Haiti: The Next Crisis

A version of this article was originally published on Chatham House’s U.S. and the Americas site on December 6, 2019.

The standoff in Haiti stems from the inability of the opposition to translate a protest movement into a convincing governing alternative, as well as President Jovenel Moïse’s political luck and an over-stretched Haitian national police (HNP) struggling to manage a rolling cycle of protests and violent rioting.

Whether politically determined or simply inflexible, Moïse has stood his ground. He retains the backing of Washington and other international actors fearful of a chaotic alternative. There are so far no winners, and this unstable dynamic could collapse at any moment. The semblance of order after mid-November reflects fatigue after weeks of protests, culminating in the November 18 call to shut down the country—which in fact fell flat. This does not hide the increased level of violence countrywide. There is a troubling rise in physical attacks of journalists—triggering a warning from Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The economy is in free fall, inflation is rising, and analyses by Haiti’s central bank and the International Monetary Fund are estimating that the economy has sustained negative growth for 2018-2019. The 2019-20 school year has been paralyzed, a blow to an already weak national educational system. Hospitals and even international medical relief agencies have had to scramble to sustain adequate supplies; some, such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF), are doubling down by opening a trauma center in the expectation that things will get worse.

Everyone has been affected by national fuel shortages, which have in turn degenerated into contraband and gang networks. The violence and political paralysis have affected the nation’s fragile judicial system, and more or less shut down already weak and dysfunctional public services.

A temporary pause in national protests provides no evidence that the basic architecture of the political crisis has been altered. Where there was a somewhat clear message to the 2018 and early 2019 phases of the protests—anchored by the PetroCaribe corruption scandal, and growing public dismissal of a government seemingly dysfunctional—the rioting since September has the overtones of gang violence and suspicions of political machinations opportunistically taking advantage of the government’s decay. This means trouble and runs the very real danger of transitioning into a full-blown politico-humanitarian crisis; in fact, the ingredients are already there.

Refugee flows are an underlying baseline of any Haitian political crisis, and a variety of indicators point in that direction. In the past several years, Haitian migration flows have fanned out into the Caribbean, leading to the tightening of intra-CARICOM (Caribbean Community) travel access. Haitian migration, as far as Chile, reached such numbers that it has triggered tensions and restrictions of the latter’s liberal immigration laws.

Less numerous but significant nonetheless, Haitians are part of a mix of migrants working their way through Central America and into Mexico. The Trump administration’s hardline immigration policy is also an important part of this mix. Central to this is the uncertain status of some 40,000+ Haitians residing in the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which the White House has been eager to send back to Haiti. The political reality in Haiti as well as White House concerns with any adverse effect on Haitian-American support in the 2020 elections are factors in the recent decision to extend the TPS to January 2021.

Two other migration flows are also cause for concern. The return of undocumented Haitians in the Bahamas back to Haiti has become a more pressing reality after the September ravaging of the Bahamas by hurricane Dorian. And on a grander and politically more divisive scale, the forced repatriation of Haitians from the Dominican Republic continues unabated. By some accounts, this could reach an estimated 100,000 by the end of 2019. This feeds into a long-standing messy brew in Haiti-Dominican Republic relations involving lax border controls and contraband commerce, on top of anxieties on both sides of the borders regarding their neighbor’s politics—growing instability in Haiti, and national elections in the Dominican Republic in 2020 and the interplay of those factors.

The expanding range of Haiti’s crisis has triggered reactions among Haiti’s traditional diplomatic support, the United States, EU members, Canada and the UN. A heightened tempo is now visible, anchored to a common message calling on Moïse and the political opposition to engage in a dialogue out of the crisis. The dispatching of Kelly Craft, the U.S. UN ambassador, to a brief visit to Haiti earlier in November confirms international anxieties and continues a series of other lower profile exchanges with Haitian leaders in Washington, New York, and elsewhere. A plenary debate of the European Parliament about Haiti in late November echoed similar concerns, with Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, noting alarmingly that after years of economic crisis, Haiti now also faces a constitutional crisis with the absence of a government and a parliament.

Arguably, while these diagnoses convey a sense of urgency, all of this lacks policy dynamism. The international community is distracted, and it might explain this relative passivity. Canada is preoccupied with the aftermath of recent national elections; Chile, a key Latin American partner, has a major crisis of its own; for its part, CARICOM, of which Haiti is a member, has expressed its concerns with Haiti’s crisis but has essentially been told not to interfere. Adding unease to this mix is the untimely end to the latest UN mechanism in Haiti, created in 2017 (the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti – MINUJUSTH), which shut down in October.

In a somewhat perverse way, the international community is viewed by portions of Haiti’s public as a source of the country’s predicament. There is some logic to the question posed by many as to why, despite a full panoply of development assistance and several interventions, the country’s many woes remain unresolved. In the current crisis, this has taken the form of public critiques of U.S. “meddling,” and the recent physical attacks on the French Embassy compound.

From the perspective on the streets of Haiti, the unpopularity of the Moïse government is a jarring contrast to the supportive pronouncements from Washington and elsewhere. Lost in the translation is the fatigue and frustrations evident among Haiti’s many friends, which easily gives way to pragmatic baseline policy considerations. That means that there is no support for a chaotic ouster of the Moïse government and a breakdown of Haiti’s fragile constitutional order.

One can speculate whether this has encouraged Moïse to resist any political overtures, let alone notions of national dialogues intending in effect to terminate his presidency. But it has probably worn down more precipitous efforts to push out the current government. Nonetheless, the latter remains on political life support and in dire need of some formula out the crisis.

The most politically viable path is outlined by the 1987 constitution, which stipulates that in case of a presidential resignation, succession passes to the prime minister (a revision which originally assigned that role to a member of the supreme court [Cour de Cassation]). The hiccup is that the current prime minister has not been confirmed by parliament, hence a pressing need for Moïse and his opponents to come to terms with this issue.

But the opposition’s incentive to do so has so far run counter to their more drastic desire for Moïse’s ouster, rather than simply passing the baton to a potential political competitor. In recent weeks new prime minister choices have been rumored—some like Fritz Jean, a former central bank director with political support among Moïse’s critics, may be viable, but time is running out. Meanwhile, Moïse and his supporters have shown little appetite for any form of political co-sharing leadership arrangement.

Since the dismissal of Moïse’s second prime minister in March (Jean-Henry Céant), Haiti’s National Assembly has ratified neither of the two succeeding choices (Jean-Michael Lapin and Fritz-William Michel). In effect, there is a leadership vacuum and little capacity for governance, which now also extends to the parliament. This is where matters get scary and is alarming Washington and other capitals. In the absence of a national budget to allocate resources, the October parliamentary (the entire lower house and two-thirds of the Senate) and local elections never materialized. The parliament will reconvene in January 2020 with truncated membership and a dubious legal mandate, tempting Moïse or his successor to govern through presidential decrees. For the United States and other key actors, this is a no-go territory.

In the interim, the efforts of a broad coalition of civil society and political party actors have, in the past 90 days, cobbled together transitional frameworks, but even these efforts have not triggered satisfactory outcomes. Appeals for concessions from both sides for the good of the country—as recently expressed by Haiti’s Conference of the Catholic Bishops—have so far fallen on deaf ears.

The two most promising and somewhat overlapping initiatives are the so-called Marriott agreement and the politically poetic Passerelle committee (suggesting a connecting walkway to political resolution). Each brought together serious reflections from a cross-section of actors to define plausible scenarios for a presidential transition and varying interim governance structures to guide the country toward new elections, constitutional revisions, and a political renewal. The Passerelle committee’s self-imposed timetable and mandate concluded on November 18 with no results. The most serious obstacles remain whether Moïse’s departure is a precondition to any deal, let alone agreeing to the make-up and actual authority of what is dubbed a “government of national unity.”

Haiti’s parliament reconvenes on January 13, 2020. Whether in the interim a political resolution will have been negotiated, let alone such basic functions as the adoption of a government budget actually put in place (crucial for several international lending agreements), remains uncertain, if not unlikely.

At the same time, Haiti continues as a backburner story in contrast to the protest movements that have emerged around the world and captured public interest: Chile, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Algeria, Hong Kong, France, and others. Belatedly perhaps, international actors may be coming to the realization that time is running out for Haiti. Despite Capitol Hill’s preoccupation with the “Ukraine Affair,”’ a hearing on Haiti is scheduled for December 10 in the U.S. House of Representatives. More senior U.S. Department of State officials are scheduled to visit Haiti—reinforcing the message that chaos is not an option, David Hale, the under secretary of state for political affairs, is in Haiti this week. The period through mid-January 2020 will be crucial in preventing a full-scale crisis.

Georges A. Fauriol is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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