Gangs have taken over entire neighborhoods in Haiti’s capital, and killings have more than doubled in the past year, but for the organizers of the Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival, the show simply had to go on.
So while judges an ocean away deliberated whether to send a contingent of officers to pacify Haiti’s violence-riddled streets, festival organizers made do by shortening the length of the event to four days from eight, moving the acts from a public stage to a restricted hotel venue and replacing the handful of artists who canceled.
As 11.5 million Haitians struggle to feed their families and ride the bus or go to work because they fear becoming the victims of gunmen or kidnappers, they also are pushing forward, struggling to reclaim a safe sense of routine — whether or not that comes with the assistance of international soldiers.
“We need something normal,” said Miléna Sandler, the executive director of the Haiti Jazz Foundation, whose festival is taking place this weekend in Port-au-Prince, the capital. “We need elections.”
A Kenyan court on Friday blocked a plan to deploy 1,000 Kenyan police officers to Haiti, the key element of a multinational force meant to help stabilize a nation besieged by murders, kidnappings and gang violence.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has sunk deeper into turmoil in the nearly three years since the president was assassinated. The terms of all mayors in the country ended almost four years ago, and the prime minister is deeply unpopular largely because he was appointed, not elected, and has been unable to restore order.
With the deployment plan backed by the United Nations and largely funded by the United States on hold, Haitians are left asking: What now?
Kenya’s government said it would appeal the court’s ruling, but it was unclear if or when its mission would proceed. And with no other nation, including the United States and Canada, showing any willingness to lead an international force, there is no apparent Plan B.
So for many Haitians, the Kenyan court decision has left it up to the Caribbean country to come up with its own solutions. If the court ruling suggested anything, experts say, it was that if there is any hope of preventing Haiti from complete state collapse, its government, police force, Parliament and other institutions must be rebuilt.
“We no longer want to be a colony of the United States,” said Monique Clesca, a women’s and democracy activist who was a member of the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, a group that tried to come up with a plan to address the country’s problems. “That does not mean we do not want help. It means it must be negotiated with people who are legitimate and have the best interest of Haiti at heart.”
Ms. Clesca, a former United Nations official, said she hoped that the Kenyan court’s decision would lead the United States, Canada and France — countries that have long been deeply intertwined with Haiti — to rethink their policies.
She criticized the Biden administration and the leaders of other countries for supporting Haiti’s current prime minister, Ariel Henry, who took office after the 2021 murder of President Jovenel Moïse.
The commission she worked on came up with extensive proposals for an interim government that would set the stage for elections, but its work has been dismissed in favor of supporting Mr. Henry, who has pushed for international intervention, she said.
As a personal act of resistance and a sign that Haiti must march forward, Ms. Clesca braced herself against the unsafe streets and on Thursday attended the jazz festival.
“The place was packed,” she said.
Jean-Junior Joseph, a spokesman for Haiti’s prime minister, declined to comment on the Kenyan court decision, except to say that Mr. Henry was “pursuing a diplomatic approach.”
A spokesman for the United Nations, Stéphane Dujarric, stressed that Secretary General António Guterres had not picked Kenya to provide police aid — Kenya, instead, had stepped forward.
“We thank them for doing so when so many countries are not stepping forward,” Mr. Dujarric said. “The need for this multinational force authorized by the Security Council remains extremely high. We need urgent action, we need urgent funding, and we hope that member states will continue to do their part and then some.”
In Washington, John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, reminded reporters that the Kenyan government was appealing the court ruling.
“We’re still very grateful for the government of Kenya’s willingness to participate,” he said. “We still think that’s really important because the gangs and the thugs and the criminals are still causing a lot of chaos, mayhem, killing, violence, and the people of Haiti deserve a whole lot better than that.”
While Washington was a strong proponent of the Kenya mission, it did not offer to provide any American personnel.
The U.S. government did pledge $200 million for the multinational mission, money that many Haitians say could instead bolster Haitian institutions, including the police, which has seen at least 3,000 of its 15,000 officers abandon their jobs in the past two years.
The U.S. State Department has already directed about $185 million to the Haitian National Police, which has helped finance equipment, but the force remains vastly ill prepared to take on the heavily armed gangs.
“Should we wait endlessly for a force to arrive?” said Lionel Lazarre, who runs one of Haiti’s two police unions. “No! We already have a police force.”
Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University who follows Haiti closely, said that without international intervention, a more strategic policy by the United States and a long overdue and seemingly impossible strengthening of the Haitian state, a less favorable option was probably the most likely: the rise of someone like Guy Philippe, a former police commander who led a coup in 2004 in Haiti and has recently been trying to mobilize people against the government.
Mr. Philippe arrived in Haiti in November after serving prison time in the United States and being deported. He has known ties to drug traffickers and has allied himself with a paramilitary group in northern Haiti, but it is unclear whether he has the popular support and financial backing to lead the “revolution” that he has been publicly calling for.
“Somebody has to take some leadership,” Mr. Gamarra said, adding that preferably, it would not be Mr. Philippe.
Ashley Laraque, a leader of the Haitian Military Association, a veterans’ group, said he believed that Kenya would eventually come through, but that Kenya’s government would probably require more financial incentives.
“I’m sure the Kenyan government will send the troops,” Mr. Laraque said. “I don’t know when, but I’m sure it will happen as soon as this money matter is resolved.”
Joseph Lambert, the former president of the Haitian Senate, said the need was critical.
“It is time, more than ever, to understand that we must at all costs strengthen our capacity both at the level of the police and at the level of the armed forces of Haiti,” he said, “so that, as a sovereign state, we can meet our security needs from our own security forces.”
Though Haiti has a history of disastrous outside interventions, Judes Jonathas, a consultant who works on development projects in the country, said many Haitians were disappointed by the court decision because, more than anything, they long for the safety such a contingent of police officers could deliver.
“If you ask people in Haiti what they need, it’s security,” he said. “They don’t think about food or school. We don’t have food, because of security. People don’t go to school, because of security.”
In fact, there are neighborhoods with no cooking gas because gangs have blocked main thoroughfares. Farmers in rural areas often find it too dangerous to sell their goods in city markets. Even the national electric company had to move its employees out of its headquarters because of nearby gang activity.
Gangs have such a chokehold on Port-au-Prince that they sometimes kidnap busloads of passengers and demand ransom.
The gangs, Mr. Jonathas said, had grown emboldened in the face of the government’s inability to confront them in any significant way, and the legal roadblock to an international deployment had left Haitians to fend for themselves.
“I don’t really think the international actors really understand what is happening in Haiti,” he said. “We just don’t see a future.”
Farnaz Fassihi and Andre Paultre contributed reporting.