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Haiti’s interim prime minister shares his vision to lift Haiti out of chaos

Portrait of the new Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille, during his interview with NPR at the Washington Hilton Hotel, in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
Cheriss May for NPR
Portrait of the new Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille, during his interview with NPR at the Washington Hilton Hotel, in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.

Criminal gangs control most of Haiti’s capital and it’s become the job of interim Prime Minister Garry Conille to take them on. Conille replaced Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was forced out in April when those gangs blocked him from returning to the country.

“Gangs control 80% of the capital but not only that, we have close to 600,000 displaced people, 45 percent food insecure, looking at cholera in parts of the country,” the new interim Prime Minister Conille told Morning Edition. “At the end of the day, this is 12,000 thugs that are holding 12 million people hostage.”

Conille is an experienced international aid officer. When he heard he’d been chosen for this role, he said he left his job as UNICEF regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean and returned to Haiti. Before that, he worked for other aid agencies mostly outside Haiti. He also briefly served as prime minister once before, in 2011 and 2012.

On May 28, he was chosen by a fragile alliance to lead the transitional council. His mandate is to lift the country out of its current chaos until elections for a new president can be held.

It will take work, but he says restoring security is possible because of the “resilience and commitment of the Haitian people.”

This week he was in Washington to meet U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken who assured him of additional U.S. assistance. Conille’s meetings come just days after the arrival of a Kenyan-led international police force charged with helping restore order to the violence-torn nation.

The interim prime minister sat down for an interview with NPR’s Leila Fadel in D.C. The following is an edited and condensed version of their exchange.

Leila Fadel: There is concern that the international community in Haiti is depending on a force that's accused of gross human rights violations within their own country:extrajudicial killings, killings of anti government protesters. Amnesty International has called on the U.S., Haiti and the international community to put safeguards in place so this doesn't happen to your people. Are those safeguards in place, and what are they? 

Garry Conille: There's a series of instruments that were in the process of finalizing with the Kenyan government to ensure that there is accountability and a certain level of oversight, including a desk that will be responsible for overseeing much of the operations.

The accompaniment that we're expecting from the forces is going to be in support of the Haitian National Police. we're hoping that that will limit to a certain extent the possibility of having these types of excesses that of course we all rightfully worry about.

Fadel:  Who's in charge of the multinational force, and how does that work? When you talk about accountability, will that be through the Haitian Police, the Haitian government, an international body? 

Conille: These are the things we're actually thinking through in a very careful and deliberate way. Obviously, the main purpose of the mission is to support the Haitian Police which will have the lead in most operations.

Fadel: Was this discussed with the Secretary of State?  

Conille: Yes, it was, among other things.

Fadel:  What was the main takeaway there?  Also with funding, I know there's $600 million needed for this year-long mission. Have you gotten what you need in terms of funding? 

Conille: What we got and we're very happy with is the commitment of the U.S. government to continue to support us and to continue to work with our other partners to make sure we have the resources we need to be effective.

Fadel: I've asked you multiple times about the Kenyan forces in part because of the history in Haiti at times where international intervention hasn't made things better.  Will it be different this time? 

Conille: There have certainly been shortfalls historically. My sense is we've learned from these lessons, and what we're trying to do now is make sure we don't make the same mistakes. This is why these forces will be more limited in scope. They're really here to work with [and] support the Haitian National Police.

Fadel: A part of the reason that Haiti is in this situation is because of the political class who depended on different gangs to go after their opponents. So, how do you dismantle the power these gangs have consolidated

Conille: Haiti will not be the first country to deal with excessive gangs. Jamaica in the 1970s and 80s. El Salvador, Colombia and so forth. We have quite a lot of good practices in terms of how we deal with these types of situations. And obviously, it requires an integrated and multisectoral approach, including of course a strong police force, but also reintegration, disarmament, other types of incentives, social programs.

Now the challenge has been of course that this gang expansion is happening in a moment where you have a fragile state with really weak institutions. We're concerned with the fact that anywhere between 40 to 50 percent of these gang members may be children, and obviously that will require a different course. And that factors in this specific situation. We feel quite confident that if we're given the means and the support from our different partners, we could actually make serious progress in terms of first containing and eventually dealing completely with them.

Fadel: Are the Haitian police up to the task? You talked about weakened institutions, that’s including the police. Are they up to this moment?

Conille: There is no doubt in my mind that you have a certain level of issues with some of our officers. But the reality is most of them work very hard and risk their lives every single day to protect the citizens of Haiti. And these are the ones that I'm anxious to work with and support. Obviously, as this moves forward, we will have to weed out and get rid of the bad brains. But I think it's untrue that the majority of our police officers are unreliable. That’s not what I'm seeing. They die every day trying to protect us.

Fadel: The transitional council you lead is mandated to hold elections in February 2026.  How do you deliver elections when there's no security, decimated infrastructure and Haitians who are really just trying to survive the day rather than thinking about the future? 

Conille: We think we can mobilize the population around solutions that make sense. We're hoping to have very serious gains in terms of security very quickly. But please do remember that two thirds of the country, close to 10 million Haitians, live in these circumstances that are relatively peaceful. And these Haitians also are deserving of elections. They're deserving of good governance.

Fadel: And what do you say to the Haitian population who had lost faith in the political leadership of [former Prime Minister] Ariel Henry? And in part that created an opening for what happened.  I know you were Prime Minister before [a little over]10 years ago. You take it on at a very different time. What do you say to them about your leadership and the path forward? 

Conille: I would argue that not just me, but we've been able to mobilize some incredible men and women that have left very secure jobs to risk their lives, to be able to move us forward. For the first time, we have this detente and relationship between the different political parties that have agreed to this transitional process. Key to the success of this, because you're right in saying that this is a population that's lost trust in its leadership, is to manage its expectations. It's to be extremely transparent on what we think we can achieve. Communication is going to be a key part of keeping them involved and engaged and understanding what the challenges and the opportunities are going to be. And making sure that we're a reliable partner to them in this effort to return to some level of security.

Fadel: So you can't really make any promises as to when?

Conille: No, but soon. We can say soon. And we hope that they will see our commitment. They'll feel the hard work and they'll begin to see progress in several different ways. So that that will help build confidence.

Fadel: I heard you talk about the risk you and others are taking in going into this position.  I do want to ask why. I mean the list of what you have to accomplish, it can feel overwhelming, I imagine. Why did you take this risk, leave a secure job and do this? 

Conille: My wife and my daughter have asked me the same question every day, But it is that time and it's a small price to pay. Most of what we have and who we are is because of the sacrifice of these Haitian people. It's time to pay back.

Fadel:  I see you getting emotional. 

Conille: It's been quite unfair that for decades, the Haitian people had not had leadership that reflects their courage, that reflects their generosity and certainly their commitment to hard work and change. And so it's a very, very small price for us to pay today, to give a little bit back to a community that suffered so much. So when the time came, there was very little hesitation for us to do this. It's not only a decision I made; It's a decision that several others that are in government with us right now have also made. We think this is a critical moment for us in our history where we need to come together, and we're ready to do it.

The audio version of this interview was produced by Milton Guevara and edited for digital by Majd Al-Waheidi.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.