Haiti is at the center of a humanitarian crisis. The factional wars have subsided since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in the summer of 2021. Hunger increased. Cholera is spreading like never before, partly because armed groups are preventing doctors from providing care.
I spoke with Natalie Kitroeff, The Times’s bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean who recently reported from Haiti, about the crisis.
Claire: Criminal organizations seem to control a large part of Haiti. How did they take control?
Natalie: Clubs have existed in Haiti for decades. But they were more courageous under Moïse. After his assassination, a new president, Ariel Henry, took office, but he was never confirmed by Parliament, and many people considered him illegitimate. The world’s institutions were destroyed. The teams went into an electrical vacuum, and the country lost the ability to protect the most important nerves in the country.
Can you explain how bad life in Haiti has been since these gangs came to rule?
To understand the current situation, we can look at two main events. In July, rival factions fought for control of Cité Soleil, the largest shanty town in Haiti, home to about 300,000 people. A war broke out between them that lasted about a week and ended in hundreds of deaths. Members of gangs burned entire communities. Women were raped as a weapon of war. It was terrible. Thousands of people fled the slums, and many of them have been living as refugees in other areas of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Then, a few months later, Henry, the prime minister, raised the price of oil, which sparked protests that brought Haiti close to chaos, and one of the criminals closed the port where most of the oil enters the country. That turned a bad situation into a problem. Haiti does not have a functioning electricity grid, so everything runs on diesel generators. If there is no oil, it affects almost everything. Gas stations are closed. There was no garbage collection in many parts of the capital, so it piled up in slums. The water utility lost enough water to pump and aid workers were unable to bring water to areas blocked by pirates, which medical experts believe was responsible for the spread of cholera.
You live in Mexico. What did you see when you went to Haiti to report – how violent was it?
I flew to Port-au-Prince. The stadium is still in operation. And it’s near Cité Soleil, the slum. From the plane you can see this slum town. You see the sun beating down on tin shacks. When I was there, there were thousands of refugees sleeping on cardboard boxes and cement right next to the airport. There weren’t many people on the road, and there was only black market fuel.
People also drive very fast. You often drive nervously in Port-au-Prince through these winding roads up and down mountain roads for fear of being kidnapped by gang members. Kidnapping, targeting rich and poor Haitians, occurred at a rate of four per day last month, according to the UN.
If there is a lockdown in the country, no oil and constant violence, how will the people of Haiti survive? How do they eat, for example?
Hunger has always existed in Haiti. In Cité Soleil this year, it reached a state of starvation for many thousands of people. Some people said they drank water. Others said they cooked the leaves. In general, I found that Haitians always feel a lot of connection. Many people will tell you that they survived with the help of their neighbors. A young woman told me that she fled her home after neighbors told her that gang leaders were coming to rape her. People are helping each other to survive.
It is difficult to describe how bad the situation is. For example, when I was in Port-au-Prince there were children recovering from gunshot wounds who were sleeping in a large makeshift camp. During this rainy season, people’s houses are so flooded that they cannot sleep at night. The streets become rivers of garbage and people are walking in them barefoot.
Are there still areas on the island that are untouched by gang violence, or where wealthy Haitians live their whole lives?
Many wealthy Haitians tend to spend a lot of time in Miami, which is only two hours away. Some experts say that the development of these groups has been facilitated and funded by these officials, because they are using these groups to achieve their goals such as causing chaos when it suits them, collecting or suppressing votes and paying these groups to progress. movement of things.
Many wealthy Haitians drive around in armored vehicles and have security expertise. But no one is exempt from violence and chaos and the possibility that you can drive right into it.
You have covered issues throughout Latin America, but the situation in Haiti is extreme. How does that reporting compare to reporting in other areas that are experiencing problems?
I spoke with a Haitian who said he was a veteran of the United States Army who fought in many wars. I asked him, how is Haiti compared to a war zone? He said, “In the war, you know he is shooting at you.” I think about it all the time.
Natalie Kitroeff grew up near Philadelphia and has been in Mexico City since 2020. In the World Cup, she is looking for both the US and Mexico.
Related: Read Natalie’s post from the gang wars in Haiti.