MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Heavily armed gangs are fueling a crippling spasm of crime in Haiti. Kidnappings have more than tripled in the last year. Five priests and two nuns are among those most recently abducted, sparking protests by the Catholic Church on the Caribbean island. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, critics charge the U.S. is not doing enough to find a solution out of Haiti's current crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS RINGING)
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Bells in churches across Haiti rang out at noon as an act of protest. Catholic leaders have closed all their schools and other businesses for three days.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH SERVICE)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.
KAHN: But pews are full with parishioners praying for peace in the capital. Smith Silvera was one of the faithful who came to a recent Mass.
SMITH SILVERA: (Non-English language spoken).
KAHN: "They may kill me today, but nobody can live in this situation anymore," he says. "We must have liberation and freedom for all." Gangs have taken control of many areas of Port-au-Prince, unleashing a spate of brazen kidnappings and attacks that has shocked Haitians, even those accustomed to the country's high crime rate. This month, armed gunmen burst into a church, snatching the pastor and three other people during a Mass streaming over the Internet; the director of an orphanage says gang members broke in, sexually assaulting two girls; and seven Catholic officials, two of whom are French, were abducted nearly two weeks ago. Their kidnappers demand a million-dollar ransom.
KESNAR PHARNEL: Difficult is an understatement in Haiti right now.
KAHN: Kesnar Pharnel is an economic consultant and radio host in Port-au-Prince.
PHARNEL: Because people - we are so desperate. We don't know what's going on. We are living under a very stressful situation right now in Haiti.
KAHN: Haiti's spiraling violence and continual political turmoil has left the economy in shambles. The U.N. has warned that more than 4.4 million Haitians don't have enough food. Opponents want current president Jovenel Moise out. They insist his term ended in February, but Moise says he still has another year because he started his term late. The U.S. has backed that claim. Moise says the way out of this crisis is through a referendum this June on a new constitution. Velina Elysee Charlier, an activist in Haiti, says that constitution would just give him more powers.
VELINA ELYSEE CHARLIER: Not only is it illegal, but it has no credibility, no trust from us the people.
KAHN: She says Moise's attempt to reform the constitution is a clear power grab.
CHARLIER: We do not have a constitution problem in Haiti. We have an impunity and corruption problem in Haiti.
KAHN: The country is not capable of holding credible elections anytime soon, says political science professor at the University of Virginia, Robert Fatton.
ROBERT FATTON: The idea of having elections at this time, you know, is absolutely crazy. You can't have elections given the conditions in Haiti.
KAHN: Opponents want a transitional government to take over. It's unclear what the Biden administration is going to do. For now, it backs Moise. Fulton Armstrong, a former national intelligence officer for Latin America, says that's a mistake.
FULTON ARMSTRONG: We dash over to the person that promised us the greatest stability, that promises the most expedient solution rather than the solution that's going to lead to a better outcome over the longer term.
KAHN: Observers warn of a migrant crisis if conditions don't improve soon. This week, two boats packed with nearly 400 Haitians were intercepted off waters north of the island. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
KELLY: And that story was reported with production assistance from Andre Paultre in Haiti.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.