The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Haiti’s descent into chaos has further to go

Protesters carry away looted items during a demonstration against fuel price hikes, and to demand that Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry step down, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Sept. 16. (Odelyn Joseph/AP)

No one relishes the idea of another international intervention in Haiti, nor does recent history give much reason for optimism that a new one would go smoothly. Yet in the absence of muscular action by outside actors, there is now no plausible scenario in which that tormented Caribbean country, already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest, will not be sucked deeper into a vortex of anarchy, street violence, economic meltdown and humanitarian suffering.

That chaotic brew is a recipe for death and despair, in addition to a steady or swelling tide of refugees. The Biden administration, having already deported more than 25,000 Haitians, might imagine it can maintain that status quo, ignoring Haiti’s turmoil. It should think again, for it is folly to imagine that things in Haiti cannot deteriorate.

Mounting pandemonium and pervasive gang warfare have seized the country in the 14 months since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, a crime that remains unsolved. A power vacuum has contributed to the chaos; no elections have been held in six years, meaning the government lacks legitimacy. That goes for the prime minister, Ariel Henry — himself implicated in the Moïse assassination — whose grip on power owes more to backing from Washington than to popular support in Haiti, where he is broadly reviled and regarded as impotent.

With the economy in a tailspin and inflation surging, Mr. Henry this month slashed fuel subsidies, causing the price of gas at the pump to more than double. That triggered furious protests that some regional leaders described as a “low-intensity civil war,” along with demands for his resignation. In some neighborhoods, street barricades, wanton vandalism and marauding demonstrators had paralyzed transport and the delivery of basic goods, including food and water.

Mr. Henry’s grip on the levers of government is extremely weak; his administration’s authority and ability to maintain order are anemic. More than 100 civic and faith groups last week called on the Biden administration to withdraw its support for him, accusing him of corruption and complicity with the gangs that have paralyzed life in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

By propping up the prime minister, Washington might think it is forestalling an even more complete power vacuum. U.S. officials might also shrug at growing disorder and the absence of democracy in Haiti as long as the Henry government continues to accept deportees.

Yet it is unlikely that the status quo can hold. Prominent gang leaders and opposition figures are calling for wider protests, which will translate into more violence. Major Western embassies have closed to the public and advised their diplomats to hunker down. According to reports, police have started refusing to show up for work in the face of spiraling violence. The Dominican Republic has sent troops to its border with Haiti, to prevent any spillover.

The situation is not tenable, and waiting for worse to come is not a policy; it is an abdication of responsibility. The United Nations, the Organization of American States and key governments, including the Biden administration, must face Haiti’s collapse squarely, and act to prevent further carnage and suffering.

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