PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haiti's government has agreed to request the help of international troops as gangs and protesters paralyze the country and supplies of water, fuel and basic goods dwindle, according to a document published Friday.
The document, signed by Prime Minister Ariel Henry and 18 top-ranking officials, states that they are alarmed by “the risk of a major humanitarian crisis” that is threatening the life of many people.
It authorizes Henry to request from international partners “the immediate deployment of a specialized armed force, in sufficient quantity," to stop the crisis across the country caused partly by the “criminal actions of armed gangs.”
“It is imperative to restart activities to avoid a complete asphyxiation of the national economy,” the document states.
It wasn’t clear if the request had been formally submitted, to whom it would be submitted and whether it would mean the activation of United Nations peacekeeping troops, whose mission ended five years ago after a troubled 11 years in Haiti.
On Friday, the U.S. Embassy warned that “U.S. citizens should depart Haiti now in light of the current health and security situation and infrastructure challenges.” It also authorized the temporary departure of government personnel and their families.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said earlier in the day that the U.S. is considering a request for a humanitarian corridor to restore the distribution of fuel within Haiti and coordinating with Haiti's prime minister and other international partners to determine how best to provide additional support.
“We strongly condemn those who continue to block the distribution of fuel and other necessities to Haitian businesses,” he said.
Patel would not address the issue of where the troops to enforce the corridor might come from, saying that consideration was still in an early stage.
The petition comes after Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, met Thursday with officials including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Haiti Foreign Affairs Minister Jean Victor Généus to talk about the country’s worsening situation.
Almagro tweeted late Thursday that Haiti “must request urgent assistance from the international community to help resolve security crises, determine the characteristics of an international security force.”
Many Haitians have rejected the idea of another international intervention, noting that U.N. peacekeepers were accused of sexual assault and sparked a cholera epidemic more than a decade ago that killed nearly 10,000 people.
“I don’t think Haiti needs another intervention,” said Mathias Pierre, Haiti’s former elections minister. “We have been through so many, and nothing has been solved .... If we don’t do it as Haitians, 10 years forward, we’re going to be in the same situation again.”
He called on the U.S. government to help reduce the amount of ammunition and guns flowing to Haiti and also to equip police officers so they have more weapons and the ability to run intelligence on gangs.
He also worried about the situation that an international security force would encounter.
“It’s not an army they’re facing,” he said. “They’re facing gangs located in poor areas and using the population as shields to protect themselves.”
Haiti’s National Police has struggled to control gangs with its limited resources and chronic understaffing, with only some 12,800 active officers for a country of more than 11 million people.
The gangs have only grown more powerful since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
As Henry's administration agreed on the request for foreign troops, his office issued a statement saying the prime minister had not resigned, rejecting what it called fake reports circling on social media that prompted hundreds of Haitians across the country to celebrate in the streets late Thursday.
“It is purely and simply strategies of fabrications, intoxication, orchestrated by ill-intentioned individuals, aiming to sow more trouble and confusion,” his office said.
Protesters and increasingly powerful gangs have helped plunge Haiti into an unprecedented level of chaos, with the country paralyzed for nearly a month after gangs surrounded a large fuel terminal in the capital of Port-au-Prince, refusing to budge until Henry steps down.
As a result, crews have been unable to distribute about 10 million gallons of diesel and gasoline and more than 800,000 gallons of kerosene stored on site.
Protesters also have blocked roads ever since Henry announced in early September that his administration could no longer afford to subsidize fuel, leading to sharp increases in the price of gasoline, diesel and kerosene.
The document signed by Henry and other officials stated that such actions are having “catastrophic consequences.”
Gas stations are shuttered, hospitals have cut back on critical services and businesses including banks and grocery stores have curtailed their hours.
On Wednesday, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Office in Haiti proposed a “humanitarian corridor” to allow fuel and aid to those in need. It noted the country is also dealing with a new cholera outbreak, with several deaths reported and dozens of patients being treated.
“The most vulnerable people are the first to suffer from the blockage,” the U.N. said.
At least 13 U.S. congressional leaders have demanded that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden stop showing that it is backing Henry and suspend all deportations “given the extreme physical security risks and dire humanitarian situation.”
It called on the U.S. government to support “legitimate efforts to create a transitional Haitian government that respects the will of the Haitian people, and should make it clear to Henry that it will not support him as he blocks progress.”
Henry has stressed that he has no interest in holding on to power and plans to organize general elections as soon as the violence quells.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.