Wed. Jul 17th, 2024
Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier (Source: Screenshot - Sky News)

By Amalendu Misra, Lancaster University

A violent uprising in the Caribbean nation of Haiti has put the spotlight on the man leading the mayhem – a homicidal gang boss and former policeman called Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier.

Over the past two weeks, Haiti’s powerful gangs have plunged a country already on life support into a coma. More than 3,800 hardened criminals were broken out of Haiti’s two biggest jails, the country’s international airport has been partially taken over, and gangs have tried to seize the political quarter of its capital, Port-au-Prince.

Following the recent wave of violence, the country’s acting president, Ariel Henry, has agreed to step down once a transitional council has been created to run the country. Henry has become a pariah in Haitian politics. He is an unelected leader, taking power after Haiti’s president was assassinated in 2021, and has presided over the country’s economic freefall.

It is unclear how the current political crisis will be solved. But Chérizier has emerged from the armed insurrection as the most formidable leader in Haiti, and some suspect he may have political aspirations of his own.

He has claimed to be fighting a holy war of sorts for the soul of Haiti, delivering “it back into the hands of its chosen people, the everyday Haitian beat down by years of abuse, racism and corruption.”

However, there is one crucial question. Can Chérizier reinvent himself from a feared gangland boss to a legitimate political leader?

Haiti’s history is replete with political leaders with very dubious pasts, and the country’s citizens are used to their violent machinations. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a ruthless dictator who served as president of the country between 1957 and 1971, institutionalised gangs and made them a part of the everyday life of the Haitian people.

His personal militia, the Tonton Macoute, were given the license to kidnap, torture and kill thousands of their fellow Haitians during his brutal reign. Despite this, Papa Doc enjoyed an abundance of admiration and affection from those he lorded over with an iron fist. This was, in large part, because of his politics of patronage and unique brand of “grassroots” black nationalism.

Going by that antecedent, Chérizier is not an uncommon outsider. He may be a homicidal criminal, but he also enjoys a cult status in Port-au-Prince. Murals in the impoverished Haitian slums he rules as his private fiefdom liken him to the Argentine guerrilla leader, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In a country with a short supply of tall leaders, Chérizier is an outsize figure.

His alias, “Barbecue”, which he has earned due to his penchant for burning his opponents alive, has helped him build a “tough guy” image – an essential character trait for any aspiring leader in this violent country. The last political leader of Haiti of any significance, Papa Doc Duvalier, had this in plenty.

But unlike other contemporary gang leaders in Haiti, Chérizier is a man with a brain. He is articulate, aware and thinks big. Far from your traditional gang boss that exists in the twilight, he actively seeks out the limelight.

He likes giving interviews and goes the extra mile to impress the audience with his revolutionary political zeal. Over the past year, he has welcomed a succession of foreign reporters to the gang-controlled neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince in attempt to justify the uprising. According to Chérizier, his brand of violent street politics is very much in tune with the need of the hour.

Chérizier speaking to Al Jazeera about the crisis in Haiti.

Political acumen

The current political instability in Haiti has largely been manufactured by Chérizier and the gangs he leads as a cleverly thought-out survival strategy. But it is also couched in an astute reading of the Haitian national sentiment and popular mood.

In 2023, the UN security council approved the deployment of a Kenyan-led multinational peacekeeping force to Haiti to reign in the gangs and their spiralling violence. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, stressed that a “robust use of force” is needed to disarm the gangs and restore order. However, the mission has subsequently stalled.

Such an intervention would in all likelihood severely undermine the power of Haiti’s gangs. So, on the one hand, Chérizier’s decision to stir up a political uprising can be seen as a planned strategy to scare off any external forces seeking to impose order.

But Haitians have traditionally opposed any foreign intervention in their domestic affairs, regardless of the state of disarray or chaos. As a fiercely independent people, they proudly stand as the first black republic to emerge following a successful slave revolt during the high noon of European colonialism.

Chérizier has used Henry’s unpopularity and controversial decision to deploy foreign police officers in the nation to drum up a nationwide violent fervour for political change. In a video call to ABC News on March 11, he said: “The first step is to overthrow Ariel Henry and then we will start the real fight against the current system, the system of corrupt oligarchs and corrupt traditional politicians.”

In the past, Chérizier has floated his own “peace plan” for the country. He has demanded that gang members be given total amnesty and that the country is governed by a “council of sages”, implying leaders such as him would have a formal political role.

With Henry now out of the political scene, the chance that Haitians will be forced to embrace such an outcome may not be far-fetched after all.The Conversation

Amalendu Misra, Professor, Department: Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.