Former Haiti coup leader says he wants to be president, calls for PM to resign amid violent unrest


Guy Philippe, who helped lead a 2004 coup in Haiti and returned to the Caribbean island last year after serving a prison sentence in the U.S., demanded Friday that the country’s prime minister resign — saying he wants to become president.

Months of violence have pushed the government in Haiti to the brink of collapse, with increasingly powerful gangs demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry who remains outside the country, seemingly unable or unwilling to return.

“He should resign,” said Philippe, a 56-year-old former police chief, in a Zoom interview from Haiti. “I think he should stay where he is now … and let Haitians decide their fate.”

Henry’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

WATCH | How the Haiti unrest started: 

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A new wave of violence is erupting in Haiti following multiple attacks on government institutions and the escape of more than 4,000 inmates from two high-security prisons. Andrew Chang breaks down the state of play between police and well-armed gangs that are warning of an all-out “civil war.”

Henry left Haiti last week to secure Kenya’s leadership for a long-delayed UN-backed security mission he first requested in 2022 to help fight the gangs. He is believed to still be in Puerto Rico, where he arrived on Tuesday.

The government extended a state of emergency Thursday around the capital Port-au-Prince as the violence forced thousands to flee their homes and the main airport to close.

Dozens of foreigners, including many from the U.S. and Canada, are stranded in Haiti, desperately trying to leave.

“We are seriously trapped,” said Richard Phillips, a 65-year-old Canadian who has travelled to Haiti more than three dozen times to work on projects for the UN, the U.S. Agency for International Development and now a Haitian nonprofit called Papyrus.

WATCH | Sask. man trapped in Haiti due to unrest: 

Sask. man trapped in Haiti due to unrest

Richard Phillips is an agriculture trainer from Tisdale, Sask., who makes regular trips to Haiti. He’s currently trapped in Haiti due to unrest.

Authorities first announced the state of emergency on Sunday after armed gangs broke thousands of inmates out of prison.

Self-comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chavez

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Henry on Thursday to support a political transition for the country, where the health-care system is near collapse, children are unable to attend school and thousands have been killed, kidnapped or driven from their homes. There have been widespread reports of rape and torture by the gangs.

In 2004, Philippe was one of the main leaders in the successful overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Philippe had a failed run for president in 2006, before winning a senate seat in 2016, though he was arrested and extradited to the United States before he could be sworn in.

A man in a short-sleeved plaid shirt and jeans leans against the door of a silver bus as a second man wearing a grey sweat suit steps off the bus while a man in a military uniform holding a gun looks on.
Philippe, wearing a gray sweat suit, steps off a bus at Haiti’s National Police station, in Port-au-Prince on Nov. 30, 2023, after he was repatriated from the U.S. Supporters of Philippe launched protests in January that have paralyzed some cities as they demand the resignation of the current prime minister. (Odelyn Joseph/The Associated Press)

He was deported from the U.S. to Haiti in November after serving six years of a prison sentence for money laundering derived from drug trafficking.

He said his conviction would not get in the way of his political future, citing the experiences of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and current Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

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Diego Da Rin, an expert on Haiti with the International Crisis Group, breaks down what’s happening in the country after anti-government gangs stormed a major prison.

Asked if he wanted to be president, Philippe said: “Yes! I’m going into politics. I was a senator. I’ve been elected by my people. I will go again in elections.

“Mandela was in prison. Hugo Chavez was in prison. Lula was in prison,” he said. “And so if my people believe and trust me, I will be their leader.”

‘Accumulating considerable power’

Since his return to Haiti, Philippe has travelled the country rallying support and calling for the government to step down.

In a February report, the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime named Philippe as an important figure among Haiti’s “strongmen who straddle the line between vigilante leaders and political bosses, accumulating considerable power.”

Philippe said his recent return to the country meant he didn’t have deep connections to the gangs and wasn’t behind the gang violence.

A man yells in the street while holding a Haitian flag above his head with both hands. Behind him, three piles of tires burn and release billowing columns of black smoke.
A demonstrator holds up an Haitian flag during protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Port-au-Prince on March 1. (Odelyn Joseph/The Associated Press)

But he said there were some gang members that supported him because they liked what he had to say.

“They like my speech, and some want to follow me,” he said.

He did not denounce the gangs and said he would seek to implement an amnesty for their leaders were he to take power.

WATCH | Montreal’s Haitian community distressed by violence: 

Montreal’s Haitian community distressed by violence in Haiti

Frantz André, a spokesperson and co-ordinator for Action Committee for People Without Status, says he’s received several calls from members of the Haitian diaspora in Montreal asking for help. Many are wondering how to get their families to Canada. A 72-hour state of emergency was declared on Sunday night after inmates escaped from two prisons in Haiti.

“Who is worse,” he asked. “The one in the streets with the weapons or the ones in the office that call themselves prime ministers, president, ministers … that are stealing everything this country has?”

In recent months, Philippe has been seen at public events being protected by members of BSAP — an environmental police unit that security analysts say has effectively become a paramilitary group.

Philippe said the protection came from individual agents who believed in his message and wanted to protect him.

He stressed that he would seek to put his country’s relationship with powers like the U.S., France and Canada on a more equal footing and criticized the international backing that he said had kept Henry in power.

“If Haiti is where it is now, it’s partly because of them,” he said. “We are not enemies, we don’t hate United States, we don’t hate France or Canada.… We know we need their help, we know Haiti is a poor country, but at least we would like to receive this help with dignity.”

A bald man with glasses wearing a blue suit holds a microphone and stands in the centre of an auditorium before a crowd of people listening to him speak.
Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry delivers a public lecture at a Nairobi university earlier this month. Henry, who was in Kenya attempting to salvage the deployment of a foreign armed force to help combat gangs in Haiti, said elections in his country need to be held as soon as possible. (Andrew Kasuku/The Associated Press)

Asked if he thought there would be a civil war in Haiti, as one gang leader warned this week, Philippe said no. 

“I know the Americans who are deciding everything here will be wise enough to understand that Haitians want some kind of change.”

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