Something does not add up. The United States and other international actors have belatedly distanced themselves from Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s push for a constitutional referendum, while the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) is simultaneously providing material and technical assistance for the referendum. The head of BINUH, Helen La Lime, while expressing concern with the obvious “ever-growing polarization of Haitian politics,” has for months been enthusiastically pushing ahead—even though the process toward the referendum has taken so many political and institutional shortcuts since last fall that have fatally undermined its credibility. One could envision this multi-track path toward addressing Haiti’s deepening political crisis as part of a behind-the-scenes negotiation among key international actors. The more likely situation is that this reflects the degree to which the international community’s role in Haiti is adrift, and that none of this is going to end well.
Further complicating matters has been the posture of the Organization of American States (OAS), which in December 2020 indicated that it would support Moïse’s plans for elections in 2021. However, by spring of this year, the OAS Secretary General and the OAS Permanent Council were embroiled in an internal squabble over the scope of OAS commitments for the Moïse government’s referendum and electoral calendar. After weeks of acrimonious negotiations and unenthusiastic agreement from the Moïse government, an OAS “Good Offices Mission” visited Haiti in early June, with representatives from Canada, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States. With a general mandate to facilitate a dialogue between the government and key political actors that would lead to free and fair elections, there were only limited hopes for progress.
But the outcome of the OAS mission was more troubling than expected. The proposed recommendations—the designation of a new prime minister who represents a political consensus, appointment of new members to the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), and measures to restore a climate of security—had little chance of advancement because they don’t match political dynamics on the ground. In a telling commentary on those dynamics, Moïse reportedly informed the OAS mission that “there is no official dialogue” engaging his government with key political stakeholders. Interestingly, the mission makes no mention of the constitutional referendum.
None of this was much of a surprise. A preview could be seen in an earlier episode with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). After a meeting of Caribbean heads of state in late February, including Moïse, CARICOM launched an expert working group to study the ongoing crisis in Haiti. In late May, the group recommended CARICOM’s full support to address Haiti’s challenges. The Haitian government was far from enthusiastic, and it doubled down by limiting the scope of the forthcoming OAS mission in June.
The ineffectual record of international institutions in Haiti narrows the likelihood of satisfactory outcomes to Haiti’s ongoing crisis.
President Moïse began governing by decree in early 2020. Facing few international critics and a weak domestic political opposition in the fall of that year, Moïse gambled and put in place a two-part plan: revise the 1987 constitution and hold elections sometime in 2021—after the disputed end of his mandate on February 7.
The gamble initially worked. The Trump administration did not care, and by late 2020 both the United Nations and the OAS had provided nebulous indications of support. But Moïse miscalculated on several fronts and government’s woes have since worsened.
- The process for a referendum was so rushed (the original timetable scheduled a vote for February 2021, then sometime in the spring, then June 27, and now September 26) and discredited that it has had little chance of taking place successfully.
- Insecurity has increased, with brazen acts of brutality now common and occurring with impunity. Well-armed organized gangs have acquired a taste for politics—sometimes appearing to support or undermine the government, but always creating chaos.
- The COVID-19 pandemic, despite early reports to the contrary, is hammering Haiti’s limited public health capacity. Until Haitian providers can deploy the vaccines recently committed by the United States, those with the means are mostly traveling to the U.S. to be vaccinated.
- The combination of violence and the pandemic is creating socioeconomic havoc, including higher rates of hunger, amid an economy that has already been under duress for several years. As recently as late 2019, street demonstrations essentially shut down the country. The Association of Industries of Haiti (ADIH) noted recently that in just one week, 2,200 jobs were lost in the textile industry alone.
- The government faces implacable, if not effectively, organized political opposition and civil society sectors. It remains unclear what segments of the population would be a core constituency for the government. Given these trends, it is difficult to envision how a viable political consensus can emerge.
- Last but not least, the logistics for holding a constitutional referendum and national elections are in disarray. For starters, the highly touted issuing of national ID cards remains incomplete and untested. The appearance of an orderly timetable betrays the Potemkin Village-like reality facing the Haitian voter. The new calendar announced in late June has political parties purportedly completing their registration by July 6, political campaigns beginning on August 26, and the referendum and national election now both occurring on September 26.
A second round of elections will take place on November 21, followed by municipal and local elections on January 16, 2022. This hopelessly cumbersome political and administrative process, overseen by a politically suspect CEP, will conclude on February 5, 2022, presumably in time for the next president of Haiti to take office two days later on February 7. This is all preposterous and dangerous. Haiti is traveling straight into a political implosion.
Finding a Footing
The international community’s passive reaction is all the more perplexing given these political dynamics. While the EU (notably France) and Canada, as well as U.S. Congressional leaders, have expressed alarm, the Biden administration is palpably reluctant to engage on Haiti. This has a price. The growing problem for Washington is that the window to ensure a credible presidential transition by early next year is shrinking fast. After initially repeating the bland statements regarding the need for elections heard at the end of the Trump administration, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced at a June 6 U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the United States would not provide assistance for the referendum while almost absent-mindedly repeating its support for the delayed national elections.
The Moïse government remains publicly committed to the referendum, perhaps as a negotiation tactic to extract a concession from international actors. Faced with a grim set of scenarios in Haiti, the United States and other international actors may revert to expediency to avoid complete chaos over the ideals and hard work of democratic governance. However, the politics in the streets of Haiti may have already moved beyond that.
Given its priority on immigration policy and Central America, the Biden administration is still finding its footing with Caribbean Basin policy more generally. To give credit where credit is due, the White House has rightly focused recent energies on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to countries that need them. But when dealing with the crisis in Haiti, the White House lacks intensity. The lackluster U.S. and international response appears as much a product of “Haiti fatigue” as distraction by other pressing issues, particularly COVID-19.
There may also be an emerging sentiment among many Americans rallying around the view that the United States should not be the indispensable actor to address the world’s problems. Those who hold that view will have little enthusiasm for intervention in Haiti, especially given the questionable record of previous interventions. Others argue, with genuine but somewhat unfocused analysis, that while international support to Haiti is vital, Haitians themselves must shape a credible and sustainable outcome. At a minimum, this serves as a reminder that any form of international action has to engage key local actors and institutions as partners, rather than the overbearing and sometimes contemptuous regard for Haitian counterparts exhibited in the past. None of these perspectives provide easy answers.
Nonetheless, Washington and other actors can effectively support Haiti’s political leaders and civil society in the search for ways out of the crisis.
- The most difficult part may be initiating a diplomatic process to ensure that key international actors speak in united opposition to the constitutional referendum. This is a baseline requirement that can only be reached if Washington plays a lead role. The case for revising the 1987 Constitution has merit, but it can only be achieved by a government whose mandate is not being questioned, working with a duly elected national legislature, and a CEP functioning according to the law. None of those conditions is in place today.
- In turn, the United States must engage the Moïse government simultaneously with Haiti’s political opposition and civil society toward the development of a consensus agenda and timetable. The multi-layered aspect of this engagement suggests a role for naming a U.S. Special Envoy for Haiti. To reach into the complexities of Haiti’s political dynamics and better inform government actions also invites using existing non-governmental networks, such as think tanks, business and professional groups, and academics. The U.S. Congress must also be involved, but in a way that is more narrowly targeted than existing Caribbean and Haiti-related congressional caucuses. If nothing else, the White House will most likely need Haiti-specific budget allocations and political support. Another characteristic of this initial international engagement is that it be done through quiet diplomacy, avoiding the dribble of government press releases until concrete results are achieved.
- Instead of announcing another make-believe electoral calendar, this process must first identify the material needs and ensuing institutional and political agreements that are needed to bring to fruition a credible national election. Political reality means that this cannot be an open-ended timetable, but achieving results on these issues will also act as confidence-building measures overall.
- Only then can notions of a consensus national agreement and timetable for a path out of the crisis be realistic. The role of the international community is to accompany the process, prod when needed, encourage trust among key Haitian actors, and ensure enforcement of agreements. One huge conundrum to overcome for a viable consensus to emerge will be to avoid stumbling over the disputed end of Moïse’s term of office. Mediation by trusted actors, Haitian or from the international community, may be instrumental.
- International actors should highlight one core message throughout negotiations: the Moïse government faces a potentially catastrophic outcome, losing control of the streets of Haiti and running the risk of being displaced by chaos. Moïse wants to avoid this outcome, as do all international actors. The burden to avoid such a result falls on the capacity of Haiti’s diverse political community to coalesce around a short list of principles and elements for a pathway out of the crisis. This will not be easy, but the United States and international actors can help deliver a level of clarity to Haiti’s domestic political and civil society members.
Georges Fauriol is Fellow with the Caribbean Policy Consortium and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).