MIAMI — With the United States warning Americans to get out of Haiti and planes flying down empty amid the country’s spike in kidnappings and gang-aggravated fuel crisis, American Airlines is cutting back service.
The major U.S. carrier said that as of Monday it will no longer be operating its three daily flights to Port-au-Prince, one from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and two from Miami International Airport.
“Effective Monday, Nov. 15, we will be reducing our flying to Haiti to one daily flight between Port-au-Prince (PAP) and Miami (MIA),” spokeswoman Laura Masvidal said. “We apologize to our impacted customers and we’re working to re-accommodate them on other flights.”
Masvidal cited frequent cancellations and reduced customer demand for travel to and from Haiti for the decision.
Since last month, Haiti has been in the throes of one of its worst crises yet as gangs abduct foreign aid workers and Haitians, hijack fuel tankers and prevent others from accessing the Varreux fuel terminal outside Port-au-Prince. The blockade has led to life-threatening fuel shortages throughout the country.
American Airlines’ announcement late Friday came the same day that the leader of the federation of violent gangs that have been blocking the distribution of fuel from Varreux since Oct. 17 announced a lifting of the the blockade to allow gasoline, diesel and kerosene to start flowing again.
But Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, the former Haitian police officer who is now a gang leader, said the “truce” is only temporary. It is to allow for the resignation of interim Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry, he said, and for “a week of reflection” among Haitians in commemoration of the Nov. 18, 1803, Battle of Vertieres, the historic victory against France that led to Haitian independence.
“If Ariel Henry doesn’t resign, the same problem will continue,” Cherizier said in a video statement, while dressed in all black. “We will remove our truce and that will be our strongest fight against him. After that no one will be able to say anything against us again.”
A member of the prime minister’s team said in response to Cherizier’s demands: “We don’t deal with gangs.”
The operators of the Varreux terminal, the West Indies Energy Company SA, WINECO, said fuel began flowing again at 10 a.m. Friday.
In a statement, it “unequivocally” denied information circulating on social media and certain Haiti radio stations stating that WINECO is refusing to deliver fuel even though everything is in place to ensure safety and free movement in the area.
The security situation, the company said, has worsened since Nov. 10 because of ongoing confrontations between the police and various armed groups.
“WINECO confirms that in spite of the risks and their fears for their lives, employees continue to show up for work every day and are available to fill customers’ trucks. It goes without saying that gunfire in the vicinity of fuel tanks is also of great concern,” the statement said. “WINECO does not own the fuel, nor can it decide on its delivery. It remains at the discretion of its customers, the sole owners of the fuel.”
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Cherizier, who fashions himself as a leader, announced nine demands, including the resignation of Henry, the reopening of the Varreux fuel terminal at the Port-au-Prince port starting Friday afternoon, and the immediate return of armored police vehicles back to their base.
“Stop shooting on the ghettos. Stop the political persecution,” he said.
Since last month, the coalition of gangs known as the G-9 Family and Allies has blocked fuel tankers from accessing Varreux, which stores about 90 percent of Haiti’s petroleum products.
The blockade, coupled with renewed inter-gang fighting in the vicinity of a second, smaller terminal in the Martissant neighborhood in the capital, has forced hospitals to turn away patients, schools to shutter and banks to reduce their hours to three days a week. Adding to the crisis is the refusal by drivers of tankers to work after several were kidnapped and their trucks were hijacked.
A security corridor established by the Haiti National Police has also failed to provide relief.
Because of the fuel shortage, hospitals have been forced to turn away patients, and others have reported deaths that would have been preventable with access to oxygen and diesel for electricity. Even foreign embassies have not been immune.
Citing the gang-aggravated fuel shortage and kidnappings, the U.S. and Canadian embassies have urged their citizens in Haiti to leave the country, warning that commercial flights may soon not be available. The U.S. first issued its warning last week in a travel alert, and reissued it again Thursday.
The warnings to depart Haiti come as 16 Americans and a Canadian remain hostages in the country, more than three weeks after being kidnapped by a gang east of Port-au-Prince. The group of 17 Christian missionaries with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries were kidnapped at gunpoint.
In the case of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, the warning has created panic among Americans as well as Haitians, many of whom have been unable to apply for or renew their visas because of the low staffing in the consular section.
Spokespeople for the two other major U.S.-based carriers that service Haiti, Spirit and JetBlue, have said their schedules remain unchanged.
Cherizier is wanted in connection with several massacres in Haiti, and has been sanctioned by the U.S. government along with two other former Haitian government officials after they were implicated in the brutal murder and rape of dozens of Haitians, including children, in 2018 in the La Saline neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Despite calls from France and others in the international community for his arrest, he remains at large, holding news conferences and flexing his strength amid a weak government and police force.
During the “week of reflection,” Cherizier said gang members will be reflecting with the Haitians in the diaspora and across the country’s 10 regions on the unconditional resignation of Henry, who was tapped by President Jovenel Moise, weeks before his July 7 assassination, to serve as a consensus prime minister. Since taking the job, however, he has faced challenges from the gangs and members of Haiti’s civil society, who have been demanding a two-year transition to a new government.
“We are a force, we have proven that. Everyone has seen our strength,” Cherizier said. “Everyone has seen that Ariel Henry cannot govern the country.
Cherizier said the doors of the Varreux terminal, which is located in the Cite Soleil neighborhood, “are wide open” and the trucks can travel “without worries.”
All the government institutions and private companies also can open their doors without fear, he said, while demanding that the fuel be sold at the same price as it was being sold before the crisis hit.
In a statement Friday, ambassadors from Germany, Brazil, Canada, Spain, the U.S., France, the European Union, as well as the special representatives of the Organization of American States and the United Nations called on Haiti’s politicians and business people to act responsibly in the interest of the Haitian people, and to prioritize the restoration of law and order as well as the normal functioning of strategic infrastructure.
Known as the CORE Group, the diplomats condemned the violent criminal acts that have been exacerbating “the already deep suffering of Haitians” and hampering the work of the Haiti National Police.
They are deeply concerned, they said, about the petroleum supply crisis that has been affecting the country for several weeks, as well as its humanitarian, economic and social impact on the Haitian population.
“A peaceful context is essential for the restoration of the authority of the State, the effective treatment of the problem of insecurity, and the emergence of a broad consensus on the most adequate way of leading the country towards general elections,” the statement said.
- By Jacqueline Charles and Michael Wilner, Miami Herald