Manitoba Haitians feel powerless to help loved ones amid country’s gang violence, famine, unrest

These days, when Arisnel Mesidor’s phone rings with a call from a loved one in Haiti, a combination of fears cycle through his head about what dire news may wait on the other side of the line.

Mesidor’s birth country has faced social, economic, political or natural challenges for decades.

Now, though, a confluence of crises — including gang violence, kidnappings, surging fuel prices, famine, disease, civil unrest and barriers to essential services — have hit an inflection point.

Mesidor’s parents are in the process of trying to come to Canada, but are facing issues obtaining even basic immigration application forms, he said.

“A failed state … that’s the term that has been coming to my mind these days,” said Mesidor, a Winnipeg-based immigration consultant. “Haiti has become … impossible to live in.”

He also spoke with CBC Manitoba in 2021 in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that killed 2,000 people, which came just weeks after Prime Minister Ariel Henry was installed by the Haitian government following the assassination of president Jovenel Moïse.

At that time, he wondered how much more Haiti could take. 

Now in the grips of a security crisis, people in the Caribbean country are struggling to access essential services. Banks, schools and hospitals are closed due to surging fuel costs and challenges getting basic supplies.

That followed a recent spike in crime amid soaring fuel prices in the weeks after Henry ended fuel subsidies. Armed gangs have blocked Haiti’s main port since September.

Security personnel extinguish a fire set by demonstrators at a gas pump during a protest demanding that Haiti’s prime minister step down in Port-au-Prince on Sept. 15. Manitoban Arisnel Mesidor, whose parents are trying to come to Canada from Haiti, says the term ‘failed state’ comes to mind for him when he looks at the current situation in Haiti. (Odelyn Joseph/The Associated Press)

The fallout has led to reports of kidnappings and rapes by armed gang members.

Almost 100,000 children under five are considered to be suffering severe malnutrition, according to the United Nations. Several hundred cases of cholera have been confirmed and 30,000 pregnant women are at risk, with three-quarters of hospitals unable to provide care due to issues related to the lack of fuel.

‘Like hell’

The Henry administration has called for foreign military aid, while the United Nations has called for a multinational malnutrition action force to step forward.

Haitian-born University of Manitoba educator Barthélemy Bolivar said family and contacts in Haiti describe conditions there as “like hell.”

“It was bad but now maybe the worst is going on,” said Bolivar, who also works with the Haitian School without Borders, which provides free online education for Haitian students.

Haitian-born University of Manitoba educator Bathelemy Bolivar says many Haitians have complex feelings about further foreign help right now, despite knowing they need it. (CBC)

He said what is happening now is rooted in decisions made by “the political elite.”

He suggested Henry has no legitimate mandate due to the way he came into power, and Haitians need their right to self-determination realized. 

One way to do that is through the Montana Accord, he said. It’s a proposal by a coalition of civil society groups without ties to Haitian political parties for how to transition government leadership in the short term so a democratic election can be held, possibly in the next two years.

The military aid the Haitian government has asked for may not be in line with the desires of an increasingly disenfranchised citizenry, who are unhappy with the way Henry was installed, said Bolivar.

He pointed to past international political meddling and international interventions, including from UN peacekeepers associated with a past cholera outbreak, as examples of why many Haitians have complex feelings about further foreign help right now, even while they know it’s needed.

“There is disconnect between what the government is asking for, which is a kind of military task force to come and impose peace … with [what] the people on the street asking for. Yes, we want some help from the international community, but we don’t want some kind of occupation,” he said. “There is a trust deficit.”

Haitian police, supported by outside aid, should lead efforts against gangs, said Bolivar.

‘This is desperation’

Pierre Delcy, with the the non-profit Regroupement Des Haitians du Manitoba, agreed a segment of the population is wary of more outsider occupations, but says most are reaching the limit of how much they can take without outside help.

“This is desperation,” and many in the diaspora feel powerless, said Delcy. 

“We basically are spectators. We just feel like there’s nothing we can do.”

Many Haitians living abroad, including him, often send money back home to help, but the rising threat of kidnappings is changing that dynamic as well. Delcy said he would feel personally responsible if his brother got attacked at a bank while trying to retrieve money he sent him.

Pierre Delcy is a member of the non-profit Regroupement Des Haitians du Manitoba. (CBC)

His niece, who lives in the north of the country, can no longer attend university, he said. It’s closed because transportation is nearly non-existent.

Delcy hopes the international community, including Canada, finds a way to meet the growing needs while supporting Haitians’ sovereignty and right to determine the fate of the country.

Canada recently sent armoured vehicles to the country. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Canada wants to ensure “Haiti itself is driving the lasting change,” and is proceeding carefully to support civil institutions in the country.

“The majority of the population, the only thing they want is to be able to breathe finally,” Delcy said. “They don’t care who’s coming to basically help them, because this is what they need.”

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