That’s left Ariel Henry, the unelected and deeply reviled prime minister, in charge. Appointed by President Jovenel Moïse days before Moïse’s still-unsolved assassination in 2021, Henry was due to leave office on Wednesday, but has so far successfully stymied a political transition.
Amid this stew of instability, Haiti faces a new challenge: Guy Phillippe.
The charismatic rebel leader, who in 2004 led the uprising that chased then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the country for good, is now joining calls for Henry’s ouster. Freed last year from a U.S. prison, he’s won the allegiance of an armed brigade in the Environment Ministry, called last month for “civil disobedience” across the country and appeared in the capital on Tuesday alongside demonstrators demanding the prime minister step down.
Henry has dismissed the leader of the Brigade for the Security of Protected Areas, a close ally of Philippe, and ordered agents to disarm. A BSAP agent in northern Haiti called the prime minister a “rat that is going to die.”
“We’re telling the police and the army that we have zero problem with them whatsoever,” Jean Pierre Fritzner said in a video posted last week on social media. “If they put themselves against us, however, what happens to them is their responsibility.”
“Anything can happen,” Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network, told The Washington Post. “The situation can become more chaotic, with more violence, more attacks, more death.”
Philippe, a former police chief of the northern city of Cap-Haïtien elected to the Haitian Senate, was arrested in January 2017 and extradited to the United States to face federal corruption charges.
Philippe pleaded guilty in June 2017 to money laundering conspiracy. He acknowledged having taken bribes to protect Colombian cocaine being shipped through Haiti to Miami. He was sentenced to nine years in federal prison.
In Haiti, he’s accused of deadly attacks on police stations in 2004 and 2016.
Philippe was released from federal prison in Georgia in September and returned to Haiti in November.
His release “wasn’t really expected by Haitians,” said Diego Da Rin, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, and it landed “like a bomb.”
Luis G. Romero, a former U.S. diplomat in Haiti, said he “was just completely baffled” by the decision to return him.
“I’m sure there were legal considerations, so there were probably no legal options,” he said. “But I don’t know how people didn’t think outside the box and realize how devastating it would be to have him come back to Haiti, particularly this time.”
In the weeks since Philippe’s arrival, he has traveled the country to drum up support for a “revolution,” calling on Haitians to follow the example of protesters in Sri Lanka, who stormed the presidential palace in 2022 and forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign. He has railed against Western imperialism and pledged to end gang violence within 90 days. (He has declined to explain how.)
“The situation [in Haiti] really is dire,” Romero said, “and I think that Guy Philippe is a wild card that could really upend everything.”
Philippe isn’t the only one calling for Henry’s ouster. Prominent leaders including a former prime minister and former senator called for three days of protest this week to push him to step down.
In several communities, demonstrations shut down government buildings, businesses and schools. Police have used tear gas to disperse protests, and there were reports of looting and government buildings being set aflame.
Henry had not yet been sworn in when Moïse was killed in July 2021. But in the aftermath of the assassination, the Core Group, an informal bloc of envoys from countries including the United States, backed him to lead the country.
Henry endorsed what’s known as the Dec. 21, 2022, accord, which called for elections in 2023 and for a new government to take over on Feb. 7.
Haiti hasn’t been safe for elections. Still, opposition leaders said Henry had to leave by that date, which was significant as the date in 1986 that Haitians pushed out the Duvalier dictatorship and, in 1991, swore in Aristide, their first democratically elected president. It’s enshrined in the constitution as the date for the presidential transfer of power.
Gangs, armed mostly with weapons trafficked from the United States, killed more than 4,700 people in 2023, the U.N. office here reported last month, up 119 percent from 2022. More than 1,600 police officers left the Haitian National Police last year, a decline the U.N. office called “alarming.”
The U.N. Security Council has backed a Kenyan-led police mission to restore order. But that plan hit a setback last month when Kenya’s High Court ruled such a deployment unconstitutional. The Kenyan government has said it will appeal.
The question now, Da Rin said, is whether Philippe’s call for a “revolution” will catch on beyond his traditional support. In the past, elites have taken advantage of rising social unrest to finance destabilizing demonstrations, but many of them are now under sanctions.
A business leader in northern Haiti said Philippe had approached several people in the private sector for funding. The leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue, said those whom Phillippe approached see in him for the first time “a real challenger to Ariel Henry.”
Roberto Álvarez, the foreign minister of the neighboring Dominican Republic, warned the U.N. Security Council last month of “new political movers [in Haiti] who are putting themselves forward as messiahs.”
These people, he said, “are acting opportunistically, and are as damaging and destabilizing as the gangs. These sectors have gone so far as to call for an insurrection and for civil disobedience, further aggravating the political dimension of the Haitian crisis.”
Particularly concerning, analysts said, has been the rise of the BSAP and the alliance of some agents with Philippe.
The brigade, part of the National Agency for Protected Areas, was created to protect environmentally sensitive areas such as sand quarries and forests. But its heavily armed agents have been accused of acting beyond their mandate and abusing human rights.
In 2022, the Environment Ministry canceled the badges of BSAP agents after Haitian news outlets reported on repeated instances of “indelicate behavior” by agents.
Moïse put loyalist Jeantal Joseph in charge of the brigade and sought to turn it into his private armed force. There’s a history here of leaders having their own paramilitary forces.
The BSAP, Espérance said, is “practically a gang.”
Henry last month fired Joseph and barred BSAP agents from bearing arms in public.
BSAP leaders say only an elected president can issue such decrees. At least five agents died in clashes with police at demonstrations this week.
Myslain Fageasse, the head of the BSAP in the south, dismissed discussion of disarming the BSAP as a “rumor.”
Joseph told The Post he was challenging his dismissal in court. He said the Haitian people were on his side in a fight to “liberate the country.”
He drew a historical comparison.
“If Ariel Henry does not leave power, this population will get in [his residence] and take him the same way it happened during the presidency of Vilbrun Guillaume Sam,” Joseph said. A mob assassinated Sam in 1915 and paraded his butchered body through the streets.
That event prompted U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to send in the Marines.
The United States invaded Haiti, imposed martial law, installed a friendly president, took control of key institutions and occupied the country for 19 years, safeguarding American interests and killing hundreds of thousands of Haitians but overseeing little development.