A man pushes a wheelbarrow near burning tires during a day of protest after the deaths of six police officers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 27, 2023.

A man pushes a wheelbarrow near burning tires during a day of protest after the deaths of six police officers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 27, 2023. (Richard Pierrin/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Tribune News Service) — Three weeks after seven police officers were killed in a single attack on a rural police station in Haiti's Artibonite Valley, the repercussions are still being felt.

The latest casualty: the region's main health care facility.

Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, which serves more than 700,000 people in the Artibonite Valley and Central Plateau regions, has suspended operations and implemented an emergency plan where it only accepts life-saving emergency cases.

"For the past 67 years, our hospital has weathered many challenges in Haiti and through it all we have never, ever had to close our doors. But today we face a truly unprecedented challenge, and without a security force soon, we may indeed have to close our doors and suspend our operations," Jean Marc deMatteis, the hospital's chief executive officer, told the Miami Herald.

The rising gang violence and kidnappings, which have now spread into even rural communities in the rice-growing Artibonite Valley just north of the capital, is crippling day-to-day healthcare operations. Two police stations, one in the town of Verettes and the other in Liancourt, where the deadly attacks occurred on Jan. 25, have been abandoned and have no police presence. As a result, armed gangs are roaming the streets, forcing the hospital to discharge any of its 140 hospitalized patients, because there are no other facilities to take them and roads are unsafe and blocked. Even workers have now been forced to sleep in the facility.

"Haiti has always been a challenging place to operate, but since the assassination of the country's president in 2021, the situation has continued to spiral and it is now completely out of control. Local authorities just do not have the capacity to restore order," deMatteis said. "Basic security needs to be restored and humanitarian corridors established in order to be able to serve the most vulnerable."

Haiti's widespread gang violence continues as Caribbean leaders gather in the Bahamas for their 44th summit that began Wednesday. The deteriorating situation in Haiti, a member state of the Caribbean Community regional grouping, will be among the leading discussion items.

The three-day gathering, which brings together heads of government from the 15 countries that comprise CARICOM, will be attended by Haiti's prime minister; Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and other State Department officials, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau has been asked by the Biden administration to lead a multinational force into Haiti to help the country's beleaguered police force take on gangs.

So far, the Ottawa government has not said if it will, and the United States has said it doesn't want to lead the force. That leaves a frustrated Haitian police force, which has lost at least 78 officers, mostly in gang ambushes, since the J uly 7, 2021, assassination of the country's president, Jovenel Moïse.

In response to the gang attacks, police recently rioted in the capital and several other regions, and lately they have been flocking to passport offices in hopes of benefiting from a new humanitarian parole program launched by the Biden administration for nationals of Haiti and three other countries with a financial sponsor in the United States.

"What we in CARICOM have come to appreciate is that we do not have the resources to be able to deal with the Haiti problem ourselves, and we do need outside help," Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis said during a Tuesday press conference ahead of the summit in Nassau. "We're looking to the north, Canada, and the United States to come to the fore to help."

Trudeau's presence, Davis said, is to discuss "the role they may be able to play" in the unfolding Haitian crisis.

During Wednesday's opening ceremony, where Trudeau was present along with top Biden administration officials, Davis said "the crisis of Haiti requires our urgent attention." He said he hopes that leaders present can agree on a series of concrete steps to help the volatile Caribbean nation.

'We all benefit if Haiti is again a functioning state," Davis said, noting that the international community's past mistakes in Haiti should not be an excuse for doing nothing to do nothing. "Inaction has its costs and consequences."

Haitians remain divided on the question of foreign intervention, even as kidnappings and violence spike. While politicians and civil society leaders have been outspoken in their opposition to foreign troops, a recent poll by the Alliance for Risk Management and Business Continuity, known by its French acronym AGERCA, suggests that the opinion isn't shared by the larger population.

The poll of 5,736 Haitians across the country's 10 regional departments revealed that more than 70% of Haitians do not believe the Haiti National Police can assure security or disarm gangs. Meanwhile, 69% of those polled were in favor of the deployment of an international force, and a majority also felt that the police would benefit from such a force.

Gerard Laborde, the president of AGERCA, said while he wasn't surprised by the results, he was taken aback at the high percent of Haitians in rural areas who support the notion of an foreign troops. It shows, he said, that the country's security challenges aren't just being felt in Port-au-Prince, the capital.

"This poll reflects the reality," he said. "The reality is gangs and armed groups are everywhere."

He fears that without outside help, the country will soon see the birth of private militias as the violence overwhelms Haitians.

Jamaica earlier this month announced its willingness to participate in an international force, joining two other Caribbean nations and some African countries that have also privately expressed similar interests. Still, the U.S., which authored a resolution at the United Nations Security Council supporting a deployment of foreign troops under the U.N. umbrella, would like to see a larger nation also step up to take the lead.

Observers say there are a number of reasons countries, including Canada, continue to be reluctant to participate. One is the perception of foreign intervention in Haiti, which has a controversial history with such troops. And two, there are domestic implications for nations involved, given the seriousness and chaotic nature of the gang violence in Haiti.

There is also the ongoing political reality in Haiti, where there is not one elected official in office and the country is being run by an interim government. Despite welcoming a three-member council to lead a transition, the U.S. and others are calling on Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry to broaden the December political agreement that put the council in place to include more political and civil-society participants.

"It has to be a Haitian solution, not an American, Canadian or CARICOM solution," Davis said about whatever decision the international community makes to help Haiti.

Davis, who recently pulled his country's diplomats out of Haiti after they found themselves in a confrontation with protesting police officers, acknowledged that "the instability that continues to persist doesn't make anyone feel safe to be in Haiti."

In addition to Haiti, Caribbean leaders will discuss climate change, the deepening hunger problem in the region and the continued fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. They will also discuss U.S.-Caribbean relations and will hear an address, via video, from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Last year CARICOM issued a statement strongly condemning Russia's military attacks and invasion of Ukraine.

©2023 Miami Herald.

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