Haiti now has three presidents—or it did as of last night.
Unfortunately, all this has transpired against the background of what should have been the joyous 35th anniversary of the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, a 29-year rule of terror that ended on February 7, 1986, when the scion of the Duvalier dynasty, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, was ousted by a combination of popular unrest, international pressure, and developing antiauthoritarian attitudes around the globe. But the 35 years since Duvalier was forced out have done little to free Haiti from its history of foreign meddling and domestic corruption. And that’s without mentioning the extra added destruction wrought by several catastrophic hurricanes called into being by a changing Caribbean climate, a killer cholera epidemic brought in by UN peacekeeping forces, and one hugely destructive earthquake.
Let’s look at what’s happening now in Haiti.
There’s an elected president in office who has totally lost any support he ever had among the people of Haiti. Why has President Jovenel Moïse, a former banana producer and auto-parts salesman, been so roundly rejected? Because under his rule the cost of living has risen, poverty has hardened, unemployment has grown—in a country where the cost of living is always too high for the earnings of families, where poverty is endemic, and where unemployment is the norm. Beyond that, Moïse’s lax and irresponsible rule has engendered a state of grotesque insecurity. Kidnappings are a way of life, a business for gangs, who kidnap and kill with impunity, as if, perhaps, they were a part of an unstated government policy. They are heavily armed and highly organized. They’ve committed at least two large massacres in neighborhoods where opposition against Moïse is strong, killing men, women, children, and babies. That’s not to say that on occasion, a few gangsters have not been arrested. A few have been. (And not all of the many gangs operating in Port-au-Prince are pro-Moïse.) The whole situation is one where you or I would not let our children out of the house or even go out ourselves if we could help it. Some kids have just not been able to go to school in the past weeks, since many schools have closed, not because the government has been deeply concerned about the spread of Covid, but because street insecurity is too high and children are at risk.
Let’s explore Moïse’s Haiti a little further: Corruption is this government’s method of rule; it seems to think that that’s what government is for. I have heard the most outrageous stories of outright, business-as-usual demands by officials for personal funds (bribes, let’s call them) from consultants and contractors. The national coffer is the piggy bank not of the government but of its personnel. Millions of dollars provided by Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela in the form of oil discounts that were supposed to be spent on social projects were simply looted under the regime of Moïse’s predecessor and mentor, Michel Martelly, a singer and kompa musician. The Moïse government never made a move to bring him to account even though this scandal erupted during Moïse’s term, and the revelations brought large crowds of outraged people into the streets.
Just a bit more: Under Moïse, the two houses of the legislature have been dissolved. He has not managed to call new legislative elections, and since January 2020, he has been ruling by decree. When mayors have reached the end of their terms, Moïse has simply named their successors. Journalists and human rights advocates have been threatened and attacked. As former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide wrote to me right before the tumultuous weekend: “In order to maintain the status quo and the system of social exclusion, Haitian elites have always rejected the democratic principle that demands that government organize free, honest, and transparent elections.”
How did Moïse celebrate the 35th anniversary of the end of dictatorship? He sent in troops to surround Haiti’s Supreme Court, and—in the middle of the night—arrested a judge, the judge’s three cousins, and some poor soul working near the judge’s house, as well as a former presidential candidate and her sister, who is a high-ranking police inspector, and 16 others, all of whom he accused of plotting a coup d’état—and, almost as an afterthought, his own execution. By last night the court was closed to judicial business and surrounded by heavily armed men and armored vehicles. Protesters at the central square of the capital were dispersed by tear gas and two journalists were shot, and later hospitalized. No one in Haiti actually believed that a coup was underway, but the counter-coup has been deadly serious.
It is true that many of the 23 who were arrested were planning (not plotting) to put together a civic committee to choose a new government after Moïse leaves office. But Moïse’s attack on the Supreme Court looks more like a coup d’état with every passing hour.
In recent months there has been considerable dispute over when Moïse’s term of the comes to its constitutional end, although this whole back-and-forth can be seen as a kind of paper cover for the real need just to get rid of him, and to defang and disempower Martelly, who is the real muscle behind Moïse. Each president’s term in Haiti is a constitutionally dictated five years, and he or she may serve two of these, but not consecutively. Moïse was elected to a first term in 2015 in a corrupt and low-turnout election that was eventually canceled by election observers—and was followed by the installation of an interim president. In a further questionable election in 2016, Moïse was deemed to have been elected and he took office on February 7, 2017.
His opponents and Haitian protesters in the street claim that his term began on February 7, 2016 (the interim president having been a cipher and stand-in), after the canceled election, although Moïse himself did not officially take the reins of power for another year. Thus, for the opposition, his five years should have ended on Sunday, February 7, 2021, this past weekend. As we say in Haiti, blah, blah, blah. Still, most Haitians now believe that Moïse’s mandate has constitutionally ended, and whether important foreign players agree or not ought to be irrelevant.
Unsurprisingly, Moïse himself disagrees. What is best, or funniest, or saddest, or most Haitian about the situation is that Moïse ought to be ousted just as Duvalier was, not on constitutional or legal grounds (Duvalier, after all, was president for life, so no problem about “terms” for him) but on humanitarian and democratic grounds. The guy’s no good; he’s taken the country for a further ride. The opposition is right; he needs to go. The population has been protesting his rule for more than a year.
I don’t say all this lightly. It’s true that Haiti needs stability, and democratic transitions, and the rule of law. And it’s not at all clear that Haiti in the hands of rivalrous opposition figures will become a fine and pleasant paradise.
But it just cannot go on with this illegitimate, possibly criminal leader. Moïse was not freely and fairly elected, and he has been exactly the leader Haiti does not need. He’s not stable, he’s not democratic, and he doesn’t obey the law. Nonetheless, he is apparently our man in Haiti.
Adding another grand tradition to the whole chaotic scene, the Biden State Department has just announced that it will continue US support for Moïse’s continuation in office, as have the UN and the OAS. These are the same international players who have looked on for the last decade in Haiti, approving grossly irregular elections, and rubber stamping their “winners.” (Breaking with normal State Department Haiti policy, even Ronald Reagan supported Duvalier’s exit 35 years ago.) A group of six lawmakers, including the president pro tempore of the Senate, Patrick Leahy, have asked the State Department to reject Moïse’s bid to retain power. Yesterday [February 8], after Moïse’s attack on the Court and the 23 arrests, the State Department began a mild backpedal: “the situation,” a State Department spokesperson said, “remains murky.” Murk, however, has been what the US has dealt in for more than a century in Haiti, at least since the US Marines began their 19-year occupation of the country in 1915. As a kind of weird American sideshow to the unrest on the ground, ICE took the opportunity of eyes-elsewhere to charter two planes from Laredo Texas and fly a packet of Haitian refugees back to Port-au-Prince, including 20 very young children, in violation of the Biden administration’s new immigration rules.
Back to our trifecta of Haitian presidents. Over the weekend, the divided opposition installed two separate presidents, in two separate modest ceremonies. One is Interim President Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, another Supreme Court judge, appointed to preside over the country until elections can be held, and still unarrested as this goes to press, though arguably no longer a judge since Moïse fired him. The other is Carl-Heins Charles, a lawyer who was inaugurated in Cap Haitien in Haiti’s north and who will, his supporters claim, make the new seat of the Haitian government the old revolutionary palace of Sans Souci, built by King Henry Christophe, also in the north—thus resurrecting one of the oldest enmities in Haiti, the competition for preeminence between Cap Haitien and Port-au-Prince, north and south. No “interim” is mentioned in the Charles announcement, and it has a secessionist flavor.
And the third president is President Jovenel Moïse.