Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Haiti on the Brink: Ex-Coup Leader Demands PM’s Resignation, Stakes Claim for Presidency

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The tenuous political situation in Haiti took another dramatic turn this week as Guy Philippe, a former police chief who helped lead a coup in 2004, demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry and staked his own claim to the presidency.

In an exclusive interview over Zoom from Haiti, the 56-year-old Philippe did not mince words, insisting that Henry “should resign” and stay away from the crisis-stricken Caribbean nation.

“He should stay where he is now…and let Haitians decide their fate,” Philippe told Reuters bluntly.

The forceful comments come amid escalating gang violence that has plunged the Haitian government into chaos and turmoil. Powerful armed gangs have taken over large swaths of the capital Port-au-Prince, driving thousands from their homes and even temporarily shuttering the main airport last week.

An Embattled Leader Henry has found himself increasingly isolated and embattled in recent months. Last week, he left Haiti purportedly to secure backing from Kenya for a long-awaited UN security force to combat the rampant gang unrest he requested over a year ago.

As of Thursday, Henry was believed to still be in Puerto Rico after making a stop there earlier in the week. His spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on Philippe’s harsh criticism.

The dangers facing Henry’s fractured government were underscored on Sunday when gangs launched a massive prison break, freeing thousands of inmates across the Port-au-Prince area. Authorities had no choice but to declare a sweeping “state of emergency” amid the spiraling lawlessness.

In an ominous sign, one of the released prisoners was Arnel Joseph, a powerful gang leader who immediately took to the airwaves after his escape to warn: “This will be the start of a civil war in Haiti.”

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Haiti’s Healthcare System “Near Collapse” On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Henry to support a political transition for Haiti, where the healthcare system is “near collapse” and thousands have been killed, kidnapped, raped or tortured by marauding gangs.

Schools remain closed across much of the country as raging violence prevents children from attending classes. Key roads and infrastructure have been blocked as gangs tighten their grip.

It was in this powder keg environment that Philippe leveled his blistering broadsides against Henry and reinforced his own political ambitions, including an audacious claim to the presidency itself.

“Yes! I’m going into politics,” the ex-coup leader declared when asked directly if he wanted to become president. “I was a senator, I’ve been elected by my people, I will go again in elections.”

Controversial Past, Unmistakeable Ambition Philippe is no stranger to controversy or claims of political legitimacy. He was one of the main leaders behind the 2004 overthrow of then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and made an unsuccessful run for the presidency himself in 2006.

In 2016, he won a Senate seat but was arrested and extradited to the United States before being sworn in – ultimately serving six years in U.S. prison for money laundering related to drug trafficking.

Deported back to Haiti last November after completing his sentence, Philippe has wasted little time getting back into the political fray. He has been crisscrossing the country rallying supporters and calling for the toppling of Henry’s administration.

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Despite his criminal record, Philippe remains defiant about his political future, citing examples of other world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chavez and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who were imprisoned but went on to take power.

“Mandela was in prison, Hugo Chavez was in prison, Lula was in prison…and so if my people believe and trust me, I will be their leader,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Denials of Gang Ties, Talk of Amnesty In its February report, the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime named Philippe as an important figure among Haiti’s “strongmen who straddle the line between vigilante leaders and political bosses, accumulating considerable power.”

While not denouncing the gangs outright, Philippe denied any deep connections to them and rejected allegations he was behind the escalating violence, which has killed hundreds.

“Who is worse? The one in the streets with the weapons or the ones in the office that call themselves prime ministers, president, ministers…that are stealing everything this country has?” he asked rhetorically.

He did, however, acknowledge that some gang members support his anti-government message. And in a move sure to raise eyebrows, Philippe suggested he would seek amnesty for gang leaders if he were to take power.

At recent public appearances, Philippe has been guarded by members of BSAP, an environmental police unit that analysts say has effectively become a paramilitary group. The former police chief claims these are simply individual agents drawn to his political platform who want to protect him.

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Seeking a New Power Dynamic with West More broadly, Philippe said he would seek to remake Haiti’s relationships with Western powers like the United States, France and Canada on a more equal footing – arguing that international backing for Henry’s government has been part of the problem.

“If Haiti is where it is now, it’s partly because of them,” he said. “We know we need their help, we know Haiti is a poor country, but at least we would like to receive this help with dignity.”

As for concerns raised by the escaped gang leader about an imminent civil war, Philippe dismissed the prospects: “No…I know the Americans who are deciding everything here will be wise enough to understand that Haitians want some kind of change.”

With his combative rhetoric and checkered past, Guy Philippe has clearly thrown his hat into Haiti’s roiling political arena at a time of extraordinary turmoil and fragility for the nation. Whether his presidential ambitions gain traction or meet the same futile end as his 2004 coup attempt remains to be seen.

But one thing is unmistakeable – the Haitian people‘s widespread yearning for decisive change and a path toward stability, security and self-determination. As one crisis after another befalls the struggling Caribbean nation, that desperation shows no signs of abating.

Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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