This piece was originally published on Just Security

Haiti’s rapidly spiraling political and security crisis has brought the de facto Haitian government to the brink of collapse. As gangs assault key infrastructure and move closer to complete control, Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, is stuck in Puerto Rico and unable to return. Henry – an unelected leader whose sole source of support has come from outside of Haiti’s borders – has now finally also lost the support of the United States, making his resignation all but certain. The United States’ belated break with Henry leaves a host of unanswered questions about the path forward. But if history is any guide, any solution must entail a way for civil society-led, consensus-based leadership to emerge.

Gangs’ Grip On Haiti

Today’s crisis finds its roots in years of the systematic dismantling of Haiti’s democracy by regimes who have nonetheless enjoyed international support. Over the past decade, leaders connected with the Pati Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK) have consolidated power by hollowing out State institutions and strategically aligning themselves with criminal gangs. Former President Jovenel Moïse, as part of his efforts to undermine any opposition, allowed gang attacks on neighborhoods where opposition ran strong. When Moïse was abruptly assassinated in 2021, the “Core Group” of western ambassadors and international representatives urged Henry to assume the role of prime minister. Under Henry — who is widely viewed as illegitimate – public authorities have been largely absent or in collusion with gangs as they used brutal methods, including repeated massacres and widespread kidnapping of civilians, to take control over Haiti’s territory and resources.

An estimated 80 percent of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and the surrounding region is now under gang control. The harrowing security situation has displaced more than 300,000 people and cut off access to water, food, and medical care. The United Nations estimates that half of Haiti’s population is now in need of humanitarian assistance.

The sharp escalation in gang assaults on key infrastructure since Feb. 29 has now brought Haiti close to anarchy. Two of the most powerful gang federations have united under the leadership of Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a notorious gang leader responsible for carrying out crimes against humanity with impunity. While Henry was out of the country to negotiate an agreement with Kenya concerning the deployment of a controversial multinational security force, armed gangs attacked two of the largest prisons, releasing almost 5,000 prisoners, including members of armed groups. Gangs have also taken over police stations and the national port, and shut down the international airport, leading to the cancellation of all flights in and out of Haiti and stranding Henry in Puerto Rico. Unable to stand up to the gangs, the remainder of the Haitian National Police has now largely deserted Port-au-Prince. As of March 8, gangs have taken over downtown Port-au-Prince, making advances toward the National Palace.

Henry’s Loss of International Support

The crisis has triggered a sharp shift in U.S. policy towards Henry. The Miami Herald reports that Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has pressed Henry to resign, citing the “untenable” security and political situation. With his main source of support now gone, Henry’s resignation appears to be a matter of time. But at this point in the crisis, it is unclear who will step in to fill the void.

Foreign governments like the United States, who play an outsized role in Haitian politics, have long maintained support for PHTK and Henry over widespread civil society calls for an inclusive political transition. A detailed transition plan developed in 2021 by a wide coalition of civil society known as the Montana Accord proposed a two-year transition government followed by elections. That plan was never embraced by the most influential foreign governments including the United States, however, which viewed Henry as the best option for short-term stability. Backed by those government, Henry lacked incentive to come to the table to negotiate a transition.

Henry has now served a longer term than any prime minister in at least 40 years despite having no independent power base in Haiti. Meanwhile, the last vestiges of democracy have crumbled – there is no longer a single elected official in the entire country as their terms have ended without elections to replace them.

Multinational Force in Question

To address the spiraling security situation, the United States has focused on trying to fast track the deployment of a Multinational Security Support force to combat the gang violence. Since it was authorized by the U.N. Security Council in October 2023, the force’s deployment was blocked by a Kenyan high court and faces budget shortfalls. The $200 million pledged by the United States is tied up in Congress. Additional countries have pledged funds in recent weeks, though only $10 million has been deposited in the U.N. Trust Fund thus far. Kenya estimates that $500-600 million is needed for the force.

In any case, many have questioned the force’s ability to effectively reestablish security. The task is deeply complicated by the under-resourced and now largely dismantled state of the Haitian National Police, the widespread police participation in gangs, and the proposed force’s small size of 2,500 officers. The sordid record of past interventions in Haiti and the Kenyan police’s own troubled human rights record further raise concern about the prospective mission’s responsible use of force. The mission was authorized as a non-U.N. peacekeeping force based on an assessment by both Secretary-General António Guterres and Henry that “robust use of force” would be needed. To date, the exact rules of engagement remain unclear.

Ahead of an emergency Security Council session on Haiti on March 6, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk called for the urgent deployment of the force. Kenya, for its part, has stated it is ready to deploy within 72 hours if the funding comes through. If and when that might happen is anyone’s guess.

Where Haiti Goes from Here

Haitian Finance Minister Patrick Boisvert, who Henry tapped as interim prime minister when he left for Kenya, is now nominally in charge. He has declared a month-long state of emergency in the Port-au-Prince region and banned all public protests, raising concerns that his focus is on quelling public uprisings rather than controlling the gangs.

Behind closed doors, remaining government officials, Haiti’s elite, the United States, and the Caribbean Community bloc (CARICOM) are likely negotiating a power handover. In advance of an emergency meeting in Jamaica on Monday, former U.S. Under-Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who played a key role in removing prior Haitian leaders, told the Miami Herald: “It’s really up to the United States and CARICOM to really identify who’s got to run that place and then give them the resources to run it and the political muscle to run it.” Notably, he did not mention Haitians as part of the equation – exactly the kind of approach to Haiti that has brought the country to this point.

Meanwhile, Haitians have been demanding a larger voice in their own future, and efforts within Haitian civil society to negotiate a broad-based, legitimate transitional government are also underway. The Montana Accord demonstrated in 2021 that a broad sector of Haitian civil society could come together for a consensus-based transition agreement. Efforts like these must be given the space and time to flourish. Stability, democracy, and Haitian lives depend on it.