Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was inaugurated February 7, 2017 after an intense and expensive electoral cycle that began in the summer of 2015. That the political process did not drive off the cliff counts as a positive achievement. However, like all electoral events, the challenge is what comes after, and the signs—while initially positive—do not inspire full confidence.
The nation’s policymaking weaknesses are patently visible and worrisome, at the same time that it confronts a number of different unavoidable challenges. Dealing with a weak hand, the country’s already fragile government faces stormy political and economic weather ahead that may well threaten its stability.
The first set of issues entail challenges relating to core foreign relationships. This includes continuing strains between the government of Haiti and the United Nations system regarding the mandate of the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), launched last October. There is also Haiti’s inexplicable political and diplomatic persistence and in continuing to support the Maduro regime in Venezuela—or at least reluctance to join regional efforts to sanction the regime.
A telling image emerged from the recent hemispheric Summit in Lima, Peru, where two themes dominated the agenda, neither playing to Haiti’s strengths: building hemispheric consensus regarding the situation in Venezuela, and strengthening the region’s battle against corruption—kleptocracy, really. Sidebar meetings with U.S. officials, notably Vice President Mike Pence, did not include Moïse (he did meet then-Acting Secretary of State, John Sullivan, separate from other Caribbean leaders). While many of his opponents in Haiti may applaud this independence from U.S. policy regarding Venezuela, it’s unclear what practical benefits this brings aside from misguided symbolism.
Adding to Haiti’s predicament is its own year-long-plus domestic political brawl regarding an accounting of more than a decade’s worth of Venezuela-sourced PetroCaribe funding and ensuing allegations of corruption. Rather than effectively adjudicating the issue and moving forward, the politicking between the government and an assortment of political figures (some from previous Haitian governments) has been clumsy and remains unresolved.
None of this provides a reassuring tone for the future of the MINUJUSTH mission—a laudable and more narrowly focused successor to its immediate 13-year predecessor, MINUSTAH (UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti). The latter expired more out of programmatic fatigue than any practical sense that Haiti’s national institutions had graduated and were ready for more challenging tasks. MINUJUSTH’s ambitious mandate engages the Haitian environment at some of its weakest points—strengthening the rule of law, monitoring human rights standards, and continuing to professionalize the national police. The recent decision to re-establish the Haitian army (disbanded in the 1990s), even if based on legitimate arguments regarding border control and emergency preparedness, raises concerns regarding the Moïse government’s policy focus and budgetary priorities.
MINUJUSTH’s mandate was renewed by the UN in April for another year but the future may be cloudy. There have been attempts by the Haitian parliament to curtail the terms of the Mission’s mandate that feed into a disquieting regional push-back against international mandates designed to beef up local capacity to fight corruption and foster governmental transparency. At the same time the Haitian legislature is attempting to clip the wings of MINUJUSTH, the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is facing political backlash after a period of dramatic successes, and the OAS-backed Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) has stalled over a leadership dispute.
Even the 2017 transition to MINUJUSTH did not receive overwhelming enthusiasm. And in the recent April 2018 UN renewal of the mission’s mandate China and Russia abstained. Future renewals are likely to get further tangled up in broader intra-UN dynamics, notably among the permanent members of the Security Council. This also plays into a peculiar characteristic of Haiti’s diplomacy, namely, that it remains one of nineteen countries that recognizes the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the legitimate government of China. For Haiti, the stakes have probably become more acute after the Dominican Republic switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing and the PRC on May 1st—with all of its political, security, and economic implications.
Tension with the Dominican Republic
The second group of issues facing Haitian leadership is a continuum of problems associated with the country’s dysfunctional border with the Dominican Republic. Hardly a new story, it feeds bilateral tensions through a willful lack of credible border controls that fuel rampant corruption across the entire spectrum of Haitian governance. While overall bilateral trade in recent years registered over $1 billion a year, the recorded Haitian component over the last 2-3 years probably accounts for less than 10% of trade between the two countries, and probably less than that. A lack of coherent cross-border trade controls affects industries and production in Haiti, distorts market prices and depreciates the national currency, and does little to encourage foreign investment—the estimated loss of revenue for the Haitian government alone is estimated to be as much as $400 million a year.
Undoubtedly, entrenched interests make it a tall order for Haiti’s leadership to overcome counter-pressures from within its own government fed in part by some groups within Haiti’s private sector. Yet, this is not Haiti’s problem alone; the cross border flow of contraband and pressures on the government exist only because of collusion on both sides of the border. Fortunately, this is an area where there is a keen interest among key international actors (many are already invested in Haiti or on both sides of the border, such as the IMF, the IDB, and the World Bank). Improving border security and infrastructure dovetails with specific initiatives of interest to the United States, Canada, the EU (and some of its members individually, notably France and Spain) and potential Latin American partners.
Greater border openness is not the issue as much as developing mutually beneficial, complementary, transparent, and—therefore—credible procedures and institutional arrangements to back them up. Predictability in the rules of the game is already in place in both countries with respect to trading relationships with the rest of the world, but neither country follows those rules when it comes to the Haiti-DR bilateral relationship. The measurable loss of legitimate trade revenue at a time when Haiti is dependent on foreign assistance is wearing thin with the country’s traditional partners; for example, Sen. Robert Corker (R-TN) brought up the issue during the April confirmation hearing for Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
Growing pressure from outside Haiti
A third set of concerns shifts attention to a mix of challenges over which Haitian authorities have more limited influence. Nonetheless, these require their active engagement in part because the potential for political and economic fallout is significant.
The first of these relates to the political and social consequences of an IMF implementation agreement over the next several months, known as a Staff-Monitored Program (SMP). This is designed to carry out economic and structural reforms that include the potentially ominous-sounding goal of improving tax collection and eliminating excessive subsidies. The latter’s most explosive target relates to the retail price of fuel. Under the best of circumstances, this would be a challenging environment for the government to navigate. With the PetroCaribe corruption allegations festering in the background (let alone the practical impact of the probable drying up of Venezuela’s oil diplomacy), the stakes are even higher.
A second issue relates to the knock-on effects of the recent decision by the Trump administration to cancel the provisional residency of some 46,000 Haitians in the United States under the temporary protected status (TPS) program. The argument that conditions in Haiti have improved enough for TPS status to be phased out is a judgement call that many Haitians do not share. With an 18-month window before forced deportations begin, the issue has already triggered legal and political pushback and places Haiti in a wider community similarly affected, from Honduras and El Salvador.
The TPS issue points to Haiti’s continuing brain drain and migration outflow, with recipient countries (most recently Chile) becoming less forthcoming in continuing to embrace fleeing Haitians. The poverty rate in Haiti is 85%, on par with sub-Saharan Africa; let’s not kid ourselves about the nature of the challenge. U.S. and Haitian policymakers can benefit from a more synchronized approach where several policy arenas merge—development assistance in its various forms, trade and investment, and border control and security. But this requires strategic engagement from the Haitian side.
The final group of challenges are endemic trouble spots for Haitian governments of the past three decades. Of these, two issues deserve specific attention. First, Moïse’s government should come to terms with the provisional status of the country’s electoral machinery (CEP), in limbo since 1987. Addressing the status of the CEP would also lead to greater discipline in sticking to a predictable calendar of national and local elections. Keep in mind that Moïse’s predecessor, Michel Martelly, concluded his term of office in February 2016 with no elected successor and without having held parliamentary elections during most of his five-year tenure. There should be incentives for Haitian leadership on all sides to resolve this issue without too much drama.
Second, Moïse’s government needs to confront a dysfunctional government budget process and explore new revenue options. The budget process, exacerbated by the uncertainty of international resources, remains a central problem for Haitian governments. Moïse’s first year almost went off the rails over it, underscoring a lack of political experience and public administrative skills. Feeding into these kinds of debates is the traditional destabilizing political brew pitting the current government against a mix of political opponents with long standing rivalries and some not-too-hidden ambitions to replace Moïse. The governing coalition and the political class needs to pull together better.
The U.S.-Haiti relationship under President Trump
If all of these factors suggest a mosaic of trouble spots facing Haitian leadership, what about U.S. policy? The Caribbean—apart from Cuba and an imploding Venezuela—has so far not been a distinctive feature of the Trump foreign policy. Mr. Trump had appealed to South Florida’s Haitian diaspora during the 2016 campaign, but as the Moïse team was also going through its own presidential transition in late 2016, the fledgling administration may have missed some early opportunities to connect with the U.S. President-elect. That unfortunate, missed opportunity was only partially remedied by a brief get-together of Moïse with Vice President Pence in Miami in June 2017. A visit to Haiti by Deputy Secretary of State, John Sullivan, in connection with the late February 2018 meeting of the CARICOM heads of states and governments, was abruptly cancelled, but Sullivan did meet with Moïse in a one-off side-bar session at the recent Lima Summit of the Americas. Overall, the U.S.-Haiti relationship is not firing on all cylinders: first, Haiti’s continued reluctance to be critical of the Maduro regime has perplexed current U.S. policymakers; second, the relationship took a regrettable hit earlier this year with disparaging remarks about Haiti attributed to President Trump.
Nonetheless, if personnel appointments are a way to gauge policy potential, then U.S.-Haiti policy may be in good hands in the future. Two experienced American hands have been in place at key roles since late last year—Michele Sison, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, and Josette Sheeran, the UN Special Envoy for Haiti come to their respective jobs with previous Haitian and UN experience, and in the case of Sison, seasoned diplomatic experience from several other ambassadorships.
Haiti policy remains a work in progress and continues to receive some attention from Capitol Hill. The broader context of regional Caribbean policy potentially benefits by the fact that the Administration inherited from the late Obama years a mostly Congressionally-inspired initiative that has become Caribbean 2020—an integrated regional strategy that is so far mostly aspirational. Regional policy, let alone U.S.-Haiti policy, may be further energized once senior political leadership has been confirmed, notably the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. But in the interim, the relationship has benefited from experienced career State Department personnel with extensive Haiti-related tenures.
The pathway toward Haitian political and economic development continues to be paved with good intentions. But with a limited cadre of U.S. policymakers preoccupied with a broad range of foreign policy initiatives—North Korea and Iran nuclear “deals,” trade negotiations with China, the relationship with Russia, to name a few—the dynamics of Haiti policy are at the mercy of residual policy domains: immigration, drug trafficking and national disaster response, for starters. To make concrete progress toward improving the relationship, Haitian decision-makers should pay close attention to issues within this hemisphere that do draw vocal U.S. interest: Venezuela, Cuba, and in a compartmentalized way, NAFTA negotiations. Ultimately, the path forward on these issues affects Haiti’s immediate neighborhood and its diplomatic, trade, and security interests.
Georges Fauriol is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views represented here are those of the author and not of CSIS.