OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants European nations to join Canada in sanctioning Haiti’s elites over alleged ties to the violent gangs paralyzing that country.
He also says Canada must avoid some of its past mistakes as it responds to a request from Haiti’s unpopular government for a foreign military intervention.
“We’ve had a long history in Haiti and we still find ourselves, 30 years later, in a crisis as grave if not worse than the others,” Trudeau said in French Monday during a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.
“We are leading the United States, and maybe even Europe, to bring about their own sanctions, too.”
Haiti has experienced numerous invasions and foreign-military interventions over the decades, including six United Nations operations since the 1990s. One of those lasted 13 years, ending in 2017 with a cholera epidemic brought by UN peacekeepers.
Now, the country is embroiled in even worse chaos.
Haiti has not held elections since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Ariel Henry stepped in as president after the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise.
Instability in the country has allowed violent, feuding gangs to take control of critical infrastructure and the capital of Port-au-Prince.
That has led to power and water outages, brazen massacres and a cholera outbreak.
Henry’s government has asked for a foreign military intervention to create a humanitarian corridor, a move endorsed by the United Nations Secretary-General. United States officials namechecked Canada as a possible lead for such a mission earlier this year.
The International Crisis Group says the idea could stop the violence, but many in Haiti’s political opposition have pushed back. They argue that it would only lead to more chaos and entrench the rule of Henry, whose leadership they question on constitutional grounds.
Trudeau said Canada hasn’t closed the door on being part of a military intervention, or even leading one. But he said Ottawa has sanctioned a dozen high-ranking Haitian politicians and business leaders in an attempt to bring about lasting change.
“We haven’t taken anything off the table, but with 30 years of experience in Haiti, we know very well that there are enormous challenges when it comes to any intervention,” he said in French.
“It’s clear that our approach must change this time, and that’s why (there are) the sanctions we’ve placed.”
A way forward would involve not only a consensus among Haiti’s political players, but also buy-in from Caribbean neighbours and even parts of South America, so that whatever takes place isn’t seen as the West yet again meddling in Haiti.
“We know how much making mistakes or doing the wrong thing could worsen the situation, and put many people at risk,” Trudeau said in French.
“We remain fully involved, but we know that finding the right solution is what people need.”
Trudeau said the idea behind the sanctions is to try bringing about a consensus by holding political elites accountable rather than pouring in resources that don’t lead to durable reforms.
Those resources haven’t always borne fruit.
For example, Canada has funded numerous projects aimed at training the Haitian National Police, including having RCMP officers instruct recruits. Yet the force has been largely ineffective at pushing back on gangs, one of which is led by Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a former HNP officer.
This fall, Ottawa’s sanctions on Haiti took the extraordinary step of listing the country’s recent presidents and prime ministers, including those from Henry’s political party.
“It may be a way to break this pattern, which has been there for a long time,” Trudeau said, describing a series of failures by Canada, the U.S., France, Europe and the United Nations.
“Our role is to see how we can help, and we can no longer be naive about this.”
In any case, Trudeau said Canada is ready to play a key role in whatever happens in Haiti.
“This is a challenge that is very close to our hearts, and there is a level of trust between the Haitian people and the government of Canada that they have less with other allies elsewhere,” he said in French.
“We recognize that we are going to have a leading role in this.”