Haiti: Building Democratic Institutions?

By Fulton Armstrong

A bus burning with thick clouds of black smoke billowing above it, and two men on a motorcycle riding by.

Riots in Haiti, February 2019 / AP/ Wiki Images / Creative Commons

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse is trying to end a months-long political crisis by dumping his Prime Minister, but he doesn’t seem to be addressing the underlying causes of last month’s violent protests, and scandal continues to swirl around his apparent role in a bizarre operation involving heavily armed U.S. “security specialists.” Protesters who took the streets in early February accused Moïse and close allies, including former President Michel Martelly, of diverting billions of dollars gained from the sale of fuel under Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program – money that should have gone to development programs – before he took office in 2017. They also complained about the continued economic decline under Moïse. Roadblocks around Port-au-Prince and elsewhere brought the country to a halt. Some 41 deaths were reported. The U.S. Embassy evacuated non-emergency personnel and warned persons “not travel to Haiti due to crime and civil unrest.”

  • Moïse made no public statements until after eight days of rioting, when he said, “I hear you.” Reiterating his pledge to resist opponents calling for him to step down, he said, “I will not leave the country in the hands of armed gangs and drug traffickers.” He mobilized supporters in Congress to pass a no-confidence resolution removing Prime Minister Jean-Henry Céant, with whom he had been publicly feuding, just days after the six-month anniversary of his appointment, at which point he could legally be removed from office. But Moïse has not addressed the corruption charges, nor announced any plans to revitalize the economy except by negotiating a new loan from the IMF.

The appearance and disappearance of U.S. operations specialists, who were armed with assault weapons, drones, satellite phones, and other equipment, remain a mystery. Members of the team have offered different versions of the purpose of their mission, perhaps reflecting different cover stories they’d been given, but several scenarios involve moving something sensitive – money, people, or computer technology – out of or into the Central Bank, with Moïse seemingly at the heart of the mission. The team was arrested before the operation could be completed, and Moïse and his Justice Minister got them released. The U.S. Embassy helped spring them from police custody and helped them depart the country even before they could be arraigned. U.S. authorities, after meeting them planeside in Miami, released them without charge. (The Embassy reportedly told the Minister of Justice that the U.S. Government would bring arms trafficking charges against them.)

  • Moïse’s opponents claim that Washington aided the exfiltration in return for his increasingly close alignment with President Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s priorities, including Haiti’s first-ever vote in January on a resolution rejecting the legitimacy of Venezuelan President Maduro’s second term. Perhaps related: U.S. support was important in the IMF decision earlier this month to extend loans for $229 million at 0 percent interest. The deal will move ahead after Moïse gets a new Prime Minister confirmed. Rubio visited Moïse in Haiti last week, and Trump met the Haitian President, along with other Caribbean leaders who voted with the United States on Venezuela, last Friday at Mar-a-Lago.

If precedent is any guide, Prime Minister Céant almost certainly had a hand in stimulating the February riots, and his accusation that the U.S. security team members were “terrorists” seems far-fetched and politically motivated. But he may have correctly sensed that the armed operations team’s purpose involved an effort by Moïse or his powerful mentor, former President Michel Martelly, to shut down any additional snooping into their activities and the whereabouts of the Petrocaribe profits. Moïse appears likely to continue looking for ways to curry favor with Washington as a means of gaining U.S. support and forbearance. Indeed, U.S. willingness to hustle the security team out of the country before they could face a judge would suggest that Moïse knows how to poke holes in the United States’ stated commitment to the rule of law and democratic institutions.