Haiti’s Power Struggle Raises Fear of Dictatorship
(Bloomberg) -- Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, is enduring a constitutional power struggle on top of the pandemic, raging gang violence and a tanking economy. The turmoil in the long-troubled Caribbean nation a little over 700 miles from Florida is of particular concern for the U.S. It’s one of the first regional tests for President Joseph Biden and may set the tone for his administration’s approach to Latin America and the Caribbean.
1. What’s the power struggle?
The 2015-2016 presidential election was so chaotic that the eventual winner, Jovenel Moise, wasn’t sworn into office until Feb. 7, 2017 -- 15 months after the initial first-round vote. As a result, Moise says his five-year term runs until Feb. 7, 2022. A coalition of opposition groups say his term began when his predecessor, Michel Martelly, stepped down on Feb. 7, 2016, and therefore ended on Feb. 7, 2021. The dispute has led to widespread protests and accusations that Moise is using heavy-handed tactics to cling to power. The standoff took a dramatic turn in early February when the government announced that almost two dozen people had been arrested for plotting a coup.
2. How is Moise staying in power?
Moise has governed by decree since January 2020, when parliamentary terms expired without scheduled elections being held. The opposition says Moise is illegally amassing power and making laws in violation of the constitution. “I am not a dictator,” Moise told Haitians on Feb. 7. Among his most controversial initiatives is the creation of an intelligence service that reports directly to him. He also broadened the definition of “terrorism” to include fires and roadblocks -- common forms of protest. Non-governmental groups say Moise and his cronies have dragged their feet on corruption investigations and have colluded with violent gangs, sometimes to squelch dissent.
3. What does Moise say?
That Haiti has been ungovernable for decades and that side-stepping parliament was necessary to pave the way for a planned constitutional referendum on April 25 and fresh legislative and presidential elections in September.
4. What changes does he want to the constitution?
Moise says the 1987 constitution gives the legislative branch too much power and is one of the root causes of Haiti’s political instability. (Since a popular uprising ended the 15-year rule of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986, the nation has churned through 20 presidential administrations.) The new constitution would eliminate the position of prime minister and create the office of the vice president. It would also collapse the Senate and Chamber of Deputies into a single, unicameral body. The new constitution would also give Haiti’s vast diaspora more political rights. Crucially, the new constitution sets presidential term limits at two five-year terms. Under the current document, presidents can only serve non-consecutive terms. Despite opposition fears, Moise has said he would not use the constitutional overhaul as justification to seek re-election.
5. How close did Haiti get to a coup?
On Feb. 7 -- the day that the opposition claims Moise’s term ended -- the government announced the arrest of 23 people for allegedly plotting to topple the administration and assassinate Moise. Among the purported ringleaders was a judge. The opposition says Moise was using the alleged plot as an excuse to round up prominent critics, and that he violated the constitution by arresting public officials who have immunity. Even so, in the wake of the arrests, the opposition declared Joseph Mecene Jean-Louis, a Supreme Court judge, the interim president. So far that move has been symbolic, as no international organizations or governments have recognized his authority.
6. How has the U.S. responded?
For months, the U.S. State Department, along with the Organization of American States, has urged Moise to hold legislative elections and restore the balance of power. But they also agree with his central contention that the clock on his presidential term started running in 2017, so a new president shouldn’t take office until February 2022. The Donald Trump administration maintained cordial relations with Moise, one of the few Caribbean backers of the U.S. campaign against the Venezuelan government. That dynamic might change under the Biden administration, which has signaled it will put a greater emphasis on fighting institutional corruption that it blames for exacerbating poverty and eroding democracy in the region. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House has urged the State Department to condemn Moise and says the Haitian leader “has lost all credibility.”
7. Where is the dispute headed?
The opposition says it’s not backing down and will continue the street protests that have led to bloody clashes with police and paralyzed large swaths of the country. Moise says he’s focused on overhauling the country’s power grid, drafting a new constitution and holding legislative and presidential elections. Meanwhile, the international community will be keeping an eye on surging gang and political violence that at least one observer says is making Haiti “a Somalia in the Americas.” In addition, there will also be growing pressure to hold the Moise administration to account for corruption and its authoritarian impulses.
The Reference Shelf
- More on the debate over when Moise’s term ends.
- This 2016 New York Times article has biographical details on Moise.
- A Washington Post editorial criticized Biden for “supporting the political status quo” in Haiti.
- A U.S. Congressional Research Service report on political and economic conditions in Haiti.
- The International Monetary Fund’s home page on Haiti.
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