Denver, Colo., Jul 17, 2023 / 08:30 am (CNA).
The U.S. and other countries have called for international intervention in Haiti due to the government’s inability to provide basic security amid the rise of criminal gangs. For their part, Catholic leaders continue to advocate on behalf of the Caribbean country only 900 miles southeast of Florida.
“Haiti is in a desperate situation, the worst that it has probably been in its history,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told CNA July 10. Wenski, who is fluent in Haitian Creole, has long worked with the Haitian communities of Florida.
“Haitians are very resilient. They’re people of faith, and we have to pray to God that they get some relief,” Wenski said.
Haiti has not had a president since July 2021, when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated.
“It’s a terrible situation, and I think the international community has been kicking the can down the road for a couple of years now,” Wenski said.
According to Wenski, the political crisis began two years before the assassination. The current crisis follows 20 years of a “downward spiral” in economic, political, and social life in Haiti. In his view, the U.S. has helped worsen the situation over the last eight years because the country was “putting a thumb on the scale on how various elections were going to turn out.”
“I think that’s also contributed to the lack of credibility of the previous governments,” the archbishop said.
No national elections have been held since the assassination. Some observers worry elections are impossible without security restored to the capital of Port-au-Prince. The struggle for power has worsened the violence carried out by armed gangs and kidnappers. Gangs control large sections of Port-au-Prince as well as some suburbs.
Wenski cited an incident in which a gang went into a Port-au-Prince hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders, removed a rival gang member from the doctors’ care, and executed him. The incident led the organization to close the hospital temporarily.
Haiti’s National Police has an estimated 13,000 active-duty officers in a country of more than 11 million people, the Associated Press reported.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, in remarks before a joint meeting in Trinidad and Tobago July 5, agreed on the urgency of deploying a U.N.-authorized multinational force or peacekeeping operation to help Haiti’s national police restore security. However, no country has committed to such a measure.
Wenski acknowledged the discussion about intervention but acknowledged three recent peacekeeping missions by the U.S. and U.N.
“The United Nations troops left a few years ago and the situation has not gotten better,” he said. “So the international force probably might be necessary now because there’s no other way to support the police forces. But it’s only going to be a Band-Aid because there are deeper issues that have to be addressed among different sectors of Haitian society.”
Reluctance to commit personnel to intervene is in part due to the fact that Haiti’s gangs are now well-armed.
“For any international force that goes in, there’ll be a price in blood both on the international side and on the Haitian side,” Wenski said.
As of 2020, there were 150 to 200 criminal gangs in Haiti. As many as 500,000 illegal guns could be circulating in Haiti for use in gang conflicts, according to a March report on Haiti’s criminal markets from the United Nations Office on Drug Trafficking and Crime. Many weapons and ammunition have been purchased in various U.S. states with lax gun-sale laws and smuggled out through Florida.
Haiti is also a nexus for the illegal drug trade as a transit point for cocaine being smuggled from Colombia to the U.S. and Canada. Cannabis from Jamaica is smuggled through Haiti to the Dominican Republic, the U.N. report said.
Wenski noted that the U.S. has assets in the Caribbean, such as U.S. Coast Guard patrols, to stop Haitian refugees and boat people from arriving in the U.S. and to return them to Haiti.
“If the United States has those assets there, you would think that they have assets to address these other problems as well,” he said.
The dangers of life in Haiti have hurt people’s ability to provide for themselves and their families, the archbishop added.
“People can’t go to work. People can’t work. So you have increasing levels of poverty and increasing levels of food insecurity,” he said.
In May, a joint report from the U.N. World Food Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that about 5.2 million Haitians, including almost 3 million children, need emergency humanitarian aid. Approximately 4.9 million people will suffer from hunger, and of these, about 1.8 million are at an emergency level of need. More than 115,000 children under age 5 are predicted to suffer life-threatening malnutrition this year — an increase of 30%.
Among those responding to these needs is Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the U.S. bishops’ global humanitarian organization.
“Food insecurity in the country is high and the humanitarian needs are climbing,” Kim Pozniak, senior director for global communications at Catholic Relief Services, told CNA. “CRS and our partners continue to focus on lifesaving support to families who’ve been affected by the insecurity and violence, including providing cash so people can cover some of their needs, like food and other essentials.
Natural disasters have also worsened the situation in Haiti. Severe floods hit the country in early June, and severe hurricanes are always a possibility. A deadly earthquake killed hundreds in August 2021, and 220,000 were killed in the devastating 2010 earthquake. A major cholera outbreak after the 2010 earthquake infected 820,000 people and killed 10,000, but more recent outbreaks have been far less severe. After years of decline, however, an outbreak in October 2022 caused 600 confirmed cases and over 6,500 suspected cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Archbishop Wenski noted the important support provided by the Haitian community in the U.S., whose members often send large portions of their income to relatives in Haiti.
“Haitians in the United States are very much aware of what’s happening in Haiti,” he said. “They’re close to their relatives there, and so they’re decrying the situation and also looking for solutions.”
“There are many sister relationships between the United States and dioceses and churches in Haiti,” Wenski added. The archbishop of Miami told CNA he sends stipends for Mass intentions to Haitian priests so they can have an income in a country where parishes often can’t financially support their own priests.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for the Church in Latin America provides financial support for various pastoral projects in Haiti, including the reconstruction of churches and schools destroyed in the devastating 2010 earthquake. However, some of these projects have been suspended because they are in gang-controlled areas.
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