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What's driving the crisis in Haiti

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

President Biden went to Ottawa this past week to meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Their meetings focused on many of the big issues the two North American leaders usually talk about - immigration, countering China. But Biden and Trudeau also talked about the growing instability in Haiti. A new United Nations analysis estimates that nearly half of Haiti's 12 million residents are now experiencing high levels of acute hunger and will need urgent humanitarian assistance. The deepening crisis is being fueled by a lack of rainfall, skyrocketing inflation and, mostly, escalating gang violence. Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles has been covering this story and joins us now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: Let's just start with the basics. What is the current situation right now in Haiti's capital, Port au Prince?

CHARLES: The current situation is that you don't know when you're going to be the next victim. And we're talking about kidnappings, killings, rape. The gangs are monopolizing violence, and no one is immune - rich or poor. Every day, we're receiving reports of people having to flee their homes. This includes people who live in, you know, million-dollar homes in the mountains. The gangs are now taking control of not just 60% of the capital, as the U.N. said a few months ago, but, you know, the majority - even more of the capital is now under their control.

DETROW: What are some of the big-picture reasons why this power concentration has sped up, why this problem has grown so much worse?

CHARLES: You're looking at a country in deepening political turmoil. The president was assassinated July of 2021. No one has yet been held accountable. There have been arrests. There have been charges here in the United States. The case is still under, quote-unquote, "investigation" in Haiti, even though more than 40 people have been arrested. There's no elected officials. The last 10 elected officials in this country, their terms in office ended in January. So what you're seeing today in Haiti is just almost a perfect storm of, you know, all of the issues that have plagued this country since, you know, it ended dictatorship. Corruption, you know, poor governance, weak governance, nonexistent institutions - it's all coming to fruition. And the gangs have stepped into that power vacuum, and now they're wreaking havoc all over.

DETROW: And just to get the full context, remind us how bad the economy is and how bad inflation is right now.

CHARLES: Inflation is about 48%. You know, what does that mean in a country where the majority of people live on less than $2 a day? Everything is being imported. People can't even afford, you know, basics. The price of basic staples has gone up, like, 87% in some cases. Hunger is deepening. The United Nations said this week that you're now looking at almost half of the population just cannot find enough food to eat. Malnutrition is also a problem. And, of course, there's a deadly cholera outbreak. And why is there this outbreak? Because people don't have access to potable water. Why don't they have access to potable water? Because the gangs are preventing water trucks from getting access to basic neighborhoods.

So even in terms of the humanitarian aid, they are on the ground. The agencies have been doing their best to get food and water and other aid to people. But it's been very difficult. We've had - hospitals just in the last couple of weeks have announced that they've had to close their doors because outside sounds like a war zone. And we're talking about Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders. Their reputation is that they work in war zones, and they're telling you that the situation is so bad in Haiti that they can't even keep their doors open.

DETROW: How is this current crisis different than the many previous ones that Haiti has faced? And what are people talking about as a possible solution? I mean, there's this conversation of some sort of foreign intervention in one way or another. Would that solve the problem? Would that begin to solve the problem?

CHARLES: Well, this crisis is unprecedented. You know, the last time there was a president that was killed in Haiti was a century ago. And the response was the United States, you know, moved into Haiti and occupied the country for 19 years. That history is also playing itself out here, and it's also shaping the way that people view this idea of another possible foreign, you know, intervention. We've seen that the U.S. had talked about supporting a multilateral force into Haiti. They wanted Canada to lead this operation. They didn't want it to be a United Nations operation because Haiti's had eight U.N. peacekeeping missions in about 30 years. Canada does not seem poised to do that. And so the focus is now shift by the Biden administration to now - they're once again looking at a peacekeeping operation.

DETROW: And how's that going over? Because, as you said, that has happened over and over and over again with often limited or no results.

CHARLES: You know, where people stand on the issue of foreign assistance really depends on physically where they stand. I think for Haitians who are living in the United States, this idea of foreign peacekeepers or foreign troops on the ground in Haiti, a country they think of as a sovereign country, it is not something that they're open to. But for the individuals that are there on the ground that have to worry about their children being raped or, you know, being kidnapped in schools because the gangs are now kidnapping kids in school - they just want help. They don't have a lot of faith in the police, and they realize that the police cannot battle the gangs on their own. And so, you know, the international community, you know, really has a huge task in front of it.

But you know what observers on the ground are saying that it cannot just be a SWAT mission that responds to the violence. It has to be something that's holistic that deals with, why is there the violence? You know, this is a country with serious inequality, deep poverty. How do you address those issues that are leading people into gangs and that are leading people to think that it's OK to do kidnappings, it's OK to kill? And let's also be clear is that the police are being outgunned by gangs who are heavily armed, and those weapons are coming from the United States. So that's also a huge issue in terms of this is a country with a U.S. arms embargo. How is it that gangs are getting access to guns, high-caliber weapons and ammunition? What is being done to prevent that?

DETROW: Jacqueline Charles with Miami Herald, thanks so much.

CHARLES: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.