Haiti: Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Police get in position as the protesters escalate their chants/ Ben Piven/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Despite the Haitian government’s postponement of a referendum on a Constitution drafted by a committee hand-picked by President Jovenel Moïse, the President’s power grab looks likely to persist, almost certainly prolonging and deepening the country’s current crisis. Moïse has ruled by decree since January 2020 because – in part owing to his own obstructionism – legislative elections in 2019 were postponed and a new legislature could not be seated. He has also insisted that delays in his inauguration in 2017 entitle him to a one-year extension of his term, until February 2022. Political tensions have triggered large, violent protests and catalyzed a surge in murders, kidnappings (up 200 percent over 2020), and other crimes – a deterioration that the Catholic Church calls “a descent into hell.” Gangs, often acting as surrogates for political factions, have been terrorizing neighborhoods and have attacked nine police stations in the past week, according to the Miami Herald.

  • Most controversial among Moïse’s actions has been a new Constitution drafted by a closed group of his allies and a referendum on it originally planned for June 27. The new Constitution would give him significantly greater powers by, for example, eliminating the post of Prime Minister and making the Legislature a unicameral body easier for the President to control. Many observers view it as mostly a tool to consolidate his one-man rule and increase impunity. Although Moïse has denied he intends to seek a second turn, his Constitution would allow him one.
  • Criticism of the Constitution and referendum has been widespread. The entire political opposition has condemned it, as has the Catholic Church. Even the head of Moïse’s Parti Tèt Kale has publicly opposed it. Thousands of demonstrators have spontaneously taken to the streets in generally peaceful protests, while massacres by pro-government forces have escalated in slums generally supportive of the opposition.  

The international community, which has been permissive of Moïse as he’s pursued most of his plans over the past year-plus, criticized his efforts to ram through the Constitution – lamenting the lack of transparency and the narrow participation in its drafting – and finally pressed him to suspend the referendum. But it is also quietly facilitating some of the steps required to lead up to such a vote.

  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in February criticized Moïse’s human rights record, but the OAS has embraced his claim to an extended term and, while expressing concern about process issues, was not forceful against the Constitution gambit. Indeed, an OAS mission visiting Port-au-Prince this week will focus on the surge in violence and preparations for future elections, not stopping his Constitution.
  • The Biden Administration has been slow to take a stance on Moïse’s machinations – not announcing opposition to the referendum until this week. It has criticized his inability to quell the violence without linking it to his policies or agenda. Announcing last week that the United States was extending Temporary Protective Status for 100,000 Haitians, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas noted that Haiti is “currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

Haitian crises have been so deep and long in recent decades that this one is difficult to distinguish from others, but it is a perfect storm of a sustained political power grab amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its massive economic hit. Moïse is almost certain to push for his new Constitution as a condition for holding elections. Haitian elites have never heeded lofty appeals for them to build democracy and make compromises. They expertly exploit the international community’s reluctance to punish them because of the harm it will cause the Haitian people. (UNICEF reports that severe acute malnutrition among young children has doubled over the past year.) Cooperation between government opponents in Haiti and the Diaspora has introduced an element of protest and resistance not seen since the mid-1980, but the international community still heeds primarily local political and economic elites.

  • Washington’s hesitance to become more forceful probably reflects the view that it has no better alternative than tolerating Moïse. If so, it would suggest the Biden Administration has not learned the lessons – such as that the elites are unreliable partners – of the failed U.S. pledge during Barack Obama’s presidency to help Haiti “Build Back Better” after the 2010 earthquake and the Trump Administration’s coddling of Moïse in return for his opposition to Venezuela at the OAS. The State Department’s belated opposition to Moïse’s referendum, however, may be a sign that it is listening to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and Haiti Caucus’s urging that the Administration get out of its “source bubble” and reach out to constructive opposition voices.

June 10, 2021

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