Tuesday briefing: Why Haiti is stuck in a state of anarchy

<span>An activist during a protest demanding the resignation of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse in 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Dieu Nalio Chery/AP</span>
An activist during a protest demanding the resignation of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse in 2021.Photograph: Dieu Nalio Chery/AP

Good morning. It is seven years since Haiti held an election, almost three years since the president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated, and more than a year since the last elected officials left office – and the return of democracy to Port-au-Prince still appears to be a distance away.

On Sunday, after gangs stormed the country’s two biggest jails and freed more than 3,800 criminals, the Haitian government declared a 72-hour state of emergency and a night curfew. But with gangs now exerting de facto authority over about 80% of the capital, and senior figures including acting president Ariel Henry out of the country, the government’s future appears increasingly uncertain. Yesterday, the Miami Herald reported that the gangs made a second attempt to take over the national airport.

In theory, Haiti’s path back from anarchy lies with an international UN-backed security force, led by 1,000 Kenyan police officers, to bring the gangs to heel – but the prospect of their arrival has led to a non-aggression pact between the warring gangs, and a declaration that they will now seek to capture the police chief and government ministers.

Today’s newsletter, with International Crisis Group’s Haiti expert Diego Da Rin, is about what the prison attacks tell us about the gangs’ power – and whether there is any realistic prospect that they will be defeated. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Budget | NHS funding faces the biggest cuts in real terms since the 1970s, an influential analysis shows, amid growing pressure on Jeremy Hunt to prioritise public service funding over tax cuts in the budget. Health spending in England is due to fall by 1.2% – worth £2bn – in the new financial year.

  2. US politics | Donald Trump was wrongly removed from Colorado’s primary ballot last year, the US supreme court has ruled, clearing the way for Trump to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. Trump said the unanimous decision was “very well crafted”. Read Ed Pilkington’s analysis.

  3. UK politics | George Galloway has said he will target more seats in the next general election, including deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner’s, after his swearing-in at Westminster following last week’s Rochdale byelection victory. Galloway told reporters that his Workers Party of Britain would put up candidates to “either win or … make sure that Keir Starmer doesn’t.”

  4. France | The French parliament has enshrined abortion as a constitutional right at a historic joint session at the Palace of Versailles. The change, agreed by an overwhelming margin of 780-72, was given impetus by the US supreme court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v Wade.

  5. Media | Ofcom has determined that GB News broke broadcasting rules when Laurence Fox, the leader of the rightwing Reclaim party, “demeaned” a female journalist on an episode of Dan Wootton Tonight. Fox’s comments, Ofcom says, were “unambiguously misogynistic” and “potentially highly offensive to viewers”.

In depth: ‘The situation has greatly deteriorated’

Haiti’s crisis can be traced directly to the assassination of the president, Jovenel Moïse, but the roots go much deeper: back to the economic catastrophe caused by the 2010 earthquake, the 29-year dictatorial rule of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and even to the grotesque impact of the vast “reparations” Haiti was forced to pay to France for generations after independence in 1804, which severely hampered economic development.

Discussing all of this last January, Prof Matthew Smith, a historian of Haiti, told First Edition: “You could see the country’s history as a series of crises with brief periods of hope and peace” – but even so, “the situation is unprecedented in Haiti’s history”.


What’s happened since then?

Things have got worse. Almost 4,000 people were killed and 3,000 kidnapped in gang-related violence in 2023, the UN says; sexual violence is rife, with 1,100 attacks on women by October. Some 200,000 people have been displaced, and half of Haitians do not have enough to eat. Basic services such as electricity, clean water and waste collection are unreliable. The final figures for 2023 are expected to show that the economy has contracted for five straight years.

The events of the last few days have caused still deeper pessimism. “The situation has greatly deteriorated with the prison attack, and other coordinated actions against state institutions,” said Diego Da Rin, author of this recent Crisis Group report. “They have burned down police stations, attacked the main airport, and threatened to seize the national palace.”


How much power do the gangs have?

Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, took up the role of acting president after the death of Moïse, but is widely viewed as illegitimate, and has repeatedly failed to hold promised elections. The vacuum of democratically accountable political authority created space for Haiti’s already powerful gangs to expand their influence in the capital, and rival coalitions – G9, led by former elite police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, and Gpèp, which lacks a single clear leader – have fought for control of the city.

Meanwhile, Haiti’s police force is severely underpowered, with about 10,000 active officers across the country when UN estimates suggest they need about 26,000. Just last year, around 1,600 officers stepped down.

The UN security council’s October vote to send a multinational security force to Haiti to help combat the gangs appeared to worsen the violence, Da Rin said, with both sides seeking to secure more territory before the force’s arrival. “They were trying to show their superiority and to bring the state to its knees – and to send an intimidation message to foreign troops.”

Now the two coalitions have revived a non-aggression pact, “Viv Ansanm”, or “living together” in Haitian Creole, as they seek to topple the interim government and strengthen their position.


Could an international security force make a difference?

The UN’s announcement of its support for an international force led by Kenya prompted some optimism that it could challenge the gangs. The plan is not a formal UN peacekeeping force, in part because of the disastrous impact of the previous UN mission, which was tarnished by appalling sexual misconduct allegations and the fact that sewage from a UN camp was implicated in a cholera outbreak that killed nearly 10,000.

The hopes for the force were not to eliminate the gangs, but to restore control of key routes in and out of the capital, protect state infrastructure, and stabilise the security situation. Even so, there were warnings that any incoming force would need considerable training to take on the gangs in a labyrinthine urban environment where gang members typically wear normal clothes and are hard to distinguish from civilians.

“It is a very complicated challenge that the mission would have to face,” Da Rin said, pointing out that as well as the gangs the new arrivals would have to contend with Bwa Kale, an organic and diffuse civilian vigilante movement that has been linked to public lynchings of suspected gang members.

Nonetheless, he said, the gangs were “really fearing for their lives” in the face of the prospective new opponent. “They know the Haitian police are weak, but they are concerned about them having the backing of a well-trained and better-equipped foreign force.”


Why isn’t that force in place yet?

Five months after the force was given a UN mandate, there is still no presence on the ground – and it has only been given an initial authorisation for a year. “The clock has been ticking on that since 2 October,” Da Rin said. “It should have been enough time to train, equip, and get the funds and personnel in place.”

One major obstacle has been within Kenya, where the government promised 1,000 police officers to lead a proposed force of up to 5,000 personnel – but then faced a court ruling that the plan was unconstitutional. Ariel Henry went to Nairobi last week to try to salvage the plan by signing a new agreement with Kenya’s president, William Ruto.

His absence from the country appears to have contributed to the gangs’ move on the prisons, and it is not yet clear when he plans to go back. The Miami Herald reported panic at rumours of his return yesterday, with businesses closing and police patrols increasing in response.

Another 2,000 personnel have been offered by Benin – but “they only appear to have committed these troops very recently, so it’s not sure at all if they’ve started training”, Da Rin said. “The problem is not just whether sufficient troops are being committed, it’s also the required funds for the mission to be fully operational.”

All of that means it could still be months before the plan can be put into practice. There are suggestions that Kenya will not send its officers until funding is fully in place, and “if there is no leading nation there is no mission”, Da Rin said. “The window of opportunity for success will be closing soon.”


What will it take to disempower the gangs and restore democracy?

There have been some indications that “Barbecue” and other gang leaders could seek a way out, Da Rin said, by attempting to position themselves as political actors seeking the best outcome for the Haitian people.

“That discourse could lead to a negotiated demobilisation or amnesty,” he said. “But they clearly have the upper hand right now, and the gangs have made the Haitian people suffer for so long – it will be very difficult for regular people to understand any negotiation with people who have kidnapped, raped, and killed indiscriminately. So the right sequencing would be to deploy the mission, and then engage in negotiations from a position of strength.”

Meanwhile, the political opposition appear to have little faith in Henry’s promise to hold elections by August 2025. “Many don’t believe his word any more,” he said. “It will take a lot of effort from regional actors to convince them to resume negotiations with him.”

But such political questions appear a luxury at the moment. “The situation is an emergency,” Da Rin said. “If the gangs continue with these large-scale attacks, they could control all of the capital in a matter of days or weeks.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • A bit of dental bling, anyone? Emboldened by the post-pandemic relaxing of dress codes, tooth gems and grills (above) have become a must-have style accessory – but Sian Boyle finds dentists are bracing for the worst. Nazia Parveen, acting deputy editor, newsletters

  • More people have been imprisoned for rioting during a single day in Bristol in 2021 than in any other protest-related disorder since at least the 1980s. Tom Wall’s superb long read examines the reasons why, the fallout – and the flaws in the narrative that those on the streets that day constituted a violent mob. Archie

  • Vivian Oparah discusses being up against Emma Stone and Margot Robbie for best leading actress at the Baftas. “It’s insane, I feel mad,” says the nominated star of last year’s hit indie romcom Rye Lane. “But I also still feel incredibly normal.” Nazia

  • The alarms have been sounding for years that the world is in danger of running out of water, writes George Monbiot – but governments are failing to seriously engage with the problem, and put their faith in technology alone to fix it. “Without political and economic measures,” he writes, “it doesn’t work.” Archie

  • Would you be tempted to eat all the marshmallows? The Big Idea this week looks at how our ability to resist temptation is increasingly shaped by forces beyond our control. Nazia


Football | Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta described his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Sheffield United as “a great night” as they climbed to within two points of leaders Liverpool. The result made Arsenal (above) the first team in English league history to win three straight away games by a margin of five or more goals.

Formula One | The FIA president, Mohammed ben Sulayem, is reportedly under investigation for allegedly interfering with the result of a Formula One race. An ethics report claims that Ben Sulayem acted to overturn a ­10-second penalty given to Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso at the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the BBC said.

Football | Sam Kerr, the Chelsea and Australia footballer, is to face trial in the UK accused of the racially aggravated harassment of a police officer. The 30-year-old Australia captain appeared in court on Monday after she was accused of using insulting, threatening or abusive words that caused alarm or distress to an officer who was responding to a complaint over a taxi fare in south-west London last year.

The front pages

Our Guardian lead story in print today is “Doctors issue dire warning as ‘NHS faces biggest budget cut in 50 years’”. The Daily Mail has “Vicars in uproar over church’s £1billion slavery reparations”. “Tories divided over new definition of extremism” says the Times, while the Daily Mirror has the governing party “On the run” – “Tories’ poll humiliation” says the banner, over the paper’s report that support in the electorate for the Conservatives has fallen to 20%. “Tory tensions as Hunt and Sunak wrestle over crunch Budget” – that’s the i, while the Financial Times splashes on “Apple hit with €1.8bn Brussels fine for choke on music streaming rivals”.

“Tiny kids dying in housing crisis” – the Metro tells the story of how the deaths of 55 children, of whom 42 were babies under a year old, have been linked to damp, mould and other factors in temporary accommodation. “France must do more with our millions to stop small boats” – Priti Patel is on the front of the Daily Express. Top story in the Daily Telegraph is “German army leaks ‘just tip of the iceberg’”.

Today in Focus

Why IVF is under attack in Alabama

After an Alabama supreme court judgment, the biggest IVF clinics in the state closed, leaving prospective parents desperate. Jessica Glenza reports

Cartoon of the day | Nicola Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

If you often find yourself dawdling away the day, frustrated that your brain won’t click into gear, then the answer to your mind’s logjam may well actually lie in your legs. In this investigation, Sam Pyrah speaks to the experts drawing ever-stronger links between physical exercise and creative output. “Even a single, brief bout of aerobic exercise can ignite creative thinking,” Dr Chong Chen of Yamaguchi University, Japan, tells her.

Creative thinking can be divided into two aspects – the drawing of associations between unrelated things that is the creation of ideas, known as divergent thinking, and the weighing up of the value of such ideas, known as convergent thinking. Studies have demonstrated that the former is stimulated by everything from dancing and running to simply walking up stairs.

As Amir-Homayoun Javadi, a reader in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Kent, explains: “When performed regularly, aerobic activity can trigger structural changes, such as increased brain volume, particularly of the hippocampus, which benefit many aspects of cognition. This gives the brain more potential to be creative.”

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Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.