you’re describing. The mere act of taking your sick — and potentially fatally sick — child to the hospital could mean the death of you and your child, because it’s so dangerous in this place. I mean, it seems pretty clear now why the international community was standing up and taking notice. All of these overlapping crises really were coming to a head. So if you’re the Haitian government, what do you do? How do you get out of this?
Well, the government sees itself as out of options. And so what they do is ask for help. They formally request that foreign countries send armed forces to the country to stabilize the situation. The Prime Minister of Haiti is asking for armed intervention from abroad.
Which is pretty extraordinary — I mean, an acknowledgment by the government that it cannot function. It’s so powerless to provide basic services and to protect the lives of its own citizens, it can’t do anything about these things. It’s actually asking a foreign state with armed men to come in and help it.
Yeah. This would be a remarkable request anywhere, but it is especially the case in Haiti. This is a country that has had a long history of messy and sometimes brutal intervention from abroad. And these interventions — they have never really solved anything long-term in the country or delivered lasting stability. So there are really bitter memories in Haiti of this happening and failing in the past. And part of what’s so stunning about this ask is that it seems pretty clear to everyone that one of the countries Haiti is appealing to is the superpower next door, the United States, which itself has been responsible for some of those interventions.
And what does the United States think about this? Do they want to do it?
So the Biden Administration has been watching Haiti unravel. And as conditions on the ground have deteriorated, they have grown more and more concerned, US officials told me, about what’s going on. They’re worried that what’s happening in Haiti isn’t going to stay inside Haiti for long — that if some semblance of stability is not restored to the country, there could be a massive wave of migration from Haiti.
This is something that’s already happening, actually. Haitians are already streaming into the Dominican Republic, which shares an island with Haiti. They’re coming in ever-growing numbers to the United States on these overcrowded boats that have been known to capsize in rough seas. This is the nightmare scenario for the Biden Administration where these numbers really potentially start to explode.
Right. So it sounds like a failed state right at the United States doorstep is not a great thing.
Right. I think the reality is there has been, tragically, a pretty high tolerance in the world and in the US government for humanitarian suffering inside Haiti. That’s something we’ve seen for a pretty long time. The inflection point for taking real action often seems to be when the government believes that that suffering could start to spill into the United States. And there’s a sense among some Biden officials I talked to that the only way to prevent the situation on the ground from spiraling out of control is to send armed forces to the country. The only catch is that the administration does not want to send US troops.
OK, but what other troops would it send?
Well, they’re trying to get another country to lead this mission. The administration has backed a resolution at the United Nations calling for a rapid action force to be sent to Haiti. But that resolution has stalled for now. And other countries have been resistant to taking the lead on this. I know that Canada has resisted. Brazil has expressed deep reluctance about getting involved.
Part of the concern is that that prime minister who’s still in power is not seen as legitimate and that another country that sends foreign troops or forces or takes the lead on this will be seen as just propping this guy up. And nobody wants to do that, obviously.
Right. So in that sense, it sounds like potentially help is not on the way.
Yeah, I mean, it’s certainly in question right now. I know that the US officials I talked to are still committed to trying to make this happen. But there are a lot of roadblocks along the way, and nobody really knows how they’re going to be surmounted. I mean, in the meantime, violence continues to spin out of control. There’s been no stop to the gangs’ increasing expansion of control across Haiti.
Natalie, what about Haitians themselves? I mean, we’ve talked a lot about governments and what they want to do or don’t want to do. You spent all this time in Haiti, and you were talking to a lot of people. What did they tell you?
There still are a lot of critics of this government who don’t want foreign forces to come in, because they see that as a way of just strengthening this prime minister’s hold on power. But one of the most surprising things that I found from my reporting in Haiti was that when you talk to people who are in the grips of this violence, people who are living on the streets, people who were sleeping in that plaza right next to the airport, they will tell you that they want help as soon as possible, that they want a foreign country to send forces to fight alongside their police to try to break the hold the gangs have on the country.
They need some respite from the daily torment of violence. They feel that they need support from the outside as soon as possible.
Natalie, thank you.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you should know today. On Wednesday, in Germany, special forces have arrested 25 people whom they said were part of a far-right domestic terrorist network. German prosecutors said the group was plotting to overthrow the government and execute the German Chancellor. Those arrested included an active duty soldier, a police officer, and a former parliamentarian from the far-right Alternative for Germany party. Prosecutors described the plot as the most brazen in Germany’s post-war history. It was the latest in a series of plots in recent years in which extremist networks were discovered preparing for the day the democratic order collapses — a day they call Day X. The New York Times explored the subject in an audio series last year. And —
The President of Peru has been arrested after attempting what many describe as a coup. Earlier on Wednesday, President Pedro Castillo had announced that he would dissolve the country’s congress and install an emergency government. His announcement came just hours before lawmakers were set to vote to impeach him on corruption charges. [CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]
The Congress then swiftly removed him as president.
Soon after, Castillo was under arrest, and his vice president was sworn in his place.
Finally, authorities in China announced a major overhaul to their zero-COVID policy in what was widely seen as a victory for protesters. The government said it would roll back rules requiring mass testing, limit the scope of lockdowns, and scrapped mandatory hospitalizations and mass quarantines.
Today’s episode was produced by Will Reed, Luke Vander Ploeg, and Alex Stern with help from Rachelle Bonja and Carlos Prieto. It was edited by M.J. Davis Lin, contains original music by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Will Reid, Luke Vander Ploeg and
Rachelle Bonja and
Dan Powell and
Haiti is unraveling. Gangs control much of the capital, thousands have been displaced and hundreds more are dead.
In recent weeks, the government has taken the extraordinary step of asking for an armed intervention from abroad.
What is it like on the ground, and what does the request mean for Haitians?
Natalie Kitroeff, the bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for The New York Times.
With unchecked gang violence rocking its capital and a cholera outbreak spreading, Haiti’s government has called for an international armed intervention to stabilize the country.
Fearing a mass exodus, some Biden administration officials have pressed for a multinational force, but they don’t want to send U.S. troops and haven’t been able to persuade other countries to take the lead.
There are a lot of ways to listen to The Daily. Here’s how.
We aim to make transcripts available the next workday after an episode’s publication. You can find them at the top of the page.
Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting.
The Daily is made by Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Stella Tan, Alexandra Leigh Young, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, M.J. Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Dave Shaw, Sydney Harper, Robert Jimison, Mike Benoist, Liz O. Baylen, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Rachelle Bonja, Diana Nguyen, Marion Lozano, Corey Schreppel, Anita Badejo, Rob Szypko, Elisheba Ittoop, Chelsea Daniel, Mooj Zadie, Patricia Willens, Rowan Niemisto, Jody Becker, Rikki Novetsky, John Ketchum, Nina Feldman, Will Reid, Carlos Prieto, Sofia Milan, Ben Calhoun and Susan Lee.
Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Paula Szuchman, Lisa Tobin, Larissa Anderson, Cliff Levy, Lauren Jackson, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Desiree Ibekwe, Wendy Dorr, Elizabeth Davis-Moorer, Jeffrey Miranda, Renan Borelli, Maddy Masiello and Nell Gallogly.