Haiti prime minister names new cabinet as armed gangs challenge his rule

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After four months and weeks of speculation, Haiti has a new ministerial cabinet taking charge of its day-to-day governance amid an alarming spike in violent clashes by gangs who are abducting people for ransom, blocking fuel distribution and carrying out attacks on neighborhoods.

Interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, the 73-year-old who took charge of the country following a power struggle after the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, on Wednesday installed a new cabinet.

Along with tackling the country’s widening insecurity, the new cabinet faces a litany of challenges — from restoring the state’s authority to deciding on raising taxes and removing fuel subsidies in order to better serve the population.

Ministers, he said, will also need to help prepare the country to adopt a new constitution and elect a new president, parliament and local mayors.

“It is an ambitious and difficult challenge, given the climate of insecurity that some have chosen to reign in various corners of the territory,” Henry said. “Our country is experiencing a difficult situation. By saying this I don’t want to panic anyone. But it is up to us to understand the complexity of the situation if we want to make the right decisions together.”

The new ministers include some familiar faces like former Education Minister Nesmy Manigat and Health Minister Alix Larsen, who will once more resume the roles they previously held in other administrations, and new faces like Justice Minister Berto Dorcé. Henry also replaced Foreign Minister Claude Joseph with Jean Victor Géneus, a former Haiti ambassador to the Bahamas.

“With the installation of a new government, we are entering a decisive new stage in the interim period,” he said. “One of the main tasks of this government is to create a safe and stable environment, conducive to the organization of popular consultations for the adoption of a new constitution and the choice of new elected leaders who will have to manage our country both nationally and locally.”

The list released by Henry consists of only eight new changes in the 18-member cabinet, leaving some to speculate that two months after the signing of a political pact between Henry, political parties and other organizations, he still has not fully found a consensus on who should be in his interim government.

He hinted as much during Wednesday’s installation ceremony. Henry said that while some have found that he spent too much time in his search for a consensus in order to name a new cabinet, he continues to believe that the rescue of Haiti requires an approach that is as inclusive as possible.

“I have not yet succeeded in convincing everyone, but I do not despair in being able to make one another understand the urgent need to join this common front against insecurity, corruption, misery and the recovery of our country,” he said.

The formation of the new cabinet had been a source of intense negotiations, with members of the radical opposition known as the Democratic and Popular Sector writing to Henry on Wednesday morning requesting to see the configuration of the new ministerial cabinet before its official publication in the country’s gazette. The group, which had agreed to support Henry’s Sept. 11 political agreement, reminded him that they would not participate “in a government dominated by those who have destroyed the country for the past ten years.”

The reference was related to supporters of Moïse and former President Michel Martelly and their Haitian Tèt Kale Party, or PHTK as it’s known, which made up the bulk of Henry’s previous cabinet.

In reference to his political accord, Henry said, “this agreement is not an agreement between friends, but the result of a compromise between compatriots who only yesterday fought each other and who understood, that the salvation of our country required of them a lot of self-sacrifice and a real going beyond their group interests.“

A neurosurgeon, Henry has faced a rash of criticism as armed gangs challenge his rule amid a worsening economic and political crisis that has pushed the country to the brink of complete collapse. The catastrophic situation has forced those with means to flee to the neighboring Dominican Republic and those without to take to the high seas.

In response to the continual uncertainty, widespread insecurity and recent fuel shortage, citizens of both Canada and the United States have been urged to leave. The warnings come as 14 Americans and a Canadian remain hostages after being abducted at gunpoint on Oct. 16 by an armed gang east of Port-au-Prince.

Insecurity ‘unbearable’

On Sunday, two of the hostages, who are missionaries with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, were released on humanitarian grounds after one of them fell ill. But the others remain in captivity more than a month later.

In a statement, the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières called the insecurity in Port-au-Prince “unbearbale.”

The armed clashes and attacks on neighborhoods that are ongoing have led to people being gunned down, and homes being pillaged and burned. A recent fuel shortage brought about by gang tensions over the port led to reduced access to healthcare, and the closure of schools, businesses and even hospitals. At least 19,000 Haitians have been displaced by the violence and armed clashes since June, the United Nations has said.

“There are currently about eight informal displacement sites in Port-au-Prince in schools, stadiums and churches. The unsanitary conditions and overcrowding in these sites pose significant risks to people’s physical and mental health and increase existing vulnerabilities,” MSF said. “Some women and girls have reported sexual violence, harassment and physical violence in the sites, where they lack privacy and safe spaces.”

Despite its own efforts to provide potable water and health services through mobile clinics, there is an urgent need, the medical aid group said, for more humanitarian support to displaced people, including food, water, sanitation services and permanent shelter.

Elections still in doubt

The multiple crises have raised questions about whether Henry, who was named by Moïse before his death,

will be able to usher in a new constitution and general elections next year as promised. Moïse’s presidential mandate, according to the U.S. and others in the international community, ends on Feb. 7, 2022. Without presidential elections taking place by then, the date will pose new questions about fate of the government in place.

Among Henry’s most vocal critics are members of civil society who support an alternative road map for getting Haiti out of its current crisis. Under their competing proposal, Haiti would enter into a two-year transition with a National Transitional Council overseeing the selection of a president and prime minister on the basis of certain criteria.

The council would be made up of representatives of different social and political sectors such as women and peasant organizations, human rights and private organizations, to name a few. Widely known as the Montana agreement after it was signed at the Montana hotel on Aug. 30, it has the backing of at least 40 political parties and more than 300 civil society organizations, and some members of the U.S. Congress.

Inviting all sectors, including those who have so far shunned his Sept. 11 accord, “to rally around the government so that together” they can curb insecurity, Henry said, “If there is one issue on which we can find national consensus, it is the need to restore order and security.”

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