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Just 600 miles off of Florida’s coast, millions of Haitians face humanitarian, security, and political crises. More than one million people there suffer from acute food insecurity, cholera is spreading, violence has reached previously safe areas and the government appears powerless to provide solutions. Nick Schifrin reports.
The nation of Haiti is in freefall.
Just 600 miles off Florida's coast, the country that is no stranger to struggle is facing a confluence of humanitarian, security and political crises. Millions do not have enough food. Cholera is spreading. Gang violence has reached previously safe areas, and the government appears powerless to provide solutions.
Nick Schifrin has our story. And a warning: Some of the images are disturbing.
In this Port-au-Prince hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, the patients are survivors of a country that has collapsed. Their society, like their legs, are fractured, and they suffer the wounds of war ravaging the Haitian capital.
More than a quarter are gunshot victims, including this teenager. We are keeping him anonymous from the gangs that shot him.
Speaker (through translator):
When I was looking at my stomach, I saw a big hole here and another here. I didn't die because they gave me care.
He is from Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince's biggest slum, where residents try to survive not just chocking poverty, but also a recent wave of intense violence. He was filming this video of a gang tearing down a home when the bullet hit.
You're in the middle of a war. You sleep, it is war. You wake up, shots are fired. What I'm trying to say is it was the day for me to take a bullet, but it is not only me. I am not the only victim.
Violence escalated in July, when new battles raged between rival gangs fighting for territory, including G-Pep and the G9, led by former police officer Jimmy Cherizier, known as Barbecue. They use excavators to raze each others neighborhoods.
In broad daylight, gang members kidnap Haitians from their cars for ransom. They torch government buildings and set court documents on fire. And, in mid-September, gang seized the largest fuel terminal and are holding hostage 70 percent of Haiti's fuel. Barbecue taunted authorities and rallied supporters.
Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, Gang Leader (through translator): It is true that you are going to get through into this oil terminal when we are dead. To the Haitian people, it's true that we need to live as real human beings and for other nations to respect us, man your barricades.
Garry Pierre-Pierre, The Haitian Times:
These are warlords. These are people who have military trainings and who are really a de facto force in the country.
Garry Pierre-Pierre is the founder of The Haitian Times, an English-language newspaper.
They dictate when we have water, when we have fuel, when people can go out. What you're watching is basically a slow-motion coup d'etat. Haiti has reached the point of a failed state right now. It is not functioning.
Haitian society is furious. For months, demonstrators across the country have protested against insecurity and a lack of food and gas. As police looked on, demonstrators even looted humanitarian warehouses.
And now the violence and fuel restrictions have exacerbated a cholera outbreak.
Marceline Joseph gave her son liquids, but it was too late for the rest of her family.
Marceline Joseph, Port-au-Prince Resident (through translator):
I saw him getting worse, so I brought him here. And when I got here, I learned that my little sister had died of cholera.
Where is the Haitian government? It's been 15 months since President Jovenel Moise was assassinated. And Haiti's caretaker Prime Minister Ariel Henry requested international troops to keep a peace that the government is unable to provide.
Last week in New York, the international community took a first step to try and provide stabilization. For the first time in five years, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution Haiti that sanction gang leaders, including Barbecue, and their financial sponsors.
But a U.S. and Mexico resolution endorsing a foreign troop deployment to Haiti remains on hold.
Do you think that it's a good idea for the U.N. Security Council to authorize an international mission, military mission to go to Haiti?
The question is that what choices do we have? It's not a good idea, but it's a series of bad ideas. This mission, whatever form it comes in, needs to address the social inequalities. These young men have been marginalized in the society.
Jean Claude Joseph, Lakou Lape (through translator):
For every 10 young boys that grew up in Grande Ravine, eight of them had firearms. And I was one of them.
Jean Claude Joseph is a former gang member turned peace-builder. He started carrying guns when he was 10. In his 20s, he led a gang in his neighborhood of Port-au-Prince's Grande Ravine. In his 30s, he disarmed himself through a government program and co-founded Lakou Lape, a community organization that trains young Haitians to resolve conflict through dialogue.
He says the gangs are popular because they are both the power and the bank.
Jean Claude Joseph (through translator):
When a 10-year-old enters an armed gang, he is the one who puts food and drinks on the table, and even pays the rent. It's like having a job.
Back in Cite Soleil, the teenager who was shot sent us this video, his neighborhood, no running water, and no school, but he has nowhere else to go.
SPEAKER (through translator):
I hope for all the bandits to be killed or arrested and put in prison. Only then the country will work properly. Bandits are destroying the country.
And for more on this, I'm joined by Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Ambassador Nichols, thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."
You led an interagency delegation to Haiti earlier this month. What did you see?
Brian Nichols, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere: I saw a Haiti that is suffering from cholera, from intense security challenges posed by gangs.
I saw a Haiti whose economy is grinding to a standstill due to a lack of fuel and a Haiti that needs our help more than ever. And we're going to give that help.
What does the U.S. hope to accomplish by the actions that we saw at the U.N. last week sanctioning gang leaders, including Barbecue, and their financial sponsors?
The intention is not only to go after gang leaders like Jimmy Cherizier, AKA Barbecue, but to go after those who support them and fund them, who direct their nefarious activities. Wherever they are, we're coming for you.
The second resolution the U.S. is working on is to send an international military force to Haiti. Why does the U.S. support another international force to go to Haiti?
Well, our focus is on providing the security that the Haitian Cabinet and the U.N. secretary-general have asked for.
And that would be a multinational force with a substantial police component that will provide security to the Haitian people and to give Haitian actors and Haitian political figures the space to reach an agreement on a way forward, to organize elections, and to restore democracy to Haiti.
Will there be U.S. military personnel as part of that mission?
We're looking at how we would support the mission. Our focus is providing those things where we have unique skills and advantages.
But we need to do that in support of a partner nation that will lead. There are intensive talks going on right now.
Journalists and historians in Haiti have long said that the U.S. has never allowed Haiti to make its own political decisions.
Do you fear that sending this force would just make the same mistakes as the past?
Given the cholera outbreak now, the security situation, the lack of fuel, we need to act.
But that action should open the space for Haitians to come together around the organizing of elections, around the process to restore democracy, and to get the country moving forward again.
Let's talk about politics.
Why is the U.S. supporting Ariel Henry?
Well, our view is that Ariel Henry is a transitional figure. I have met with him many times. And in every conversation, he has assured me of his intent to turn over leadership to an elected government.
There was, of course, controversy around his appointment. Many have called him illegitimate.
Do you believe that he's earned the right to transition Haiti to the next step?
He is taking difficult steps.
He has ended fuel subsidies in Haiti, which is a controversial move, but it means that the government now has money to dedicate to education, health care, infrastructure in Haiti. Those are actions that we have wanted to see in Haiti for quite some time. And Prime Minister Henry is the one who's taking them. And I respect him for that.
Earlier this year, you said this: "When we look at the history of Haiti, it is replete with the international community reaching into Haitian politics and picking winners and losers. Our goal, in terms of the U.S. government, is to avoid that."
With your support for Henry, are you picking winners and losers even today?
We're not there to pick who Haiti's leaders are.
But the government that is there is led by Ariel Henry at the moment. But he's a transitional figure. He's not there permanently. And it's up to Haitians to find their way forward. And we just hope to give them the space to do that.
And, finally, on the humanitarian situation, of course, USAID is sending much needed supplies. Can those supplies actually get to the places that need them most, given the gangs' block on the port?
Our colleagues in USAID, working through local partners, were able to deliver food for 6,000 people to Cite Soleil, which is also the epicenter of the cholera outbreak in Haiti.
But that does not change the fact that the presence of Barbecue and the G9 gang around the Varreux terminal is a serious impediment to economic activity in Haiti and to the movement of assistance. And I would advise Mr. Cherizier to exit the terminal and to let the Haitian people go about their lives.
Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, thank you very much.
Thank you for having me, Nick.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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