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Violent Gangs Threaten Civil War as Haiti PM Faces Call to Quit

(Bloomberg) -- Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry is being pressured to quit or present a plan for a new government, as gang leaders who have unleashed deadly violence tighten their grip on the country and threaten civil war.

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The US State Department wants Henry — who has been absent from Haiti as it has descended into lawlessness — to accelerate the timeline for elections and fulfill a pledge he has been dodging since taking over in 2021. The Caribbean Community, which includes 15 nations, explicitly asked him to resign on Tuesday and make way for a new administration.

Also on Tuesday, gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier said Henry’s potential return to Haiti would unleash a “civil war” and “genocide,” according to the Le Nouvelliste newspaper. Over the last few days, gangs including Cherizier’s have freed more than 4,500 inmates, attacked the main international airport and burned police stations.

Half the nation’s population is going hungry. Calls and emails to the prime minister’s office and Haiti’s embassy in Washington, DC, weren’t answered.

Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US, said that Henry received a note from the Caribbean Community asking for his resignation, but that “he has refused to do that.”

What’s unclear is how Henry will be able to make his way back to Haiti, after leaving the country Feb. 25 and reemerging in Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Also unclear is the role, if any, the US will play in helping him.

“What we’ve asked the Haitian Prime Minister to do is move forward on a political process that will lead to the establishment of a presidential transitional council that will lead to elections,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said on Wednesday. “And we think that is urgent.”

Gangs now control 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and almost 2,000 people have died in the escalating violence since January, according to the UN.

A UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday will focus on the deteriorating humanitarian situation and escalating violence in the country.

“Henry has been in charge for two and half years and he hasn’t done one tangible, positive thing to impact the Haitian population,” said Dan Foote, the former US Special Envoy for Haiti. “He’s not in control of the country. It’s already a failed state.”

The renewed violence is likely to push even more Haitians away, in what could add to US immigration woes.

US Customs and Border Patrol reported 163,781 encounters with Haitians nationwide in the 2023 fiscal year, up 189% from the same period in 2022, as both legal and illegal immigration have surged. Preliminary data suggests 2024 figures will be even higher.

Henry was swept into power in the wake of the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. While he has enjoyed international backing, Haitians often see him as an unelected autocrat who used gang violence as an excuse to keep putting off elections.

Henry’s failure is a blow to the US, which has provided more than $5.5 billion to Haiti since 2010, and recently pledged $200 million to finance a Kenyan-led peace mission. Any attempt to create another temporary government without broad Haitian support will be a mistake, Foote said.

If the international community “has the audacity to install a new government without the Haitian voice, we’re just rinsing and repeating,” he said.

--With assistance from Courtney McBride.

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