‘Overthrow the system’: Haiti gang leader Cherizier seeks revolution

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A powerful Haitian gang leader has rejected attempts by foreign nations for an electoral road map and a path to peace as the country plunges deeper into violent chaos and armed groups control most of the capital following the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

Regional leaders of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) held an emergency summit last week to discuss a framework for a political transition, which the United States had urged to be “expedited” as gangs wrought chaos in the capital, Port-au-Prince, amid repeatedly postponed elections.

“We’re not going to recognise the decisions that CARICOM takes,” Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a former police officer whose gang rules vast swaths of Port-au-Prince, told Al Jazeera. Rights groups have accused his gang alliance of committing atrocities, including killings and rape.

“I’m going to say to the traditional politicians that are sitting down with CARICOM, since they went with their families abroad, we who stayed in Haiti have to take the decisions,” Cherizier said, flanked by gang members wearing face masks, adding that he rejected plans for a transitional council made up of the country’s political parties.

“It’s not just people with guns who’ve damaged the country but the politicians too,” he added.

The United States and Caribbean nations have been pushing for the proposed council to appoint a new interim prime minister and lay a road map for elections.

Cherizier and his G9 Family and Allies gang alliance have been major contributors to years of escalating violence and political instability in Port-au-Prince.

They have blockaded fuel terminals, clashed with rival gangs and used violence to cement their grip on areas under their control, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee their homes.

Cherizier – who is under sanctions from the United Nations, US and other countries – has been at the centre of a new surge in unrest in Port-au-Prince as he called for Henry’s resignation.

In early March, Cherizier warned that Haiti faced the prospect of “civil war” if Henry did not step down.

There have been widespread looting and pitched street battles in Haiti following the resignation last week of the 74-year-old Henry – and no plan in place for what comes next. The US, which denied pressuring Henry to step aside, called for a “political transition”.

The Guatemalan and Salvadoran consulates were ransacked in Port-au-Prince along with hospitals as Henry’s office extended an overnight curfew to Sunday.

Haitian civil society leaders welcomed the resignation of Henry, an unelected leader who was named for the post in 2021 shortly before the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, as a long overdue step.

The prime minister was supposed to step down in February. He was effectively locked out of the country since the unrest spiralled, landing in Puerto Rico after being denied entry to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

The poorest country in the Western hemisphere has, for years, been saddled with corrupt leaders, and plagued by failed state institutions and violence wrought by rival armed groups.

Call for ‘revolution’

While some political groups are putting their names forward for the council, seeing it as a way out of Haiti’s current power vacuum, Cherizier said he wants a revolution.

“Now our fight will enter another phase – to overthrow the whole system, the system that is five percent of people who control 95 percent of the country’s wealth,” he told Al Jazeera.

According to Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, Cherizier likes to compare himself to historical figures like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or Cuba’s longtime President Fidel Castro.

“And he likes to say that he’s essentially a revolutionary … and he’s going to redistribute wealth,” Fatton told Al Jazeera this week.

While Cherizier has distributed some food and resources to people in areas under the control of his G9 gang, “that’s hardly a vision of the future or some sort of revolutionary [act]”, he added.

Once a transitional government is in place it could pave the way for a multinational police force on the ground in Haiti, funded by the US and Canada.

Kenya’s President William Ruto said his country would lead such a force, which Cherizier rejected.

“The presence of Kenyans in Haiti will be an irony because the same people who gave weapons to people in poor neighbourhoods to rise up against the former government, then lost control of those armed groups, are now appealing to a foreign force to save things,” he said.

“It is a mission that’s failed in advance – it’s a shame that William Ruto has to go in that direction.”

The UN has estimated that gangs currently control more than 80 percent of Port-au-Prince.

Reporting from the Dominican Republic, Al Jazeera’s John Holman said the two rival gangs – the G9 and G-PEP – have formed an alliance called Viva Ensemble to try and prevent foreign troops from entering Haiti.

“They know it would challenge them,” he said. “Haitians have suffered immensely at the gangs’ hands. But the power that they have accrued means that they have to be taken into account in what is a largely lawless state.”

Fatton noted that “it’s more that he [Cherizier] wants to control his turf,” and that those who have suffered the most from the continued gang violence in the Haitian capital are “the very, very poor people in the major slums”.

“Something like over 200,000 Haitians had to leave their houses. They had to move into really very poorly equipped camps,” Fatton said. “You have, in other words, a situation where the people who are suffering the most are the very poor, the very people that Barbecue says he wants to help.”

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