Did Trump Take a Page Out of Haiti’s Presidential Playbook?

May 17, 2017

Last week US President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The president immediately came under heavy criticism, accused of obstructing justice, as the FBI is currently investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Two weeks earlier, in Haiti, President Jovenel Moïse fired the director of the country’s financial crimes unit (UCREF). During last year’s elections in Haiti, UCREF produced an investigative report on Moïse, raising questions of possible money laundering. No charges have been brought, but the investigation appeared to be ongoing. 

While Trump’s moves have spurred increasing calls for impeachment ? or at the very least an independent investigation ? in Haiti, the move occurred with scant international attention. Local human rights groups, however, have sounded the alarm. Unlike in the US, where the president actually has the power to fire the head of the FBI, it appears as though the Haitian president had no such legal authority to fire the head of the UCREF.

The UCREF has been the recipient of millions of dollars in international support for years, much of which was from the United States. UCREF, however, has failed to produce many measurable successes. In 2016, the State Department reported:

The country’s financial intelligence unit (FIU), the UCREF, has continued to build its internal capabilities and to do effective casework. The UCREF has fifteen open cases but has not forwarded any cases to the judiciary in 2015. Continued issues in the judicial sector mean the UCREF’s progress is not yet reflected in conviction rates.

In recent years, Haiti has come under pressure from the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF) to make improvements to its safeguards against money laundering. If improvements are not made, CFATF has threatened to recommend member states impose restrictions on banking transactions with Haiti. Moïse took office in February 2017 already under a cloud of suspicion for his own alleged involvement in money laundering, and the hollowing out of UCREF’s independence will likely only exacerbate this, with potentially serious economic consequences.

In early May, the Haitian Parliament approved a new law on UCREF. Previously, UCREF’s director general was selected in a process directed by five representatives from independent bodies. The new law reportedly gives the president the ability to approve three of the five representatives, granting the executive de facto control over the entity. 

But Moïse didn’t even wait for the new law’s approval to act. On April 19, he replaced UCREF Director Sonel Jean-François, just one year into a three-year term. A replacement, reportedly picked by Moïse, was supposed to be installed last week, but that process has been postponed indefinitely.

Maxime Rony of the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations told the media that Moïse’s barely four-month presidency was based on a “governance of revenge,” noting that, in addition to the new law on UCREF, one of the first acts of the new Parliament ? controlled by Moïse’s allies ? was to pass a harsh defamation law. Haiti’s largest newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, wrote that since the UCREF report was released last year, its director had been “in the sights” of Moïse and his political allies.

Pierre Esperance of the National Human Rights Defense Network pointed out that the law governing the UCREF outlines a clear process for selecting a new director general, and that Moïse’s decision was “contrary to the law,” and “an extremely serious matter.” 

Some Parliamentarians, even some previously close to Moïse, have raised their voices in opposition, but there appears to be little serious resistance to Moïse’s agenda within Parliament. Elected in a process tainted by violence and fraud ? and without safeguards against candidates with criminal records ? many within Haiti’s Parliament are themselves the subject of money laundering and drug trafficking allegations.

One of Parliament’s first acts was approving a resolution condemning the transfer of notorious paramilitary, and recently elected senator, Guy Philippe to the US to face drug trafficking and money laundering charges. In a blow to those in Parliament who defended Philippe as the target of a witch hunt, Philippe has since pled guilty and awaits sentencing. Moïse openly campaigned with Philippe during his run for the presidency. 

In another move decried by the human rights community, the Haitian government has ended regular UN human rights monitoring of the country. Though the government initially pledged to replace the UN human rights expert with a domestic entity, there is no indication that will actually occur.

Together with the law on defamation and the erosion of UCREF’s independence, the Haitian Parliament has acted swiftly to protect themselves ? and the president ? from needed oversight.

Currently, a number of key posts, including director general of UCREF, remain vacant. Le Nouvelliste reports that unease from the international community over Moïse’s consolidation of power may be a factor in the ongoing delay.

It is likely there is at least some level of international concern with Moïse’s recent moves. But with Trump taking a page out of Haiti’s presidential playbook, Moïse will be able to quickly (and correctly) point out the hypocrisy of the US or its allies criticizing his actions.

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