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A glimpse of the chaos in Haiti, a country reeling with effectively no leader

Armed members of the G9 and Family gang stand guard at their roadblock in the Delmas 6 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday.
Odelyn Joseph
/
AP
Armed members of the G9 and Family gang stand guard at their roadblock in the Delmas 6 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday.

Updated March 15, 2024 at 9:25 AM ET

CAP-HAÏTIEN, Haiti — In Haiti, there aren't many certainties in life, but chaos may be one of them.

For a country that's experienced coups, transitional governments, assassinations and gang violence over the years, the chaos of the last two weeks has reached new levels.

During that period there has been no leadership, no law and order in the capital and a dwindling supply of humanitarian aid. The country has been effectively cut off from the outside world.

On Thursday, gangs continued their rampage across the capital Port-au-Prince. They shot at the airport just as workers had begun to fix damage from previous attacks.

Local news reported that gangs had also looted the house of the national police director and then set it on fire.

The violence follows a couple of days of relative quiet and it comes just days after Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry agreed to resign, as part of a deal brokered by regional and international governments to install a transitional council that will eventually elect a new transitional prime minister.

Some prominent gang leaders have rejected the plan, saying it doesn't represent the will of the Haitian people. The gangs have threatened more violence as a means to oppose the plan.

Guy Philippe was a former senator and ex-chief of police who was one of the leaders of the 1991 coup that deposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the United States, he pleaded guilty to drug-related money laundering and when he was deported back to Haiti a few months ago, he started organizing big anti-government protests.

He tells NPR the problem with the current political transition deal is that it allows seven traditional politicians to choose the way forward in Haiti.

"They were the same guys who were working with Ariel Henry for three years. The same name, the same organizations, with no popular support. I don't know why the international community wants to take that path," Philippe says.

When the international community announced the deal, the president of Guyana said no gangs had been consulted. But he was corrected and briefly added — "that we know of." To Philippe, that spoke to what he calls an open secret: that traditional politicians in Haiti are the ones who he alleges created the gangs to begin with. They funded and they armed them, he claims.

"The biggest gang in Haiti is the state of Haiti itself. It's the president, the prime minister, the ministers. They are the worst gangs in Haiti," Philippe says.

Haitian citizens cross over the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti on Wednesday.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
/
Octavio Jones for NPR
Haitian citizens cross over the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti on Wednesday.

Late Thursday afternoon, this NPR team crossed the border with the Dominican Republic and made its way to Haiti's second-largest city of Cap-Haïtien. In many ways, what we've seen is normal. Restaurants are open, people are out buying groceries. Here in Cap-Haïtien, which used to be a tourist hub, there was music and dancing and bars.

But it doesn't take long before you notice signs that something is wrong here. Fuel is running out, the towns up and down this northern coast are in complete darkness. They haven't had consistent electricity since this crisis started, when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in 2021.

And as we were driving in, we run into a very large group of Haitians who are getting ready to try to run away from this place to try to cross the border into the Dominican Republic.

Most of the people who speak to NPR say they are happy that in these parts of Haiti, at least, the gunfire has stopped. They say that before Prime Minister Henry promised to resign, they heard nonstop gunfire in the evening. And now some schools and some universities have reopened.

But they also express a lot of desolation. Haitians feel abandoned. They feel that after their president was killed, no one has been listening. They don't just mean the international community — but also their country's politicians.

One man who used to work as a tourist guide, and now is just trying to find any work to keep food on his table, says what is happening in Haiti is not just criminal gangs revolting. He says this is an awakening: Haitians have lived in poverty and neglect for too long and they're just fed up.

Haitian citizens who were detained by the Dominican Republic's authorities arrive at the Haitian border for deportation, on Wednesday.
/ Octavio Jones for NPR
/
Octavio Jones for NPR
Haitian citizens who were detained by the Dominican Republic's authorities arrive at the Haitian border for deportation, on Wednesday.

On the border before crossing into Haiti, NPR talked to Frismer Fidele, a Haitian man who was leaning against a fence and watching busloads of fellow citizen being deported across the border back to Haiti. Despite the surge in violence in Haiti, the Dominican Republic's mass deportation program hasn't stopped.

For many years, Fidele said, the Haitian government has known little about how poor people are living. "All we want is new leadership, so we can have elections, so we can be heard," he said.

Another Haitian, Rafael Maqueson, is waiting for work in the Dominican Republic in the shade nearby, in between two big shipping containers. He's 23, but he looks much younger.

Ever since he graduated high school, he says, he's been trying to build a life. But it's hard because the only job he seems to be able to get is to shuttle luggage for travelers from one border to another. He used to earn enough money to pay for a place to live. These days, it's just enough to eat.

Asked if he sees any hope for change, he says, "Haiti has been the same since I was born. What makes you think anything will change?"

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa. He started his journalism career as a pop music critic and after a few newspaper stints, he joined NPR in 2008.