Gang-Riven Haiti’s Absent Leader Reemerges in Puerto Rico

(Bloomberg) -- Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who’s been missing in action as the nation descended into chaos, arrived in Puerto Rico as he attempted to make his way back to his country.

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Henry, who left Haiti on Feb. 25, landed in San Juan on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Puerto Rico governor’s office said.

His reemergence comes after gangs turned the capital of Port-au-Prince into a war zone. In recent days they’ve freed thousands of prisoners, burned police stations and continue to attack Haiti’s main international airport.

The prime minister had traveled to Guyana for a meeting of Caribbean leaders and then continued to Kenya, where he signed a document paving the way for a multinational security force. But his prolonged absence from Haiti emboldened groups that say he’s illegitimate and shouldn’t be allowed to return.

Henry’s destination was the Dominican Republic but flight records suggest he was unable to complete that journey. A Gulfstream IV Jet that left Teterboro, New Jersey on Tuesday, was originally slated to land in Las Americas International Airport, just outside of the capital of the Dominican Republic. FlightAware shows that the aircraft circled just north of the the Dominican Republic before it was ultimately diverted to San Juan.

Henry was swept into power in the wake of the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise and with the backing of the international community. But he has yet to follow through on repeated promises to hold long-overdue elections as the opposition accuses him of clinging to power and gangs tighten their stranglehold on the country.

On Tuesday, the Gazette Haiti newspaper reported that Guy Phillipe, who was behind a 2004 coup and spent time in US prison on money laundering charges, would attempt to install himself as president and lead a transitional government.

A state of emergency was declared late Sunday, after gangs raided two prisons over the weekend and freed thousands of hardened criminals. Among those who chose not to escape were 17 Colombians — many of them former soldiers — who were accused of being hired guns for Moise’s murder. Their lawyer told El Tiempo newspaper that they’ve all been transferred to a police station.

The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, has reinforced its border and closed its airspace with Haiti. On Monday, President Luis Abinader said that if any of the thousands of prison escapees tried to cross, his government would take “drastic” measures to stop them.

Henry’s appearance in Puerto Rico, a US territory of 3.2 million people, raises questions about how he will eventually return to his country, though that remains the preferred option of the US government.

“It’s our understanding that the prime minister is returning to the country,” US Department of State Spokesman Matthew Miller said Monday in a briefing. “We think it’s important that he do so and that he be allowed to do so.”

(Updates with flight data in fifth paragraph.)

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