Building a Roadmap for Haiti’s Governance Crisis
March 15, 2021
A version of this article was initially published by Global Americans on March 11, 2021.
While the international community contemplates the nature of its engagement in the ongoing governance crisis in Haiti, the situation on the ground has grown increasingly grim. Detached from the practical realities of governance, pronouncements from President Jovenel Moïse in recent months have become steadily more fantastic in character, closely resembling magical realism. Having been without a functioning national legislature since January 2020, Moïse has governed by decree and carried out a variety of executive orders. By late 2020, he had executed over 160 different actions, with this pace continuing into 2021. These executive actions have included:
- A decree on November 26, 2020, which established a national intelligence agency (Agence Nationale d’Intelligence), and a nebulous companion decree purportedly linked to the reinforcement of public security. Both decrees’ motives seem linked to centralizing the provision of surveillance and intelligence reporting in President Moïse’s office; in a country with a history of harsh and authoritarian leadership, this comes across as a dubious consolidation of power.
- Likewise, in a curiously timed and incongruous development, last fall the government found time to expand its relationship with Morocco by opening a new embassy in Rabat, and, for unknown reasons, announced that it would also open a consulate in the Moroccan-controlled territory of Western Sahara—an odd priority and expense of material and human capital, given Haiti’s limited diplomatic outreach.
- Most recently, in a move designed to address the rise in networked gang violence, and particularly kidnappings, the Haitian government decreed that tinted windows on vehicles would no longer be permitted (except for certain types of government vehicles, as well as those with diplomatic license plates, and other similar vehicles). The announcement was unsurprisingly met with legal pushback and public confusion, doubts concerning its street-level enforceability, and—remarkably—competing interpretations of the policy from the prime minister and cabinet members.
Presidential actions that have had a more systemic impact include instances when the government has sought to expedite the schedule of political events at the heart of the current crisis. Drawing upon the relatively reasonable proposition in Haiti’s 1987 constitution that effectively operationalized an imbalance between the executive and legislative branches, in the fall of 2020 Moïse proceeded to (1) reconstitute the electoral machinery; (2) advance a constitutional reform process and a referendum on a revised national charter; (3) and schedule national elections for the fall of 2021.
The fact that all of these actions fall outside of established constitutional procedures is a foundational problem that cannot be easily circumvented. To begin, the chosen independent advisory committee mechanism designed to shape the constitutional reform process is opaque. The resulting draft constitutional document, issued on February 2, mandated an implausible 20-day public consultation process and a suspiciously short lead-up period toward an April referendum (now delayed to June). Moreover, the steps taken to ensure that Haiti’s national electoral machinery—anchored by the famously provisional (since 1987) electoral council (Conseil Electorale Provisoire)—is in place included the adoption of procedures that short-circuited the overall constitutional process, not only leaving its legality in limbo but also potentially planting the seeds of crises for future administrations.
Subsequent events careened Haiti toward political pandemonium. Without having the official authority to do so, on February 8 Moïse forced three justices of Haiti’s supreme court into retirement, even detaining one of them for several days. These events coincided with the country’s political opposition and civil society groups naming one of the aforementioned justices (Joseph Mécènes Jean-Louis) Haiti’s interim and “provisional president.” Preceding these events was the Superior Council of the Judiciary’s February 6 ruling that Moïse’s term had ended that day, a verdict that was not well received by the incumbent government. The following day, the government announced that it had foiled a coup attempt and arrested 18 people. The fact that this announcement was revealed at an airport press conference—as Moïse was heading to northern Haiti, apparently unperturbed by these developments—has fueled considerable skepticism about the government’s account.
The foundations of these events are dangerously unstable since they are linked to the unresolved dispute regarding the end date of Moïse’s presidential tenure (February 7, 2021, or February 7, 2022). This was compounded by the government’s postponing of the October 2019 parliamentary and local elections, which resulted in the subsequent dissolution of the national parliament—now reduced to a group of only 10 elected senators—in early 2020, and Moïse’s transition to governing by decree as of February 7, 2020. The increasingly autocratic presidency has since operated in a seemingly parallel political universe, enabled by the current lack of an effective domestic political alternative and the inattention of the international community.
Once Moïse realigned Haiti’s policy toward Venezuela to the Trump administration’s liking, Washington’s priorities moved elsewhere, a shift that may, in part, explain why the international response to recent events in Haiti has been breathtakingly void of a strategic consensus. Announcements from the United Nations and Organization of American States in late 2020 suggesting international support for Haiti’s 2021 electoral calendar—provided without much further detail—appeared to demonstrate an acquiescence to Moïse’s claims that his term ends in 2022. However, these announcements also boxed in the international community. This reality emerged more clearly when the Biden administration, in one of its first pronouncements on Haiti, seemed to mimic the recent pronouncements from the United Nations and Organization of American States—almost casually repeating U.S. support for elections, but neglecting to add much else. Expecting more from the new U.S. administration, congressional voices stepped up with a more critical tone; this slow drip of pronouncements, however, gives the appearance that Washington’s foreign policy apparatus did not see this crisis coming, which is unlikely. Nonetheless, without a clear path forward in Haiti, the only certainty is that an even more pronounced crisis is bound to emerge.
For the United States and the international community, any response to Haiti’s political crisis will involve threading a policy needle through a narrow path: avoiding provoking the ire of those critical of external intervention and wary of foreign powers exerting undue influence over political affairs in Haiti while also navigating the alternative expectation that Washington will, in the end, step in to resolve Haiti’s current crisis. Adding to these issues is the fact that the international community has suffered a loss of credibility among many Haitians in the wake of a succession of UN missions and meager sustainable outcomes dating back to the 1990s. While the record of international interventions in Haiti since the 1980s lends credence to these concerns, it also underscores that, for Washington, doing nothing is also not a practical option.
So, what might be a roadmap to address the ongoing crisis? It may be best framed by four general policy concepts:
- First, the 1987 constitution does contain dysfunctional elements and should be reformed at some point; however, precisely howthis reform is carried out is of the utmost importance. The process undertaken by the Moïse government lacks any credibility.
- Second, as it is now past the deadline, the question of whether the president’s term ended on February 7 of this year is a moot point. The question now at hand is, what happens next? Objectively, the position held by the Moïse government (to stay in office) and the position of its political opponents (Moïse’s immediate removal from power) appear irreconcilable. The opposition has proposed an interim or transitional government, but this path is also fraught with extreme danger. Naming a truly politically independent prime minister may not be enough to satisfy the opposition, but such an option should be explored, assuming such a candidate exists; the possibility of naming independent figures to the cabinet-level positions created by the government late last year to manage political party ties and the electoral process should also not be overlooked. Political and civil society actors need to be cautious of the implications of replacing the government, as such a move would, in effect, cause them to assume instant responsibility to manage the nation’s political, economic, and social affairs, all of which are currently under extreme stress (especially from the global pandemic). Considering the growing level of national insecurity, this option may not end well, and may thrust the international community into a role it would prefer to avoid.
- Third, with the international community providing the financial and technical resources to support credible elections, key international actors should be able to help mediate Haiti’s political and constitutional standoff. A strategic consensus must start with a clear-eyed assessment of the objective reality: that Haiti is in no condition to hold two national elections (a referendum and joint presidential and parliamentary elections) over the next nine months. The core electoral standards for the Moïse government, civil society, and political opposition, as well as the international community, must include elections (including campaigning) free from violence, accessible to all voters, and backed by a credible voter registration process; and guaranteed access to professional election machinery that generates verifiable results.
This is a tall order, one that Haitian authorities, even with considerable international support, have repeatedly fallen short of achieving. Given the circumstances, which election is more critical? The procedurally questionable constitutional referendum would be disruptive to the Haitian political landscape and represents a costly operational distraction. The choice should be non-negotiable, and points to the pressing need to address Haiti’s delayed national elections calendar: for the sake of its own viability, the Moïse government should use this electoral pathway to extricate itself from what has become a precarious political scenario.
- Fourth, the provision of the financial and technical resources required to carry out credible elections involves, at its best, a consortium of nations, multilateral bodies, and non-governmental institutions; and, at its worst, overlapping mandates, missed opportunities, waste, and glorious failures. This process also requires full and transparent engagement on the Haitian side, including civil society and political parties. The layered and multidimensional nature of these efforts highlights the need for the United States to work multilaterally, fully engaging other key actors—notably, Canada, the European Union (and France in particular), Haiti’s Caribbean Community neighbors, discreet consultations with the Dominican Republic, and other countries (in particular, Chile) that have, in recent decades, engaged with Haiti through multilateral mechanisms. Outreach to Haiti’s extensive and increasingly politically engaged North American diaspora should also be considered by policymakers, not for partisan engagement, but rather as a way to provide a distinctively Haitian character to the efforts of the international community.
Finally, the path forward for U.S. diplomacy in Haiti could also incorporate two additional elements. In the short term, the multilateral character of U.S. policy toward Haiti would suggest the utility of naming a special envoy to Haiti (or creating another similar specialized role), perhaps with a one-year term limit. This role would not be intended to duplicate the efforts of a capable ambassador in Haiti—or the U.S. foreign policy machinery more broadly—but rather would ensure robust and sustained engagement with Haiti by the international community. A second—and somewhat more long-term proposal—looks to Capitol Hill and the potential formation of a bipartisan congressional caucus on Haiti. While this is not a new idea, it is one that should be revisited, as the formation of such a caucus could facilitate the sharpening of U.S. policy toward Haiti and provide a reliable point of reference in Washington for Haitian political actors and civil society.
Georges Fauriol is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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