Haiti’s Unraveling . . . What Next?
October 21, 2019
A version of this article was first published by the Global Americans on October 10, 2019.
The resignation of Prime Minister (PM) Jack Guy Lafontant in July 2018 triggered what is now an 18-month political crisis in Haiti. With the nomination of a fourth PM and cabinet still pending before parliament, it is becoming increasingly uncertain how the presidency of Jovenel Moïse is going to extricate itself politically. Haiti’s unraveling is entering a new phase, framed not so much by whether Moïse will complete his presidential term but whether a rudderless government has reached the breaking point.
It is too late for the government to get ahead of the PetroCaribe scandal and broader ramifications of widespread public sector corruption; likewise, any residual optimism is misplaced if believing that Moïse’s hapless prime ministerial choice, Fritz-William Michel, has a clear path toward overcoming the country’s crisis. A diverse political opposition—in parliament and in the streets—is energized by a weak president and appears in no mood for any talk of reconciliation, let alone notions of a “unity government.” This is all bad news for Haiti’s already beleaguered and unlucky citizens, let alone the country’s brittle constitutional order.
A deepening political crisis
A trifecta of factors points to a deepening crisis. First, the absence of a government. Since the dismissal of Moïse’s second PM in March (Jean-Henry Céant), neither of the two succeeding choices (Jean-Michael Lapin and Fritz-William Michel) have been ratified by Haiti’s National Assembly, leading to the incredible situation of having two somewhat overlapping interim cabinets and no practical capacity for governance.
A modicum of substantive debate involving a succession of cabinet holdovers and new nominees has paralyzed the parliamentary approval process since March. But Moïse’s opponents have mostly succeeded with other means, notably trashing parliamentary meeting rooms, ensuring the absence of a quorum for debate or vote, and in recent months providing a noisy chorus of demonstrators outside the National Assembly—which in late September led to a chaotic scene with a senator shooting to disperse protestors, and ended up wounding a journalist. The charge that votes are being exchanged for money permeates this unhealthy environment.
Second, this parliamentary chaos has in turn had material consequences in two significant areas, both associated with the inability of parliament to pass a government budget. Without a budget, state resources that were to be adjudicated for the October parliamentary—the entire lower house and two-thirds of the Senate—and local elections never materialized. This was the coup de grace for an electoral season that was going to function in a dysfunctional political environment anyhow. But worse still, with no elections having been held, when the parliament reconvenes in January 2020, only 20 senators will remain with legal mandates. This means trouble, inviting governance through presidential decrees, let alone loose talk of parliamentarians extending their terms of office.
The third factor of the trifecta—economic—is equally disastrous. For a country facing widening budgetary deficits, the inability to execute an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan agreement and other financial transactions is linked to the absence of a ratified national budget. In a vicious cycle, each increasingly violent street demonstration since July 2018 has also further undermined prospects for jobs, foreign investments, and overall economic viability.
Likewise, Haiti’s belated diplomatic shift distancing itself from Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro regime (and PetroCaribe’s discounted oil/development program) has implied a need to purchase fuel on the international market and additional pressures on government resources—in effect, a politico-economic train crash resulting in growing arrears with suppliers and dramatic gasoline shortages in Haiti.
Despite distractions elsewhere around the world, Haiti’s woes have not gone unnoticed. The usual consortium of international actors, including major donors (the United States and the European Union notably), and multiple layers of the UN system, have conveyed their concerns with the widening crisis and deepening impasse. But their counsel for dialogue and reconciliation has fallen on deaf ears. In fact, since early September a reverse flow of messaging has emerged from some Haitian political leaders, publicizing their case for Moïse’s ousting. Beyond agreement on the latter, Haitian opposition leadership remains something of a political cacophony. Motives vary greatly, including those in the parliament and other elected positions whose mandates and political megaphone may be curtailed because of delayed elections and who see their chances for power slipping away.
Haiti at an impasse . . .
In recent weeks one detects elements of some opposition cohesion grouped around self-styled notions of a transition and a governing “alternative.” Adding to this mix is the fact that since mid-September, widening street demonstrations and the parliamentary and political party opponents to Moïse are singularly focused on one demand—his ousting. That his removal from office appears to have become a precondition for any form of negotiation or national dialogue leaves both sides at a dangerous impasse. The president has repeated both his refusal to resign as well as appeals for a political settlement, without much political effect or conviction.
Addressing the impasse also necessitates constructive engagement from three overlapping communities: Haiti’s civil society sector, a mix of international actors and traditional “friends of Haiti,” as well as Haiti’s extensive diaspora. Haitian civil society has come a long way over the past three decades, and in the current crisis has emerged as a distinct voice regarding corruption generally and the PetroCaribe scandal specifically. Arguably, civil society was a measurable force behind the 2018-19 phases of public protests, bringing in more youthful, informed, and engaged urban constituency. But as the protests have gotten angrier, a broader spectrum of citizens has outflanked some of the initially focused concerns. During the second half of September, 17 people were reported killed and hundreds injured. A coalition of domestic human rights organizations have now demanded that these killings be investigated by both the government and the international community.
Another element of civil society also implicated in the crisis is Haiti’s private sector, both the small shop keeper as well as the larger and export-oriented business. The former has been on the receiving end of the increasingly destructive public demonstrations, let alone other factors such as fuel shortages, but so far without a distinct voice to contribute to a public dialogue. For its part, Haiti’s more formal and larger enterprises are desperately highlighting their own growing losses of productive capacity and the concerns of foreign investments frightened by endemic political crisis and public sector corruption.
An engaged mix of Haiti’s traditional “friends” have been a key ingredient in addressing previous crises since the late 1980s. A so-called “Core Group” (the United States, Canada, France, and the United Nations) is currently acting as a sort of mediator for the government and its opposition. Proposals on the table include nominating a PM more to the opposition’s liking or having Moïse’s term reduced. But for now there are arguably few actors on the Haitian side with any real credibility for a negotiated deal. This reinforces an unstated but palpable wariness among international actors with Haiti’s unending imbroglios and a somewhat jaundiced view of local politics.
Haiti’s on-going crisis unfortunately overlaps with a measurable disengagement of an extensive UN apparatus in Haiti since 2004 and particularly after the 2010 earthquake. The latest UN mechanism, created in 2017 (the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti—MINUJUSTH) with an already reduced peacekeeping and security presence, shrinks even further this month, leaving behind only a residual political mission and a weak police training function. This leaves Haiti’s most important law enforcement institution, the Haitian National Police (PNH), overstretched by months of protests and questions about its management, without much back-up capacity.
U.S. policy and Haiti
For U.S. policymakers Haiti always gets more complicated. U.S. policy resources in the wider Caribbean Basin are stretched thin and distracted by other events. By a fortunate coincidence, the acting assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, Michael Kozak, is an experienced Haiti policy veteran with on-the-ground engagement dating back to the 1990s. His skills will be in demand; one possibly unintended consequence of U.S. backing of Moïse may have been that the Haitian president feels secure enough in his international support to hold back from engaging in negotiations with his domestic opponents. The more the average Haitian buys into that view, the more the demonstrations will also acquire a Haitian nationalist tone—all of this is obviously short-sighted since as a practical matter Washington remains the ultimate card in addressing Haitian breakdowns.
An indicator of such breakdowns has historically been refugee flows north, and in this case a confluence of factors has the potential for some major headaches through the beginning of next year. The recent hurricane that ravaged The Bahamas has shed light on the large undocumented Haitian community residing there, now under some pressure to return to Haiti—which is the last thing the Moïse government wants—or attempt to make it to the United States, an unlikely proposition with the current White House. This all coincides with a determination that needs to be made by January 2020 regarding the 40,000+ Haitians in the United States under the Temporary Protective Status (TPS)—a status already operating under an extension the administration reluctantly agreed to earlier this year.
Finally, the TPS issue brings the Haitian crisis into proximity of Haiti’s expanding U.S. diaspora. Its engagement is a major source of remittances and an economic lifeline to Haiti, and in recent years has also become a more political platform. The professionalization of this diaspora represents a potential reservoir of expertise and best practices that Haiti could put to good use. It also expands the need for U.S. political leaders to extend their reach into this diaspora’s political environment. The latter’s reach was evident recently when the U.S. House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi, met in Miami with community leadership, an important development on its own. However, she was also caught in a cross-fire with local activists perceiving U.S. support for Moïse as an unacceptable confirmation of U.S. interference in Haitian politics.
The emerging assumption is that the Moïse government will not last through a full mandate. Objectively, chaos is not an option, and the international community has an important messaging role to play in this regard. The key question becomes how the presidential mandate can be shortened, and what political trade-offs this might imply. Suggestions of a prime minister more to the opposition’s liking has some merit, if for no other reason that Moïse’s track record in this area is terrible. But this requires a credible political opposition to keep its end of the bargain. The more dramatic suggestion of some form of national unity government may be appealing to some but is fraught with political and constitutional dangers. Part of the overall discussion also needs to put elections back on a firm calendar, not an easy proposition in Haiti. Despite misgivings about getting too engaged, Washington and other capitals have critical roles to play in fostering some form of national dialogue—sooner rather than later while there is still a political reality with which to salvage a credible outcome.
Georges A. Fauriol is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.