Home News Can the doctor appointed to run Haiti’s presidency save the country?

Can the doctor appointed to run Haiti’s presidency save the country?


As the new prime minister of Haiti, a country without a president or parliament where criminal gangs have destroyed dozens of police stations and killed thousands, Gary Corneille has arguably the toughest job of any leader in the Western Hemisphere.

He attended funerals for slain police officers and met with their widows. He fired the police chief, accusing him of failing to crack down on gangs, and appointed a new chief, bringing in a team of police officers from Kenya to help ease the violence. Last week, he went door to door in Washington, delivering an urgent message:

“This is not the time for Haitians to get tired.”

Cornely, 58, a longtime UN official who has lived outside Haiti for more than a decade, took over the government five weeks ago amid one of the country’s worst crises in decades.

The post became vacant after armed groups united to attack prisons, hospitals and entire neighbourhoods, sparking severe riots that prevented the former prime minister, who was on a tour abroad, from returning to his country.

Mr Corneilli was chosen by the presidential transition council that helps oversee the country.

Cornille, a gynecologist, must now restore order in Haiti and hopefully organize orderly and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. He is seen as an outsider, untainted by Haiti’s notoriously dirty politics and long history of corruption, and was appointed with the support of the Biden administration and the international community.

Haitians are asking: After years of political turmoil, corruption and murder plots, culminating in the death of the previous president at the hands of Colombian mercenaries, can this mild-mannered technocrat turn around a country where millions live in abject poverty and more than a half-million have been forced to flee their homes?

It was already a difficult journey: just days after taking office, he was briefly hospitalized for an unexplained illness.

“First of all, I need a functioning justice system, and to be honest, it doesn’t exist yet,” Cornely told The New York Times. “I have 40 police stations that have been destroyed. We need to be ready to fix them.”

His list of priorities is long: retaking territory from gang leaders, reopening schools and hospitals, rebuilding roads. He envisions a Haitian government that can provide basic services like education and health care to its 11 million people, especially the millions who are starving.

To achieve that goal, Mr. Corneille said the international community needed to provide more funding, noting that the situation in Haiti was not that bad in previous years and that it received much more international aid.

“I think the crisis we’re facing now is definitely more complex than it was after the earthquake,” he said. “After the earthquake, we definitely had more partners involved, and they were involved in a more proactive way.”

In 2010, Haiti was struck by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, with the Haitian government estimating the death toll at 316,000. Billions of dollars in aid were sent to Haiti from around the world, but the country’s recovery efforts have been slow.

After the earthquake, Cornille worked for former President Bill Clinton, who served as the UN special envoy to Haiti. Cornille previously served as prime minister under President Michel Martelly, but the two clashed over allegations of corruption in post-earthquake contracts, and Cornille resigned after just four months.

Mr. Cornely, who met last week with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, members of Congress, international lenders and the Haitian diaspora, said Haiti needed aid now more than ever.

Wolf Pamphile, founder of Haiti Policy House, a Washington research group, said he was impressed by the prime minister’s affability and “aura of calm.” At cocktail parties in Washington, Cornille wore a guayabera robe and spoke Creole and English, but not the French that Haiti’s educated elite usually prefer, Pamphile said.

He said Mr. Cornely was enjoying a honeymoon period, but it was unclear how long it would last.

“You know when you first start a job and everybody likes you?” Mr. Panfil said. “He’s off to a good start. He’s delivering what people have been asking for, which is communication.”

Experts debate when exactly things got so bad in Haiti. Billions of dollars in earthquake aid never achieved the massive reconstruction needed. Haiti has not held elections in eight years, leaving parliament and most other elected offices vacant.

Three years ago this week, President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in his home. In the three years since, gang violence has escalated, with a sharp increase in kidnappings and killings and the occupation of large parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

In late February, several gangs united in an attempt to overthrow the government. They succeeded in forcing then-Prime Minister Ariel Henry to resign. Mr. Henry flew to Kenya to formally sign an agreement with the East African country to deploy police to combat gang violence. Gang leaders took advantage of Mr. Henry’s absence to attack police stations, prisons and health facilities.

Nearly 600,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in recent years. The United Nations recorded 3,252 homicides between January and May this year, up from 2,453 in the previous five-month reporting period.

When asked why he gave up his previous job as UNICEF Regional Director to take on such a challenging mission, Mr. Cornely borrowed an expression he learned in Africa: “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”

Gary Pierre-Pierre, founder of The Haitian Times, a New York-based online newspaper that covers news from Haiti and the diaspora, said Cornely won public support by publicly meeting with the widows of slain police officers soon after taking office to express sympathy.

“Haitian leaders would never do that,” he said.

He called Cornille’s tenure as prime minister under Martelly a decade ago a “failure” precisely because he was not one to play politics.

“He’s politically naive,” Mr. Pierre-Pierre said. “He doesn’t play the little games that politicians, especially Haitian politicians, play. He’s not ready for that.”

Indeed, several news outlets reported last week that Mr. Corneille had angered members of the Transitional Presidential Council, which now runs Haiti, because he was traveling to Washington and texted them in the middle of the night hours before his departure. The council’s chairman, Edgard Leblanc Fils, did not respond to requests for comment.

But experts say Mr. Corneille’s image as a policy wonk, out of touch with Haitian politics, is exactly what people want. Haitians are fed up with the country’s political class, which is often accused of misconduct and links to the gangs that now run rampant.

this UN allegations Mr. Martelly financed and armed gangs. Sanctions on former Prime Minister Laurent LamottHe is accused of misappropriating $60 million in Venezuelan government aid for personal gain. Henry, who took office after the president’s assassination, is accused of having links to a key suspect in the case.

All three politicians have denied the allegations.

“People are not impressed by politicians, and I think we are looking for someone who is competent, has a record of managing things and getting results,” said Ariel Dominique, founder of the Haitian American Democracy Fund, an advocacy group. “We are eager to see results. Whether he is the right person remains to be seen.”

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