July 19, 2021
The American Prospect
With the alleged involvement of more than two dozen Colombian mercenaries, a Haitian-American Evangelical pastor in Florida, a Venezuelan-owned security company, DEA and FBI informants, and a rebel coup leader, the global investigation into the July 7 brutal assassination of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse has enough intrigue for the big screen. Indeed, media outlets from around the world are aggressively pursuing the story, giving each new revelation more attention than Haiti has received in years. Everyone wants to know: who was behind the first assassination of a president in the Western Hemisphere since JFK’s?
I’m not going to say the answer to that question is not important. Clearly it is. But each new twist and turn is also a distraction.
First, in many ways it’s a distraction from the assassination itself; the story seems to only be moving further and further from the night of the brutal attack, and the basic questions that are still unanswered. Those who’ve been following Haiti in recent years have seen this dynamic play out time and time again. Each massacre, corruption scandal, or government embarrassment was followed by another, making it nearly impossible to stay focused, or to ensure accountability. Think of it like the rapid-fire succession of Donald Trump’s outrages — but with death squads.
It is also a distraction from the political deal-making taking place right now in Port-au-Prince. In the shadows of the gargantuan hunt for a mastermind, Haiti’s political future is yet again being hashed out behind closed doors. In the long run, that is a bigger threat than the current absence of a clear line of succession.
After Moïse’s death, Prime Minister Claude Joseph immediately stepped into the president’s role. But he had actually resigned days earlier to make way for his replacement as prime minister. Before his death, Moïse had appointed a new prime minister, Dr. Ariel Henry. Both Henry and Joseph now believe they should be the one in charge. Then there is a third man, Senate President Joseph Lambert, one of only 10 elected officials in the entire country, who argues that he should be the one to take power. As many legal experts in Haiti have noted, there simply is not a clear constitutional answer — especially not with parliament having been dysfunctional for over a year, and with the head of the highest court passing away from COVID last month.
Initially, foreign officials appeared to strongly back Claude Joseph. Helen La Lime, the head of the UN political mission in Haiti, even went so far as to say Joseph would lead the country until elections were held later this year. Feeding the perception that international actors were once again putting their fingers on the political scale, the comment was met with disdain in Haiti — though it surprised very few.
On July 11, a high-level US delegation traveled to Haiti. They first met with Lambert and communicated, in no uncertain terms, that his play for the presidency was going to go nowhere. With Lambert isolated, the delegation then met jointly with Joseph and Henry. At the meeting, the US urged them to reach an agreement to form a government together, as if these two prime ministers hashing out a deal together constituted some sort of real political dialogue. But they are two sides of the same coin; both appointed by decree, without broad political support, by a president who lacked legitimacy of his own, a president who has been ruling by decree and without checks and balances for over a year and a half. For Haitian civil society actors, a narrow deal among the nation’s political and economic elites is a recipe for disaster.
For centuries, Haitian political leaders have been chosen — or allowed to govern — at the whims of foreign powers. That legacy has resulted in Haiti’s political class competing as much for the desires of Washington as for those of the Haitian people. It is no wonder that the majority of the population has rarely, if ever, been adequately represented by their government.
Haitians understand this dynamic well. In 2010, after the nation’s devastating earthquake, donors, especially the United States and United Nations, insisted on the holding of elections despite the fact that more than a million people remained displaced and hundreds of thousands more had lost everything. Less than 25 percent of voters were able to participate. Election Day deteriorated so badly that foreign donors discussed flying the president at the time, René Préval, out of the country. It wouldn’t have been the first time that happened.
Eventually, with strong US support, the Organization of American States (OAS) came to perform an audit of the vote and, with no statistical basis and without conducting a recount, recommended changing the results of the election, which would place Michel Martelly into the run-off election. The US threatened to withhold post-quake aid if the government didn’t accept these new results. The Haitian government acquiesced and, a few months later, Martelly won the presidency. Not surprisingly Haitians blame the US, the OAS, and the UN for the political, social, and economic disaster that followed. Today, the average Haitian’s income is lower than before the earthquake; this year, law clinics at Harvard, Yale, and New York University accused the Haitian government of being complicit in crimes against humanity.
In a 2017 survey, only 18.5 percent of Haitians expressed trust in elections, the lowest rate in the hemisphere. It’s hard to believe that number has gone anywhere but down since. When Moïse was elected president that year, he did so with the votes of 590,000 in a country of 11 million. The US, UN, and OAS recognized his victory, but it’s unclear if the population ever really did. When February 7, 2021 came, and many in Haiti argued the president’s term expired, Moïse pointed to the opinions of those same foreign entities, all of which backed his effort to remain in power. Without a functioning constitutional court in Haiti, there was no legal body to definitively rule on the matter. But rather than convening a dialogue to forge a political agreement, the support of international actors allowed Moïse to continue on as if nothing had changed.
For more than a year, Haitian civil society organizations have been coming together, discussing and debating a more responsible path forward. After the assassination, the US, UN, and the OAS have insisted on the holding of elections later this year. But instead of another deeply flawed election under a political system that garners little trust, these civil society groups have instead advocated for a transitional government that could oversee needed reforms, restore some semblance of faith in government, and oversee truly free and fair elections at a time when those are actually possible.
This past weekend, the Commission for a Haitian-led Solution convened a political conference in Port-au-Prince. The civil society-led organization formed many months ago, bringing together more than 300 organizations representing unions, farmers, churches, anti-corruption activists, feminist movements, human rights organizations, and many others. The conference would have begun earlier, but hotels refused to provide space. Many participants have received pushback from political leaders across the spectrum, and for a clear reason: the commission’s work is a threat to the political class. It is also a threat to the holding of elections later this year.
Even as the meeting convened, Haiti’s political class was deal making. The two prime ministers, Joseph and Henry, have tentatively, or perhaps more accurately, begrudgingly, agreed to work together. Who knows if that will last? Henry is now working to lure members of the political opposition to join a new cabinet, and a few may. What this really means is that Haiti’s political class is dividing the spoils of government out of public view once again, and negotiating with foreign powers to ensure that whatever emerges is recognized by the international community.
But rather than rushing to fill a void with another backroom deal, it is a time for patience. The unknown is scary, especially for foreign diplomats who are accustomed to controlling the situation in Haiti. There are times, however, when it takes stepping into the unknown to achieve lasting change.
And just maybe the Biden administration is starting to understand this. On July 15, a State Department official told the press that the US does not recognize any individual as Haiti’s “legitimate president or prime minister,” and expressed a desire to see an “inclusive” dialogue resulting in a coalition government. Yet on Saturday, just as the Civil Society Commission’s conference was beginning, a group of foreign diplomats, including the US, issued a statement expressly backing Ariel Henry’s efforts to form a government.
There remain many questions about the short term. Who masterminded the assassination of the president? Who will exercise executive authority? Will there be elections later this year? And, at a more personal level for most Haitians: Where will my next meal come from? Does the gas station actually have any fuel? Is it safe to go to the market? Will today be the day I am kidnapped or killed?
In the longer term, however, the fundamental question, as it was even before the assassination, is how does a nation rebuild its democracy?
Answering that is not easy, but one thing is for sure: It doesn’t start with more closed-door meetings among the local elite and foreign diplomats.