US sends ship to patrol off Haiti in ‘sign of resolve’

The United States has sent a major Coast Guard vessel to patrol the waters near Port-au-Prince in a “sign of resolve” with the Haitian government as gang violence continues to grip the nation, and will impose new visa restrictions on Haitians involved in gang activity, the Biden administration said Wednesday.

But senior administration officials said it was “premature” to discuss a potential US troop presence in the country, despite a Haitian government request last week that international forces intervene to help break a gang blockade of the country’s largest fuel terminal, and provide assistance to contain a growing cholera outbreak.

“I think it’s premature to start thinking whether the United States is going to have a physical presence inside Haiti,” one senior administration official said.

READ MORE: In Haiti, factories close, school feedings are on hold and hunger is about to get worse

Two officials said that additional security and humanitarian assistance would soon be delivered to the Caribbean nation, including bleach, cholera kits and oral re-hydration salts needed to help stem an outbreak of cholera. But it remained unclear how that aid would move through the streets of Haiti’s capital, where gangs and angry protesters demanding the resignation of the prime minister have blocked roads, and the distribution of fuel has been disrupted now going on five weeks.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the new actions were taken “as Haiti faces a deadly resurgence of cholera, malignant actors continue to fund and foment violence, as well as block the supply of fuel and humanitarian access for life-saving assistance .”

“Right now, our staff are on the ground in Haiti, working alongside Haitian health workers and NGOs to respond to the cholera outbreak and deliver care to those who need it,” Blinken said. “We will accelerate the delivery of additional humanitarian relief to the people of Haiti. We are also working to increase and deploy in the coming days security assistance to the Haitian National Police to strengthen their capacity to counter gangs and re-establish a stable security environment under the rule of law.”

On Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Brian A. Nichols flew to Port-au-Prince with a US delegation that includes Defense Department and Southern Command officials. They will meet with Prime Minister Ariel Henry, along with members of Haiti’s private sector and a civil-society coalition known as the Montana Group that is seeking to lead a two-year transition in Haiti. The Montana Group has publicly come out in opposition to foreign intervention in Haiti, and accused Henry of issuing the request to remain in power.

READ MORE: If not the US, then who? Biden team says talk of US troop deployment to Haiti ‘premature’

Haiti’s latest crisis was ignited last month when the government announced a hike in fuel prices to reduce $400 million in subsidies as part of a reform package that also seeks to collect $600 million in undeclared customs duties. Both Haiti and other governments have said that economic interests upset by the decisions are responsible for the chaos in the streets.

“There are often political and economic actors that are linked to the gangs,” the senior administration official said.

The administration is looking at imposing sanctions on individuals in the near future, in addition to the visa restrictions announced Wednesday, the official said. “We’re going to be exploring other measures to make sure that we are holding those that are preventing the delivery of humanitarian assistance and risking the security of Haitian people.”

The United States is also preparing to introduce a resolution at the United Nations Security Council that would create a structure for international sanctions on individuals involved in gang activity.

And “as an additional sign of resolve and support for the people of Haiti, the US Coast Guard has deployed one of its major cutters to patrol offshore Port-au-Prince, Haiti, at the request of the Government of Haiti and in close coordination with the Department of State,” a National Security Council official told McClatchy and the Miami Herald.

Coast Guard ships often coordinate with their Haitian counterparts further off shore to the northwest of the country to curb the migration flow of Haitians seeking to come to the United States.

The Haitian government is asking for a specialized international strike force that can quickly respond and drive the gangs back. The UN secretary general has supported the request, asking the Security Council in a letter Sunday to support a rapid reaction force to secure a humanitarian corridor for the delivery of fuel, water and much needed medical supplies.

Cholera continues to spread in Haiti. Dr. Carissa Etienne, the head of the Pan American Health Organization, said Wednesday that Haiti has so far confirmed 32 cases and 18 deaths from cholera.

There are over 260 suspected cases still awaiting confirmation in the area surrounding Port-au-Prince. Nearly a quarter of these cases are among children between the ages of 1 and 4.

“Cholera has arrived amid serious ongoing social and political unrest in Haiti,” Etienne said. “These parallel challenges complicate efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and respond to this outbreak.”

Limited access to clean water is creating ideal conditions for the spread of cholera, which is passed on through contaminated water and food.

This story was originally published October 12, 2022 12:12 PM.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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Michael Wilner is McClatchy’s Senior National Security and White House Correspondent. A member of the White House team since 2019, he led coverage of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. Wilner previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post. He holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.

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