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Gangs rule much of Haiti. For many, it means no fuel, no power, no food

  • Natalie Kitroeff and Maria Abi-Habib, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-10-28 08:55:05 BdST

Gangs blocking Haiti’s ports, choking off fuel shipments. Hospitals on the verge of shutting down as generators run dry, risking the lives of hundreds of children. Cellphone towers going without power, leaving swaths of the country isolated. And an acute hunger crisis growing more severe each day.

After a presidential assassination, an earthquake and a tropical storm, a new crisis is gripping Haiti: A severe fuel shortage is pushing the nation to the brink of collapse because gangs, not the government, rule about half of the nation’s capital.

With gangs holding up fuel trucks at will, truck drivers have refused to go to work, setting off a nationwide strike by transportation workers and paralyzing a nation dependent on generators for much of its power.

It is just the latest reflection of the security vacuum that has enveloped Haiti, where 16 Americans and one Canadian with an American missionary group were kidnapped this month by a gang demanding a $17 million ransom. Authorities know where the hostages are being held — but can’t enter the gang-controlled neighbourhood because the police are so outmatched.

In a stark demonstration of how common kidnappings are, a Haitian American pastor was recently abducted and released Monday. Even worse, human rights activists say, the country’s justice minister is accused of colluding with a gang to kidnap the pastor — an extreme example of the government’s role in the country’s violent decline.

“I hope for a better Haiti, but I know it won’t get better,” said Rousleau Desrosiers, watching his newborn breathe with the help of machines at a hospital whose generator is just days from running out of fuel. “Haiti only goes backward. The only gear we have is reverse.”

In a news conference Tuesday, Jimmy Cherizier, one of the country’s most feared gang leaders, acknowledged that his criminal network was blocking the delivery of fuel. His intention, Cherizier said, was not to hurt ordinary people, but to put pressure on Haiti’s political and business elite and push for the prime minister’s resignation.

But the fuel shortage is already playing out in the cruellest ways among the most vulnerable Haitians.

A week ago, Desrosiers, the newborn’s father, ran out of gas to operate his motorcycle taxi. Within days, he and his pregnant wife had run out of food. Then on Sunday, his wife delivered their son, a month early and in need of specialized care that the birth hospital did not offer.

Desrosiers shuttled his newborn to five hospitals before reaching one that took him in: St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, Haiti’s main paediatric care facility.

“I’m worried,” Desrosiers said of his son, whose tiny nostrils are filled with oxygen tubes that sustain his belaboured breaths. A heat lamp warmed the child’s palm-sized frame. “He isn’t breathing properly.”

The hospital’s generators have only enough fuel to last until Friday. Without more, the machines sustaining the child’s life will stop running and the entire hospital will have to shut down.

Doctors and nurses have run out of fuel for their cars and the few taxis that remain on the streets have become too expensive, so the hospital is using ambulances to bring staff members to work and buying mattresses so they can sleep on the floor. To save fuel, staff members are shutting off the lights as often as possible.

“It’s chaos for Haiti,” said Jacqueline Gautier, the hospital’s chief executive.

During his news conference, the gang leader, Cherizier, said that “as a responsible leader and one who loves this country,” he was going to allow gas to reach hospitals.

We “come from the people who are worse off and disfavored,” he said in the tone of a statesman, hinting at his broader political ambitions in a country where suspected drug dealers fill the seats of Parliament. “We are looking to see how we can open a path so that the fuel could be delivered to hospitals.”

Stoking class tensions, Cherizier called on Haitians to turn on the business and political elite, calling them “hoodlums.”

In many countries, a fuel shortage would mean transportation is disrupted. In Haiti, where the electrical grid is unreliable, all the services and institutions that keep the country running — banks, hospitals, cell towers, businesses — get their power from generators, said Maarten Boute, the chief executive of Digicel Haiti, the country’s largest mobile and broadband network provider.

Without fuel, “everything just shuts down,” Boute said, adding that 1 in 4 Digicel cellular towers are out, without fuel to operate.

The government tried to lift the strike by offering money to transportation unions, but they refused. What they need, several union leaders said, is for officials to reestablish control over the slum neighbourhoods surrounding the seaports in Port-au-Prince, the capital, where the gangs are most powerful, with access to guns, motorcycles — and fuel — the police don’t have.

“We need police presence,” said Marc André Deriphonse, who leads the National Association of Gas Station Owners and has recently met with the defence minister.

Deriphonse, who also runs a fuel transportation fleet, says he will not send his drivers back to the port until the government ensures 24-hour law enforcement along the route. “There’s no authorities in those areas.”

The fuel crisis is playing out across Haiti, with residents of far-flung towns surrounding vehicles as they drive through and insisting on siphoning off fuel from the tanks before letting them continue. In the north of the country, a crowd of villagers attacked a fuel truck and forced the driver to divert a portion of his haul into large drums.

The crisis has crippled everyone’s ability to work and live. Gas stations have been boarded up for weeks. When owners show up at the stations, riots often break out among residents who are convinced the stations are hoarding fuel.

David Turnier, the president of Haiti’s National Association of Petroleum Products Distributors, normally gets 35,000 gallons of gas, diesel and kerosene a week for the stations he owns in Port-au-Prince. He received 9,000 gallons for the entire month of October.

“Those guys are saying, ‘That’s it — we aren’t going to risk our lives pulling the gas out,’ ” he said of the truck drivers. “People are running on fumes.”

The streets of the capital emptied out this week, with public transportation grinding to a halt and most private taxis running out of fuel. Bank branches closed as tellers were unable to get to work. Hotels began shutting down or cutting air conditioning to save power. Major grocery stores closed in the capital, unable to keep meat fresh. On Tuesday, the head of Haiti’s national ambulance centre said the fuel shortage meant only 30 of the country’s 90 ambulances were operating.

The government’s withering authority is a consequence of its own shortsighted strategy to use gangs to achieve its objectives, human rights advocates say.

This month, Pastor Jean Ferrer Michel had parked outside of his church when armed, masked men jumped out of a Justice Ministry vehicle and bundled him away, his daughter, Farah Michel, said. He was later handed over to a gang and was released only Monday evening after his family paid multiple ransoms.

Human rights organizations have accused Justice Minister Liszt Quitel of using both government resources and a Haitian gang to kidnap the pastor after a personal dispute.

“The car that kidnapped him came from the Ministry of Justice, and that is all I can say,” said Michel, the pastor’s daughter. “If the Justice Ministry has something to do with this, that is between them, God and their mothers.”

Her family is under threat, she said, and planning to leave Haiti soon.

“You can’t raise a kid in this atmosphere, you can’t give birth, go to a job, raise a family,” she said. “It’s a real nightmare. You’re not sleeping, but you’re in a nightmare.”

The justice minister, Quitel, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but he denied the allegations to a local radio station.

In the emergency room at St Damien hospital, the mothers, cousins and grandmothers of patients are spending the night together on blue armchairs because there’s no way to get home. Even there, they are going hungry, with the fuel shortage driving up the cost of food.

Of Haiti’s 11 million people, 4.4 million need food assistance, according to the United Nations.

Sylvania Pierre, 53, watched over three malnourished grandchildren, and their mother, in the hospital.

“The prices are going up like stairs,” Pierre said, reaching over a hospital bed to straighten her 1-year-old granddaughter’s dress. “We don’t have money to buy milk.”

Across the room, Desrosiers rested his hand over his newborn in a kind of embrace, trying to shush the child’s crying and soothe the boy to sleep.

“I would hope,” Desrosiers said, gazing at his son, “that his future doesn’t go the way my future is going.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company