EDITOR’S NOTE: Last night, after this piece went to press, a team of attackers broke into President Jovenel Moise’s private residence above Port-au-Prince and in a hail of machine gun fire assassinated the president and injured his wife. Prime Minister Claude Joseph has declared a state of siege. The streets of the capital are empty and silent this morning, as the people of Haiti wait to see what will emerge after the killing.
The last time I was in Haiti, in December 2019, there had been several kidnappings before I arrived—and there would be many, many more after I left—but my two-week visit was blessedly free of kidnappings, murder, etc. Back then you could imagine you were semi-safe driving at night—if you had a car full of male friends driving behind you, and another one in front of you.
But now, some five months into the illegal extension of the presidential term of Jovenel Moise, tinpot tyrant extraordinaire, there is not even that semi-safety. Sois prudent, the habitual sign-off on all phone calls and e-mails to friends in Haiti, has become a useless caution, a weak attempt to keep people safe, since every act of living life in Haiti right now other than staying home (and sometimes even that) poses a mortal risk.
On the night of June 29, Haitian human-rights activist Antoinette Duclaire, 33, and her friend and colleague Diego Charles, 33, a journalist for Radio Tele Vision 2000, were assassinated in Port-au-Prince by killers who have as yet to be captured, if they are even being pursued. The charismatic Duclaire was a courageous and visible feminist who also spoke out eloquently against corruption and impunity in the Moise government and among its powerful associates. On the same night she was killed, more than 20 other people were also slaughtered in the streets of the capital. Duclaire, at the wheel of her car, was hit by seven bullets, two to the head, several more to the chest.
Duclaire’s killing topped off a few weeks of unceasing and chaotic violence in a Haiti that is unrecognizable to those of us who have followed it over the past few decades—and to Haitians old enough to remember Haiti before Moise and his mentor, the previous president, Michel Martelly, took over after the 2010 earthquake. Of course, the unpredictable danger in the streets makes it nearly impossible to organize opposition to Moise or to hold the kind of large protest demonstrations that can dislodge sitting regimes.
Among ourselves, Haiti watchers have marveled at the lack of reporting on the situation in the international media. Usually the international media is quick to cover Haiti’s dysfunctions. And Haiti is now at its most dysfunctional. Port-au-Prince’s southwestern quadrant has been nearly inaccessible for at least a month, under siege by pitched territorial battles between heavily armed gangs that rule the city with utter impunity. The police are invisible and the government silent. Since June 1, the UN has estimated, more than 13,000 Haitians have been forced to flee their homes by ongoing gang violence. Gang leaders like the articulate and charismatic gang leader Jimmy Cherizier (alias “Barbecue”) have found the current political vacuum a comfortable place in which to develop a following beyond their own neighborhood turf.
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This comes after a long and tumultuous period of prison breaks, kidnappings and murders, assassination of government critics, violent attacks on doctors, lawyers, and shopkeepers—that is, the dwindling Haitian middle class—and murderous settlings of private grudges and feuds.
All of this, however, is apparently only worth a shrug to the international community that has long been guiding (if that is the word I want) Haitian affairs. The Organization of American States, the United Nations, and the United States have continued to support Haiti’s incompetent, irresponsible, corrupt, and deadly government, whose rule was slated to have come to an end in February of this year but has hung on through a technicality approved by these advisers, as those advisers cling to the idea that an election run by Moise can fix things. He himself was elected, is the basis of their argument in support of Moise. There must be a peaceful transfer of power…
In 1991 and again in 2004, however, this same international community permitted—some might say encouraged—two successful coups d’état to go forward against the overwhelmingly popular and democratically elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide. In 1986, the Reagan administration moved late but efficiently to get rid of a very different chief executive, President-for-life Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, when it became clear that his dynastic dictatorship was no longer able to control the country. Since the US Marine occupation of 1915–1934, the Americans along with their many friends in the Caribbean basin have long been able to pull the strings of Haitian puppets to get the results they desire and to put obstacles in the way of movements of which they disapprove.
Yet it seems that there is no way to convince today’s Core Group, the pet name for the network of governments and international institutions that have traditionally been involved in advising Haiti (including Canada, France, the Dominican Republic, and the EU, as well as the US, the UN, and the OAS), that Moise is not a functioning executive. The group seems to hold nothing against him, including his government’s decision in mid-March to send poorly armed and trained officers into a gang-controlled shantytown, where they were slaughtered like animals. Video footage of this was all over Haitian social media for any member of the Core Group to see.
In spite of strong congressional opposition to continuing US support of Moise, the Biden administration’s position remains unclear. Thus far the United States has continued Donald Trump’s position of supporting Moise—even as it issues dire on-the-ground warnings about conditions in Haiti. In mid-June the embassy in Port-au-Prince published the State Department’s level 4 travel advisory: “Do Not Travel…due to kidnapping, crime, and civil unrest, and Covid-19.” If you must travel to Haiti, the embassy had a long message to US citizens in Haiti, full of dire advice.
“Always carry your cell phone,” they counseled, “and ensure it is charged before you travel. Ensure you have important numbers programmed into your phone.” More ominously, the embassy advised Americans to “consider using code names for family and friends” in the contacts list on their phones. Since November 13, 2018, the National Network for Human Rights has documented 470 killed and 83 disappeared in attacks and massacres, not including the most recent skirmishes in the southern neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. These numbers don’t begin to convey, however, the sense of insecurity in the streets, nor do they include attacks on and killings of single individuals or small groups.
To add to this heady mix of impending doom, Covid is surging in the country, and there is little oxygen for the few ventilators available, to say nothing of the enormous risk in transporting the oxygen through chaotic streets to places where it’s needed. Very few hospital beds are available in a country where even in normal times such beds are frequently shared by strangers. Leading lights of the older generation, the eminences grises of Haiti’s intellectual, literary, and political life, are falling to the disease like columns in an earthquake.
Nor has the government provided a single Covid vaccination, though outside institutions and governments have offered to give Haiti hundreds of thousands of shots since the vaccines were first produced. As usual, Moise is absent from the scene. Of course, if inoculations do somehow manage to come into the country, it’s doubtful that—under present political conditions—they can be delivered efficiently and safely to the Haitian population. On the same day that Duclaire was killed, Doctors Without Borders, which has been working in Haiti for 30 years, closed its emergency room at a facility that had been targeted for attack by gangs in one of the most violent neighborhoods. It also shut down its Covid treatment center there.
Stability used to be what the international community sought in Haiti. In the early days of US involvement in the country, calm was encouraged in order to create an atmosphere in which foreign-run businesses, maquiladora-style factories, mining interests, and sugar and other growers could run safely and profitably. Later as political fashions changed, human rights, free speech, democratic elections and so on were added to the list of political items to support, though stability one way or another always has been the overriding goal.
For years now, the US has supported elections in Haiti as the best way to encourage democracy and stability. But some democratic elections are more democratic than others. Haiti’s last two presidential elections were low-turnout affairs whose results were contested by the democratic opposition in Haiti, and whose victors, including Moise, have governed the country with minimal popular support for the past 10 years, as well as minimal democratic trappings (gone is the legislature and the network of countryside magistrates; the courts have been largely disabled), though backed throughout the stormy electoral process and its aftermath by the Core Group.
Perhaps Biden, having only recently survived an attack on the validity of his own election, is reluctant to question the credentials of an elected sitting president like Moise, no matter how controversial the vote that put him in place, no matter how dangerous he is to his people and their future. Can it be that the US president is considering the political optics for himself as he pursues his ill-advised policy in Haiti?
The kind of security that has long been touted by the Americans as essential for doing business as usual in Haiti—and as the most important byproduct of democracy—has vanished. Instead, gang violence has brought business and its most important byproduct, employment, to a halt. Haiti’s “business as usual” no longer consists of decent enterprises and manufacturing. Factory owners can no longer operate because the roads are controlled by the gangs. Foreigners and Haitian-Americans who work with Haitian firms have been leaving the country as quickly as they can. And embezzlement and thievery among port, customs, banking, import-export, and lottery bosses continue apace with at least implicit government tolerance if not involvement in the violent and capricious rule of the business mafia and the gangs. Under Moise, practices that were occasional, if entrenched—like extortion and protection—have become national profit centers.
The most dedicated backer of the Moise administration throughout his embarrassing tenure has been the OAS. At the end of last month, June, after the killing of the police officers, after a series of grotesque kidnappings and murders, after arson attacks and the closing down of whole districts by gang turf wars, a blithely optimistic report by the OAS based on a three-day visit by a five-member mission recommended that Moise name a new prime minister and cabinet, establish security in the country, inaugurate a new electoral council to replace the partisan one he recently appointed, and proceed to elections before year’s end. It had been hoped by many, including this reporter, that the OAS was about to give up on the Moise government, as any sane advisor to Haiti would have by now. But no.
The mission representatives spoke with various civil-society and political leaders. Mostly they met with nonentities, refusing to meet with and or failing to meet with the most visible and popular grassroots and opposition organizations. Many members of the opposition refused also refused to meet the OAS representatives. Like Mr. Smith, a perennial American presidential candidate in Graham Greene’s 1960s Haiti novel The Comedians, the OAS has happy plans for Haiti (Mr. Smith wants to bring cheery vegetarianism to Papa Doc’s dark corner of the world). But Mr. Smith, though foolish, is not dangerous. He’s an innocent. The OAS, though foolish and dangerous, cannot be innocent, and isn’t.
Did the mission members get out into the streets of Port-au-Prince and see what was really happening while they were there, as a spike in gang violence forced more than 5,000 people from their homes between June 1 and June 10, the final day of their visit? Of course not. Such missions are kept in the most secure conditions possible, never mixing with the actual population.
And since their visit, several further opposition neighborhoods in the capital have been burned, four police stations taken over, and traffic to the south cut off. Heavily armed men roamed the broad boulevards of the capital and the shantytowns’ narrow alleyways. Children with blank eyes watch as gang members march kidnap victims deep into the shantytowns.
In such conditions, it defies all common sense to try to conduct a democratic election. An election, sure, but what kind of election? Neighborhoods are burning; kidnappings continue; massacre, murder, and rape are common—who will go out and vote in such a place?
Thirty-three years ago, on November 29, 1987, under the post-Duvalier military-civilian junta put into power with United States approval, voters in the first post-dictatorship election were attacked with machine guns and machetes at the ballot box. I was there. I saw the Duvalierists’ in their dining room, planning what turned out to be the attack. Later that day, I surveyed the results, the bloodstained floors, the trampled ballots, the shoes left behind in panicked flight. Eighteen voters were killed, and the election aborted.
“What we want,” says Monica Clesca, a Haitian communications expert and a retired UN official who is a member of the Commission Pour la Recherche d’une Solution, one of several groups that have come into being in response to the current crisis, “is a definitive transformative solution, not quick, illegitimate elections that will bring us back to a crisis again in a couple of years.” The commission already has in hand a draft of an agreement among stakeholders in a future Haiti; those they’ve included in discussions have been political leaders, human rights organizations, civil society associations, influential figures, the private sector, labor, and grassroots groups, among others. Such agreements can fall apart in practice, especially considering the firepower and unpredictable affiliations of the gangs, but as a beginning they’re essential, and the commission hopes that there can be cooperation with the Core Group, having most of all to do with security during a transition.
The longer the international community supports Moise with its fantasies of democratic elections during his rule, the more Haitians like Antoinette Duclaire will die at the hands of the gangs Moise has never seriously tried to rein in. Haiti needs a Haitian solution to its current fix, a solution supported and accompanied by responsible international friends and advisers. An election under Moise’s control will either be a charade during which he ships his personal voters in armored cars to the balloting places under gang protection, or it will simply provide an excuse for yet another bloodbath.
Elections are dangerous when they’re only for show. And probably Moise is not intending to hold one, anyway.