Photo: Georges Fauriol
The following interview between Global Americans’ Executive Director Guy Mentel and Georges Fauriol took place last week in the aftermath of the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Days before the assassination, Mr. Fauriol wrote an article on Haiti in Global Americans, urging the international community not to ignore the crisis unfolding on the island.
About Georges Fauriol
Georges A. Fauriol, PhD, is a featured contributor at Global Americans, where he writes on Haiti and other countries in the Caribbean Corner. A senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Mr. Fauriol is also a fellow with the Caribbean Policy Consortium and a member of the Think Tank Haiti (TTH) Steering Group. He previously help senior roles at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute (IRI).
1. Georges, gunmen wielding assault weapons assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse early Wednesday morning, pushing one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nations deeper into its protracted political crisis. Earlier this year, Haiti was rocked by mass anti-government protests, with thousands taking to the streets in February to challenge the legitimacy of Moïse’s presidency. My question broadly for you Georges—and it’s a loaded one—as someone who has worked on Haiti for quite some time, where does Haiti go from here, and what role might the international community play in the coming days and weeks?
The best, if optimistic scenario moving forward, is that the tragedy can offer a slim opportunity for a consensus to emerge among Haiti’s divided political factions and the government. This might move the country closer to holding credible national and parliamentary elections. But the immediate hurdle to overcome is already playing itself out in the days following Moïse’s assassination—who is the legitimate successor? Outgoing interim Prime Minister, Claude Joseph, claims he is running the country, while his successor, Ariel Henry, designated by Moïse last Monday but not sworn in, suggests that Joseph is part of his cabinet. Joseph Lambert, the president of a rump 10-member Senate (20 elected seats out of 30 are vacant.), late last week appeared as a third provisional presidential claimant, suggesting that he was in talks with other political leaders and civil society.
None of this is encouraging. National elections (including a constitutional referendum) are part of a deep and unresolved controversy embroiling the Moïse presidency since last fall. Confusion is also present in the international community, notably the U.S., whose responses since late 2020 have been remarkably disjointed, if not at times indifferent. International actors can no longer avoid Haiti’s grim reality. Any dispute emerging over the nation’s leadership, coupled with a fractured opposition, worsens the odds that Haiti’s political community will reach a workable agreement on its own. In fact, Claude Joseph has already requested the deployment of U.S, military units, presumably on the working assumption that his hold on the evolving crisis is shaky at best. The U.S. is so far sending a small FBI team of investigators and forensics experts, although this potentially sets in motion a wider presence from the U.S. (and others), an outcome the Biden administration is most likely trying to avoid.
2. As we’ve discussed, Moïse’s assassination takes place amid a growing political and humanitarian crisis in Haiti, where the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc alongside extreme violence, particularly in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Can you walk us through some of the escalating events of the few months before Wednesday’s killing?
Three core issues have destabilized a national political environment already very wobbly. The first issue relates to the question of whether the president’s term ended on February 7 of this year, or whether it ends in 2022. The dispute was triggered by the delay in Moïse’s own election in late 2016, and an ensuing political-constitutional dispute. Never politically resolved or legally adjudicated, the position held by the Moïse government (to stay in office) and that held by its political opponents (calling for his removal from power) have been irreconcilable. Instead, political divisions have deepened.
The key question—what happens next?—is made even more urgent with Moïse’s assassination. All along, the opposition had proposed an interim or transitional government led by a politically independent prime minister, an option requiring a political consensus that has been hopelessly absent. Political and civil society actors need to be cautious of the implications of replacing the government, as such a move would, in effect, cause them to assume instant responsibility to manage the nation’s political, economic, and social affairs, the foundations of which are very insecure.
The second issue relates to Moïse’s announcement last fall to advance a constitutional reform process and a referendum on a revised national charter. The 1987 constitution does contain dysfunctional elements and should be reformed at some point. But the process pursued by the government has taken so many institutional and legal shortcuts as to essentially invalidate its credibility—and more seriously, in the long term, create future political disputes. A draft constitutional document was issued on February 2—which initially mandated an implausible 20-day public consultation process and a suspiciously short lead-up period toward an April referendum (first delayed to June, then August, and now September 26).
The third issue—the delayed legislative elections since October 2019—ties all three issues together into an intractable political mess and highlights the collapse of Haitian public governance. The immediate impact of those delayed elections was that after January 2020 only a rump group of Senators remained, leaving Moïse to govern by decree—and in effect, enabling his unilateral decision regarding a constitutional reform process and more broadly taking decisions without political guardrails. Despite a fairly robust civil society community attempting to counter these developments, the ensuing collapse of any notions of a national consensus has set in motion a downward spiral of distrust, rise of targeted violence with impunity, and despondency regarding the future.
3. Mr. Moïse was elected president in 2016, in an election in which only 18 percent of voters cast ballots, representing about 600,000 votes. Can you speak about the environment that led to such results?
Haiti has generally had low voting participation rates in recent years, reflecting a poor electoral environment but also a general fatigue among voters who over time question the utility of voting when nothing gets better. Some of the problems are operational, such as the lack of synchronization among national and local elections: the lower chamber of parliament (Chamber of Deputies) is elected for four-year terms, the upper chamber (Senate) is elected by for six-year terms, with one third (10 seats) elected every two years. The president’s term is five-years. This negatively shapes notions of whether democratic governance can deliver results. A high turnout in the 1990 and 2000 presidential elections can therefore be explained by high expectations regarding Aristide’s commitments to bring change—and the alarmingly low rates in 2011 and 2016 resulted when three fourths of the electorate saw no reason to vote.
Part of this also relates to Haiti’s inability to institutionalize electoral management. The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) has remained provisional since the 1987 constitution came into force. It is not for a lack of trying. 30 years of international technical and material assistance has been mostly wasted between each major electoral event.
Some of the electoral dysfunction is also associated with basic institutional logistics. The distribution of national identity cards is in disarray and incomplete. Likewise, the recently announced electoral timetable is unrealistic and rushed, with a constitutional referendum and national elections scheduled on the same day, September 26. A second round of elections is to take place on November 21, followed by municipal and local elections on January 16, 2022. By some miracle, the entire process is set to conclude on Febuary 5, 2022—in time for the next president of Haiti to take office two days later, on Febuary 7.
4. Mr. Moïse is a former banana exporter who relatively recently emerged on the Haitian political scene. Could you tell us a little bit more about his rise in Haitian politics and perhaps what legacy he might leave behind?
The short answer is probably little that is permanent. President Moïse’s party (the Tèt Kale Party (PHTK), or “Bald Headed” party) is mostly an electoral vehicle, ideologically probably center-right, which matches up with his political mentor and presidential predecessor, Michel Martelly. In fact, he owes his entire political career to Martelly, who plucked him from obscurity despite having no political experience. With an externally somewhat gentle demeanor, Moïse might have been appealing to many Haitians tired of a political class that promised a lot and delivered extraordinarily little. Moïse’s turbulent presidential term ultimately highlighted his inexperience and an inability to react to predicable problems, let alone actually achieve credible outcomes. In retrospect, sadly the last six months can only be characterized as political pandemonium.
5. Haiti has received more than $13 billion of aid over the last decade. Can you speak to the successes and failures of foreign assistance to Haiti, with a particular focus on how aid has or has not inspired the institutional reforms necessary to move the country forward? How might the United States and other international actors better engage with Haitian civil society to strengthen democracy and rule of law, while also addressing the very dire humanitarian situation in the country?
The range of Haiti’s crises has over time triggered layers of assistance, diplomatic engagement (some would argue, meddling), anxieties and policy fatigue, and a propensity to often pursue expedient solutions—leading to remarkably poor Haitian national development and governance outcomes. In the wake of this week’s tragedy, this wide universe of multinational, country, and NGO actors would be well served to reflect on their collective failure to bring relief. This is particularly true for the U.S., which has in practice driven the tone of international community engagement in recent decades.
Two other actors, the UN and Organization of American States (OAS), are both connected to the controversial constitutional referendum process, a path that the U.S. and other key actors have belatedly distanced themselves from. Both organizations are also burdened by a generally skeptical Haitian public. For example, after a succession of UN mechanisms in Haiti, anchored to a peace-keeping function, its last iteration (the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti—MINUJUSTH) shut down in late 2017 without leaving behind any meaningful institutional legacy.
In a somewhat perverse way, many Haitians view the international community as a source of the country’s predicament while others view it as the only meaningful recourse when a crisis emerges. The latter draws particular attention to the absence of a Haitian national governing consensus since the end of the of the Duvalier dictatorships in the 1980s. Under Moïse’s tenure this has translated into a standoff between an unpopular and weak president and a diverse opposition unable to coalesce politically and translate a protest movement into a convincing governing alternative. The international community’s ability to resolve these core problems has been limited. For example, CARICOM, of which Haiti is a member, has expressed its concerns with Haiti’s ongoing crisis but has so far been rebuffed.
Nonetheless, what the international community does in the coming months remains critical. After a period of seeming indifference toward Haiti lasting since the Trump administration, Washington needs to show real engagement and leadership before matters unravel further into a humanitarian and refugee crisis. Naming a Special Envoy would be a concrete signal, particularly since the ramifications of Moïse’s assassination will require a defined U.S. and multilateral policy to address them—a policy dynamic presently lacking in Washington. There will be a need to synchronize an international response that now has to address layers of crises simultaneously—organized gang violence, presidential succession, election/referendum feasibility and credibility (and security, which may entail some form of an international peace-keeping force), economic collapse, a late surge in COVID-19 cases, and hurricane response.