Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, governing without parliament after terms expired in January without new elections taking place, is facing increasing questions over when, exactly, his own presidential mandate ends. Moïse assumed the presidency after 2015 presidential elections, which had to be rerun after the discovery of widespread irregularities that undermined the credibility of the vote. That fraught electoral process delayed Moïse’s inauguration by a year; now the question has become if that year counts toward the president’s five-year mandate.
On Friday, May 29, the office of Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro issued a press release taking a stand on the question of Moïse’s mandate, saying:
The OAS General Secretariat urges all political forces in Haiti to find a cooperative framework in order to comply with the letter and the spirit of their constitutional order, respecting the five-year presidential term in office. In this context, the term of President Jovenel Moïse ends on February 7, 2022.
Amid a domestic political crisis, the OAS’ comments amount to an intervention in the affairs of a member country, which goes against the institution’s own charter. “The Organization of American States has no powers other than those expressly conferred upon it by this Charter, none of whose provisions authorizes it to intervene in matters that are within the internal jurisdiction of the Member States,” Article I of the charter reads. It would be difficult to argue that issues of constitutional interpretation are anything other than the “internal jurisdiction of member states.”
The OAS press release follows an open letter to Almagro from Edmonde Supplice Beauzile, the head of Fusion of Haitian Social Democrats, a centrist Haitian political party. After outlining a history of perceived antidemocratic abuses on the part on the Moïse administration, Beauzile noted that Moïse “is engaged in an all-out campaign” to extend his term to 2022 and expressed her “hope that the regional organization which has distinguished itself in the recent past by applying its seal of approval on at least questionable elections, will not agree to support an apprentice dictator who has demonstrated the little respect he has for the constitution, the rule of law and democracy.”
On June 2, seven Haitian human rights organizations sent a letter to Almagro, condemning his remarks as contrary to the OAS charter and detailing their legal interpretation of the presidential mandate. “President Moïse cannot determine the duration of his term of office, in the same way that the Secretary General himself could not define his own mandate according to his interpretation of the OAS Charter,” the organizations wrote.
“There is no doubt,” the groups write, “that the mandate of President Jovenel Moïse ends on February 7, 2021.”
OAS History of Intervention Undermines its Credibility
Questions over Moïse’s mandate stem from the 2015/2016 electoral process, but the OAS’ role in that process, and its previous intervention in the 2010 election, is now undermining the institution’s ability to play a helpful role in the current political crisis.
On election day in 2010, the Core Group in Haiti — which includes the OAS — attempted to force then president René Préval into accepting a plane to take him into exile. The election was marred by significant irregularities — including that more than 10 percent of the vote was never counted. Nevertheless, the OAS initially backed the legitimacy of the vote. Eventually, however, the OAS sent an “expert mission” to analyze the poll returns after Préval’s chosen successor appeared headed to a runoff. The OAS mission, without performing a full recount or even conducting a statistical analysis of the missing votes, recommended overturning the results of the election and placing the third-place finisher, Michel Martelly, into the runoff election at the expense of Préval’s successor.
The brazen intervention, backed up by threats of aid cutoffs and visa sanctions, has inextricably tied the fate of the OAS in Haiti with Martelly and his political party, Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK). The 2015/2016 electoral process did little to dispel those concerns.
The 2015 elections were the first elections held under the Martelly administration — and, similar to today’s situation, only took place after the terms of parliament expired and Martelly was ruling by decree. (The Haitian constitution does not actually allow presidents to rule-by-decree.) The OAS provided funding and technical support for the election, and then sent an observer mission to monitor the vote.
Despite reports from local observer groups that the election had been marred by widespread irregularities, the OAS observer mission provided the results with its stamp of approval. Opposition parties pledged to boycott the runoff vote, and, under increasing pressure from street protests, the electoral council postponed the election. The OAS eventually acquiesced to Haitian demands for an audit of the vote, and even sent a special mission to negotiate the end of Martelly’s mandate in early 2016 — which paved the way for a transitional government, an audit of the vote, and a do-over election in November 2016. Notably, the rerun election was held under the same electoral law and without reopening candidate registrations.
The negotiated end of Martelly’s mandate actually provides a precedenct in the current crisis, the seven human rights organizations argue. The beginning of Martelly’s mandate was delayed a number of months by the 2010 electoral fracas, nevertheless, Martelly left office on February 7, 2016 — months before he hit five years. (Notably, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was not allowed to serve his full first term after returning to the presidency in 1994. This followed the 1991 coup d’etat that saw Aristide deposed and exiled for a total of three years.)
In their letter to Almagro, the seven organizations point out that Martelly himself acknowledged this in his parting speech. “[M]y mandate is nearing its end,” Martelly said at the time. “According to Article 134-1 of the Mother Law, the presidential term is five (5) years. This period begins and ends on February 7 of the fifth year of the mandate, regardless of the start date.”
The key question facing Haiti now is: when did the constitutional mandate of the president actually begin? The Moïse administration has argued the constitution is clear — and confers a president with a five-year mandate. If Moïse took office in February 2017, his term should therefore conclude in February 2022. The rights organizations, however, contend that Moïse should not be able to benefit from the fraud-pocked election which had to be reheld. The constitution, they argue, is clear that the presidential mandate begins following the election — meaning that, constitutionally, the mandate began in February 2016, following the October 2015 vote, and will end in 2021, regardless of when the president himself took office.
The rights organizations also point to the 2015 electoral law, which notes that, if the election is not held in the constitutional timetable, “The term of office of the President of the Republic shall end on the seventh (7th) of February in the fifth year of his term of office, regardless of the date of his entry into office.”
Further, the organizations point to the recent expiration of parliaments’ terms as an additional precedent. On January 13, in a tweet, President Moïse declared the terms of parliament complete. However, as the organizations note, some deputies and senators had not completed their full mandate. “As the legislature ended on the second Monday of January 2020, all Congressman, regardless of the year in which they took office, left Parliament.”
The focus on a constitutional interpretation, however, obscures a deeper issue. No election has been held under the Moïse administration, no elections are scheduled, and there is no functioning parliament to serve as a check on the presidency.
Last week, the Haitian government requested support from the OAS in organizing elections this year, but opposition politicians — emboldened by nearly two years of popular frustration and protests against the Moïse administration and government corruption — have shown little willingness to participate in elections organized by the current government.
For much of the past two years, the donor community, including the OAS, has advocated for dialogue — a political negotiation to reach agreement around elections, mandates, and governance. Regardless of when exactly the president’s term ends, it has become clear that the only way forward will be through a broad, consensual, and Haitian-led political accord. Allowing Moïse to stay in office until 2022 without addressing the other, related, political issues such as elections, will only serve to kick the can down the road. The statement from the OAS Secretary General won’t help in the slightest, and will only further prove to Haiti’s opposition that the OAS is serving as an overt political actor in Haiti as opposed to a neutral arbiter.
Moïse Deepens Relationship with OAS Secretary General
The relationship between President Moïse and the OAS and Secretary General Almagro has deepened in recent years. In January 2019, Haiti sided with the United States and voted at the OAS to condemn the Maduro government in Venezuela and recognize the Juan Guaidó “administration.” In doing so, Haiti broke from the majority of CARICOM countries, which have long voted as a bloc — especially in matters of concern to national sovereignty.
Moïse, at the time, was facing his own internal political crisis over his role in the Petrocaribe corruption scandal; his government’s acquiescence to the interests of Washington and Almagro proved useful in ensuring his own political survival. In the fall of 2018, #KoteKobPetrokaribeA? (where is the Petrocaribe money?) began trending on social media, and in the streets of Haiti. The protest movement was given new impetus in the spring of 2019 when government auditors released a lengthy investigation into Petrocaribe, revealing that multiple companies owned by President Moïse had received government money for work that was never completed.
In June, Carlos Trujillo, the US ambassador to the OAS, led a “fact-finding” delegation to Haiti. An anonymous official on the trip told the Miami Herald that the OAS was prepared to assist in the PetroCaribe scandal and help determine who should face prosecution. Moïse, the official continued, “said he was ready to go to Washington and sign. He said he has nothing to hide.”
“This shows a willingness by the OAS to impose a solution without listening to the popular demands of the population,” Nou Pap Domi, an anticorruption collective, said in response. “[But] we at Nou Pap Domi are committed to finding a solution to Haiti with Haitians.”
“The presence of the OAS does not change our position,” the collective added. “But we wrote the OAS on June 8, 2019, to inform them that we do not recognize the legitimacy of President Jovenel Moïse and we have no trust in him leading the country because he has serious allegations that involve corruption.”
Moïse, facing calls for his resignation, continued to point to the OAS’ work. In July, he wrote in a Miami Herald opinion piece that he was “working with the [OAS] to assemble a team of independent international financial experts for a commission that will work around our broken politics to deliver a fair, credible, objective audit so that Haitian judges can pursue accountability for anyone found to have committed crimes and stolen from the Haitian people.”
But, while the OAS has since begun raising funds for an anticorruption program in Haiti, it was never meant to investigate Petrocaribe. It was later revealed by Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the OAS, Sir Ronald Sanders (who led the OAS team that negotiated Martelly’s exit from office), that Trujillo’s “fact-finding” mission was not actually on behalf of the entire organization, but just on his own behalf as acting president of the OAS Permanent Council. Progress on the Petrocaribe dossier has stalled, and Moïse has remained in office.
While the OAS has now offered its own constitutional interpretation of Moïse’s mandate, it remained alarmingly silent when the terms of parliament expired in January 2020. In fact, Almagro personally traveled to Haiti on January 7, just days before. The expiration of parliament’s terms represented a possible break in Haiti’s democratic order, and there was concern that some countries could push the OAS to invoke the democratic charter against the Moïse administration (as Moïse had helped the OAS do to Venezuela the year prior).
Almagro, however, was in the midst of his own political fight — competing for reelection as secretary general and looking to ensure support throughout the region. The two leaders needed one another. If the quid pro quo wasn’t explicit during the two leader’s conversations, Almagro’s public comments spoke for themselves.
“Today I reiterated to President @Moïsejovenel our staunch support for good governance & political stability in #Haiti, which includes reaching a political agreement, promoting constant and inclusive dialogue,” the Secretary General tweeted. He made no reference to the fact that the president would be in office without a functioning parliament in just five days’ time.
Over the previous decade, OAS leadership has tied itself to successive PHTK governments in Haiti. As the Haitian government once again calls in OAS support, few Haitians will forget the manner in which that relationship was forged, nor are they likely to see the OAS as an institution capable of facilitating an exit to the current political crisis — which in many ways stems from the OAS intervention ten years ago.