Haitian officials rush to implement security measures as inauguration of transitional council nears

April 24, 2024 by No Comments

Armored vehicles slowly roll past Haiti’s National Palace as police scan the horizon for gangs. Every day, bullets whiz past the area, striking buildings and people. Gangs control most of the territory surrounding the palace, but a transitional council tasked with selecting a new president and cabinet for Haiti is demanding that its members be sworn in at the palace. The ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday even as officials scramble to impose tight security measures, according to two high-ranking regional officials with knowledge of the matter who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The push to hold the ceremony at the palace is seen by some as a show of force to suggest the Haitian government is still in charge despite rampaging gangs who have previously attacked the palace and have promised to disrupt the ceremony as daily gunfire persists in downtown Port-au-Prince. “No one out here is safe,” said Josil Djaimeska, 33, as he waved his hand in reference to the sprawling public park known as Champ de Mars where he sat Tuesday morning near the palace. Just steps from where he sat, a stray bullet struck Djaimeska late last week. The bullet is still in his calf, and he’s hoping a doctor will operate on him soon. Shortly after he spoke, a brief pop-pop-pop of gunfire erupted nearby. More than 2,500 people were killed or wounded across Haiti from January to March, a more than 50% increase compared with the same period last year, according to a recent U.N. report. Much of the violence is concentrated in Port-au-Prince. In a speech Monday at the council, María Isabel Salvador, the U.N. special envoy for Haiti, said the council’s priorities should include a plan for near-term security. “Gang leaders and other spoilers have stated their intention to violently disrupt the current political process,” she said. “I cannot stress enough the need to assist Haiti with its efforts to reestablish security.” While gangs have long operated in Haiti, they now control 80% of Port-au-Prince, and the coordinated attacks launched starting Feb. 29 have paralyzed the capital and beyond. They have burned police stations and hospitals, opened fire on the main highway that remains closed since early March and stormed Haiti’s two biggest prisons, releasing more than 4,000 inmates. “I am 63 years old and this is the first time I see something like this in Port-au-Prince,” said Renoir Auxil, who now lives in an abandoned bathroom in the Champ de Mars park after gangs raided his neighborhood. He said the ongoing violence should not deter Haiti from moving forward. “Whatever the circumstance is, they have to swear in the council,” he said. The transitional council consists of nine members, seven of them with voting powers. Those awarded a seat are Petit Desalin, a party led by former senator and presidential candidate Jean-Charles Moïse; EDE/RED, a party led by former Prime Minister Claude Joseph; the Montana Accord, a group of civil society leaders, political parties and others; Fanmi Lavalas, the party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide; the Jan. 30 Collective, which represents parties including that of former President Michel Martelly, and the private sector. As preparations to install the council continue, sporadic gunfire broke out several times near the National Palace on Tuesday. It’s a sound that hundreds of people who were forced to flee their homes and are now living in a makeshift shelter close to the palace have gotten used to. But they are still talking about the shooting that occurred Sunday. One of their own was hit in the back by a stray bullet in the yard of the shelter while buying spaghetti. The man remains hospitalized and requires surgery, said Chesnel Joseph, 46, director of the shelter, which previously housed Haiti’s Ministry of Communications. Joseph once worked as a math teacher, but since nearly all schools in Port-au-Prince have closed as a result of the violence, he is now unemployed. Regional officials told The Associated Press that swearing in the council at the National Palace is considered too risky and that they are urging members to choose a safer venue. While the venue of the ceremony is still being debated, some Haitians like Marie-André Blain, 46, doubt it will be held at the palace. “There is no security in this country. You just basically pray to God,” she said. “If the higher ranks aren’t safe, we ourselves aren’t safe.”