Vincent Joos, World Politics Review, Tuesday, August 3, 2021
Three weeks after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, and a week after being sworn in as prime minister, Ariel Henry held his first Cabinet meeting on July 28. It did not go well. In an effort to distance himself from the unpopular Moise administration, Henry attempted to revoke a 2020 presidential decree creating a national intelligence agency, which had been widely criticized as an unaccountable secret police that could potentially spy on Moise’s political opponents.
But in response to Henry’s proposal, the Cabinet’s secretary-general, Renald Luberice, submitted a letter expressing his opposition to dismantling Moise’s agenda, in which he invoked the memory of the recently slain president and the necessity to continue his work. Ultimately, Henry backed off.
The episode illustrates just how challenging the road forward will be for Henry as he tries to organize new elections “as quickly as possible.” Beyond the divisions within his own government, Henry faces many overlapping crises. First, violent gangs, many of which had forged ties with Moise and his allies, control entire neighborhoods of the capital, Port-au-Prince, fueling a wave of violent crime that has displaced thousands of residents. On June 30, journalist Diego Charles and activist Antoinette Duclair were shot and killed by unidentified men on a motorcycle—part of a long string of assassinations of pro-democracy figures going back to 2018.
Second, long-term instability and runaway inflation, coupled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, have plunged Haiti into a major humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates that one-third of Haitian children require emergency relief, as they cannot access food, clean water or health services. Moreover, a long drought has plagued agricultural production in the country. With an estimated 46 percent of its population experiencing severe food insecurity, Haiti is now facing one of the worst hunger crises in the world.
Third, a constitutional crisis is paralyzing the country. Moise had been governing by decree since January 2020 due to his failure to organize parliamentary elections, and both houses of Parliament lack the necessary quorum of lawmakers. Positions in provincial governments that should be held by elected officials have been filled with Moise’s allies, and successive presidential edicts have stripped the judiciary of many of its powers. With an interim government and no functioning legislature, budgets cannot be passed and vital international loans are on hold.
Henry, a 71-year-old neurosurgeon who served in Cabinet positions under Moise’s predecessor and mentor, Michel Martelly, is mindful of these obstacles. During his first press conference after being sworn in last month, he acknowledged that prior to organizing free and fair elections, “Haitian citizens must be able to freely circulate in the country.” He also talked about the need to restore confidence in state authorities and maintain dialogue with civil society leaders and political opposition figures. Yet, members of his own government and party are pressuring him to double down on Moise’s autocratic tendencies. For example, prior to his killing, Moise had proposed a referendum on constitutional changes that would strengthen presidential powers while weakening the oversight functions of the legislative and judicial branches. Though the proposed changes have been criticized even by some members of the ruling Haitian Tet Kale Party, Henry will reportedly move forward with the referendum nonetheless.
For many Haitians, Henry appears to be yet another politician installed by foreign powers—a living embodiment of the country’s lack of sovereignty.
On numerous occasions over the past few years, Haitians took to the streets en masse to protest against rampant corruption and authoritarian drift under Moise’s rule. It is highly doubtful that those same Haitians now have any confidence in a new government that retains Moise’s allies in powerful jobs and lacks input from other political parties. In this context, Henry’s calls for dialogue ring hollow, and his lack of legitimacy puts him in a precarious position as he tries to organize elections.
Yet, as was the case with Moise, Henry has the support of the U.N. and the broader international community, which bears a considerable share of the blame for the dire situation Haiti now finds itself in. The current government is backed by the so-called Core Group, composed of representatives from the U.N. and Organization of American States, as well as ambassadors from Germany, Brazil, Canada, Spain, the United States, France and the European Union.
In fact, it was the Core Group’s decision to throw its support behind Henry on July 17 that ended a two-week power struggle over who should serve as prime minister. While Moise had named Henry as the next prime minister, Henry had yet to take the reins from his predecessor, Claude Joseph, when Moise was killed, leading Joseph to argue that he should stay in office. At the same time, some opposition figures argued that under the constitution, the speaker of the Senate, Joseph Lambert, should become interim president. By tipping the scales in favor of Henry, the Core Group essentially overrode the political debate within Haiti, ignoring the voices of Haitian senators and civil society leaders. As former Sen. Serge Jean Louis put it in an interview with Voice of America, “I am almost sure that no one in the opposition supports this because it’s a road to nowhere. This is just another [Tet Kale] government with the same orientation.”
For many Haitians, then, Henry appears to be yet another politician installed by foreign powers—a living embodiment of the country’s lack of sovereignty. Haiti has a long and sordid history of foreign interference in its politics. Ever since the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, Washington and its allies have supported dictators and corrupt governments in Port-au-Prince, as long as they implemented pro-business policies. Martelly’s victory in the 2011 elections was enabled by substantial backing from the U.S., both before and after Election Day, despite evidence of widespread fraud. After another contested election in 2016, Moise finally took the presidency a year later with the imprimatur of the U.N., a body that is widely discredited in Haiti due to its past support for corrupt regimes and a disastrous 15-year stabilization mission in the country that created more problems than it solved.
Both Moise and Martelly were unpopular presidents with authoritarian and kleptocratic tendencies who remained in power thanks to powerful international allies like the U.S. and U.N. The policies these rulers imposed were nothing short of catastrophic. In July 2018, mass demonstrations erupted when Moise’s administration proposed a halt to fuel subsidies in order to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Later that year, Haitians on the island and from the diaspora mobilized in response to a sweeping corruption scandal. They formed a diverse coalition to demand transparency and accountability from the government, and demonstrations intensified in 2019, after the High Court of Auditors reported that corrupt politicians—including Moise and other senior Tet Kale figures—had embezzled more than $2 billion in aid funds.
This mobilization testifies to the fact that Haiti has competent state actors and civil society leaders who are trying to stop governmental corruption, while demanding the end of military and political interference in their country. Their existence is no secret to U.S. officials. When members of this pro-democracy community testified before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs in December 2019, they spoke with a clear and unified voice. As one of the panelists, activist Leonie Hermantin, put it at the time, “We all agree that the current status quo which supports corruption and the violation of the rule of law must be abolished. We all agree that Haiti needs to invest in education, agricultural reform, job creation, and constitutional reforms. We all agree that Haitians must resolve their problems.”
It is all the more puzzling, then, that almost two years later, officials in Washington and Turtle Bay continue to support the same corrupt clique that drove Haiti’s economy into the ground, and which never demonstrated any interest in “free and fair” elections. There is no silver bullet to fix Haiti’s present crisis. But supporting a political party that has failed Haitians repeatedly is not a road to stability, and certainly not a road to democracy.
Vincent Joos is a cultural anthropologist specializing in Haiti at Florida State University. His research explores post-disaster reconstruction and the relations between states, citizens, international institutions and NGOs in the Caribbean.