Haiti 2020: A Long, Hot Summer

A version of this article was originally published by Global Americans on June 25, 2020.

Haiti’s all-encompassing challenges generate a mix of pity, despair, and anger from its citizens and international observers. A recent Washington Post editorial titled, “We should give Haiti compassion, not criminals,” references the mindless effort by the U.S. government to deport back to Haiti individuals who tested positive for Covid-19 and Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, a flamboyant and unsavory character who ran a bloody paramilitary group after the 1991 military coup and was reportedly a CIA informant. That the United States is attempting to deport Constant in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic is perplexing to Haitians. Since March 19, when Haiti confirmed its first two coronavirus infections, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has scheduled seven deportation flights to Haiti—including deportees that have tested positive for Covid-19 on arrival.

This week, the U.S. government deported Constant—who in 2008 was sentenced in Brooklyn, New York to a 12-year prison term for mortgage fraud. This may have been a serious mistake. Sentenced in absentia by a Haitian court in 1994, Constant’s return to Haiti implies a reopening of his case, as well as a painful reminder for Haitians of their time under military rule. Furthermore, Haiti’s judges have been on strike since late May mostly over budgetary disputes with the Jovenel Moïse government, further paralyzing a weak judicial system. For an already dysfunctional government, Constant is a political hot potato that appears to confirm that U.S. and Haitian interests are not well aligned. 

Three decades of large-scale engagement in Haiti by international actors appears at times to have generated few durable outcomes, except paradoxically, an implied need to do more. Two factors in this calculus are a lack of policy discipline or follow-up among Haiti’s international supporters, and the not-so-hidden perception that the country is in any event a basket case. Even so, both domestic and international actors have a stake in getting the next six months right. There is an even chance that things will not go well. In the short run, this is more likely to be a long, hot summer, and Haitian leaders need to come to grips with reality. One can identify three baskets of overlapping crisis points, which if they merge will lead to the proverbial “perfect storm.”    

CBTPA Renewal and TPS Deferment

The contours of these two high-profile issues in U.S.-Haitian relations are straight-forward when compared to other challenges. The Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA), expiring September 30, 2020, has benefited Haiti despite Asian markets siphoning off a considerable amount of the rest of the Caribbean Basin’s capacity in the textile/apparel sector. In 2020 and beyond, U.S. strategic logic should dictate a CBTPA renewal anchored in part to the notion that it merges with a shift by Washington away from heavy reliance on the China market—in any event, the balance of trade in goods and services with the Caribbean region has been in favor of the United States. An additional short- to mid-term benefit would be to boost Haitian high-volume production of needed PPE/medical supplies for the U.S. market.

The future of the 40,000+ Haitians in the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) remains in the crosshairs of a White House eager to terminate TPS—the administration of President Donald Trump has already reluctantly extended the deadline to January 2021, a decision that also affects several Central American countries. For Haiti, its U.S. diaspora is a major source of remittances and an economic lifeline and in recent years has also become a more politically engaged electorate. But combined with Haiti’s unresolved political crisis and deteriorating economic outlook, let alone a Caribbean hurricane season predicted to be “above average,” the forced repatriation of thousands of Haitians will generate a predictable humanitarian crisis. The U.S. November elections and a need to appeal to the Haitian American vote is a reason why any decision on TPS is likely to come late in 2020. Nonetheless, the reality facing U.S. decisionmakers will still be of a Haiti in crisis.

Economic Governance and Corruption

The reality for most Haitians in the era of Covid-19—living on less than $2 a day, with a youth unemployment rate likely way above 60 percent—remains largely unchanged, if marginally worse. Public health messaging is a distant reality for most. Malnutrition could be shifting from a widespread socioeconomic concern to a political one. Some of this is driven by a national currency (gourde) whose value against the U.S. dollar has lost ground—from about 85 HG to $1 last summer to as much as 120 HG to $1 this month—a devastating development in an economy highly dependent on imports (from foodstuffs to gasoline). Many are still reeling from the effects of the back-to-back blow of last falls’ politically induced national shutdown, now coupled with the effects of the pandemic—including the return of 100,000+/- Haitians from the Dominican Republic. Economically more devastating has been the reduction in remittance transfer payments from the U.S.-based Haitian diaspora, hit very hard by the idling of large segments of the U.S. workforce since late March.

More generally, the country’s somewhat rudderless style of governance has had economic consequences—for starters, the standoff in confirming prime ministers means that Haiti has been functioning without a ratified national budget, which also feeds into apprehensions about the real depth of Haiti’s economic troubles. And boiling under the surface are public perceptions of overall governmental ineffectiveness, and specifically a sense that public sector corruption permeates everything. The massive embezzlement of PetroCaribe funding, a key source of sometimes violent malaise in the streets of Haiti from mid-2018 through late last year, remains an unanswered problem for the Moïse government. All of this is backdrop to unfruitful scheming among competing political factions regarding Moïse’s odds of making it through a full mandate. Repeated calls from international actors to encourage dialogue and a manageable way forward have fallen on deaf ears.

Political and Constitutional Crisis

The low esteem of the Moïse government held by many Haitians is a jarring contrast to the cautious if supportive pronouncements from foreign capitals. The calculus is elementary—the Moïse administration may not get high marks, but there is no appetite internationally for dealing with another breakdown of Haiti’s fragile constitutional order. Yet, of all of Haiti’s ongoing challenges this is now the most politically contentious—for the international community as well. 

The facts are simple: without an elected parliament due to delayed 2019 elections, Moïse is governing by decree; his administrative machinery is operating without a ratified, and in the eyes of many, politically legitimate prime minister. Holding elections could address this political entanglement. In fact, on May 18 Moïse proposed such a step and commitment to do so, but the announcement was received by a buzz saw of skepticism that questioned the government’s ability to hold free and fair elections.

More critical to elections are technical concerns: there is no election budget; there is a need to once again refurbish the supporting electoral machinery; firm up voter registration; and issue voter ID cards, which, at present, are in a state of disarray. In this regard, unadvisedly, in mid-June the government issued decrees implementing a long-awaited plan for national identity cards—with no public service campaign as to how this plan would be achieved or complied with, or any sense of certainty that the process could not be tampered with. More broadly, the notion of holding elections before the end of this year also raises legitimate Covid-19-related public health concerns.

The current institutional paralysis surrounding all of this is energized further by a layer of politics involving an at-times disingenuous dispute regarding the actual end of Moïse’s five-year presidential term—February 2021 or February 2022? The dispute revolves around how to account for a lost year between the annulled October 25, 2015 elections and its replacement held on November 20, 2016. This has generated competing interpretations of the 1987 constitution and a 2011 amendment. Why was Moïse inaugurated in February 2017? In an all too familiar sequence of events, this occurred under the auspices of an interim government, whose conformity to the constitution is somewhat dubious, led by Jocelerme Privert, then head of the Senate and veteran politician. The one-year Privert interregnum (February 2016-February 2017) occurred because Moïse’s predecessor (and mentor), Michael Martelly, ended his term without holding elections for his own succession. Moïse’s allies correctly note that Moïse’s 2016 election win wasn’t certified until January 2, 2017, and more importantly perhaps, that Privert decided not to conclude his interim presidency until February 7, 2017.

This succession of delayed elections has created political and constitutional havoc. It is an indicator of the current government’s lack of political acumen that it did not earlier anticipate and attempt to head-off the dispute over Moïse’s mandate. Over the past two months this debate has heated up, with key domestic and international actors lining up on each side of the issue. Most notably, and raising eyebrows among Haiti’s political community, the Organization of American States (OAS) and much of Haiti’s key diplomatic and donor partners are providing their support to 2022 as the end date for Moïse’s term of office. With this kind of international political cover, Moïse’s foreign minister recently issued a formal aide-memoire providing supporting constitutional and political arguments.

But in a telling set of comments on June 19, Helen La Lime, head of the UN office in Haiti, went further. She told the UN Security Council that Haiti needs to firm up an electoral calendar and engage in a constitutional reform process to overcome political paralysis. This sounded like an appeal for a serious do-over. At that same Security Council session, a similar if more softly phrased appeal was made by Kelly Craft, the American UN envoy. How realistic all of this is comes back to the need for constructive engagement from the government, its critics, and civil society. There is a trace of frustration within these comments that point out that while Moïse retains international community support, he also needs to deliver to avoid the nightmare scenario of a political breakdown.

These are not unfounded concerns. The government’s political opponents appear reenergized—exhausted after 18 months of demonstrations and inconclusive negotiations to shorten Moïse’s presidency. This has generated a wide range of views, from the legal and political treatise arguing that his term ends next year, to open calls to end the Moïse presidency now. Lately, some of this is framed to counter statements of support for the government from the international community. Whether these international pronouncements suggest unambiguous support for Moïse is debatable, but it does remind Haitians of how international actors have had a propensity to dictate the terms of key political decisions.

These dynamics are creating a growing discomfort among civil society and elements of the private sector. A failing economy combined with the collapsing capacity of public governance, and a widening scope of deadly violence, have now combined with the Covid-19 pandemic. The first phase of the “perfect storm” is here. The issue is no longer whether this unsteady edifice survives through February 2022, but rather how key actors can cobble together a way forward and prevent a national collapse.

What Next? 

Despite alarming calls from international interlocutors, Haiti should not be under the illusion that this translates into unqualified support. A significant burden lies in the hands of Haitian leaders to prevent the current political impasse from mutating into something worse. While residual concern for Haiti remains active in the U.S. Congress—in the span of three months (December 2019 and March 2020) two hearings specifically addressed Haiti’s needs—realistically, U.S. federal and state authorities will continue to be distracted by the pandemic, let alone the uncertainties of this year’s U.S. national electoral season. Similar factors will affect the response of other international actors.

Drawing on my March 4, 2020 testimony to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I prioritize these four proposals. 

  1. A critical need for a Haitian civil society consensus:A consortium of Haitian civil society and governmental leadership needs to provide in a consensus form, specific, practical proposals, with options, needed to move Haiti forward. There is no viable alternative. This will most likely require strong and effective institutional moderators to referee conflicting demands. But it will have the virtue of defining Haiti’s short- and long-term needs by Haitians themselves. A built-in assumption of this effort is to enable coherent and synchronized pathways to external friends of Haiti and sources of critical support. This includes the U.S. Congress.  

  2. Reinforce Haiti policy response in the U.S. Congress:Create “a short-term, bipartisan, and bicameral working group of members” in the U.S. Congress, a proposal made at the December 10, 2019 House hearing on Haiti, reiterated at the March 4, 2020 hearing, and again during a virtual forum on Haiti chaired by Representative Frederica Wilson (D-FL), May 29. This would provide a more synchronized pathway for Haiti policy needs and confirm the long-standing commitment to Haiti by the U.S. Congress. 

  3. Tackle electoral support needs:Sidestep the current political impasse over a specific calendar—the issue here is not whether elections can be held during calendar year 2020, but rather identifying what it will take to have credible elections. Haiti’s experience in this arena, despite considerable international support, is very poor—just look at the fiasco of the last two national election cycles. There are open questions regarding identification cards, voter registration rolls, voter education to improve turnout, the voting administrative machinery itself, ensuring deployment of trained domestic poll watchers and international observer counterparts. 

  4. Draw in capabilities from Haiti’s extensive diaspora:The danger of a breakdown in national governance invites an appeal from all of those who can help. This should include Haiti’s extensive U.S.-based diaspora, elements of whom are increasingly engaged in local government, business, and education and health services. This is an active community from which members of Congress hear directly. Ensuring such a constructive engagement is presently being explored by the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington with partners in Haiti.

Georges A. 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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