Past earthquake headlines: Political disaster in Haiti

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Beyond earthquake headlines: Political crisis in Haiti

Source: Rebecca Blackwell / AP

February 7, 2021 marked an inflection point in the future of Haitian democracy. With the terms of two-thirds of Haiti’s Chamber of Deputies and Senate expired since early 2020 and the parliament out of session since January 2020, President Jovenel Moïse has been ruling by decree for over a year. Haiti’s opposition has stated that President Moïse’s term ended on February 7 and demanded that he step down. Haiti’s judiciary branch sided with the opposition, adding to the calls for President Moïse to relinquish power, but he has other plans.

“After God, there is only me,” President Moïse said when referring to his political power in Haiti—an assertion that is as true as it is frightening. The president has acted with complete authority over Haitian law, its constitutional institutions, and its economic standing. The country’s lack of parliament has left no checks to executive power, and the president has taken advantage of that liberty. President Moïse has said that he will step down a year from now, on February 7, 2022, arguing that his term did not begin until a year after his election due to a convoluted transfer of power with the transitional government.

While this democratic crisis unfolds, the Haitian people also find themselves in a humanitarian crisis. Schools have closed not just due to COVID-19, but to safeguard students and teachers from rampant violent crimes and kidnappings that are victimizing the country’s most vulnerable populations. The lack of response by law enforcement and the government is also causing serious civil unrest. Thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to protest the inaction by the government in keeping its citizens safe and prosecuting those responsible for daily atrocities.

The United Nations Economic and Social Council pleaded for humanitarian aid citing that “six million people already live below the poverty line in Haiti and 40 [percent] of the population is food insecure.” Schools closures have also led to more than 300,000 children missing daily meals, “putting them at risk of stunted growth.” Haiti ranks 104 out of 107 in the 2020 Global Hunger Index and its score is on a downward trend. The rampant corruption that has taken funds away from the hunger relief efforts only make the situation worse.

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In response to the mass protests demanding justice and safety in communities across Haiti, President Moïse has issued unconstitutional executive decrees criminalizing protests against the government with 30- to 50-year jail sentences, mandates that have been carried out with the help of the National Intelligence Agency he created that reports unilaterally to him. As former opposition leader Senator Antonio Cheramy puts it, “[President Moïse] doesn’t issue decrees against the people who are raping your children, but he does issue decrees that threaten all the democratic gains we fought hard to attain in 1987.”

References to Haiti’s 1987 struggle for freedom against the Duvalier dictatorship are common, as President Moïse’s recent political actions chillingly mirror his despot predecessors, Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier.

The solution to Haiti’s current political and humanitarian crises requires a two-tiered approach to both preserve democracy and protect its people. The Biden administration must challenge President Moïse’s autocratic leadership head-on, replacing the uninformed interventionist strategy adopted under the Trump administration with informed action guided by domestic opposition leaders and the people of Haiti. Civil society organizations must also be involved in the solution to the political crisis, mirroring the aid offered to the nation during natural disasters. Republics live and die by their people, and without humanitarian support, efforts to restore Haiti’s democracy are futile.

Haiti was devastated when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the greater Port-au-Prince area in January 2010, killing an estimated 230,000 people and displacing 1.5 million others. The Inter-American Development Bank estimated a total of USD $8 billion in damages. A quarter of civil servants in Port-au-Prince died, over half of all government and administrative buildings were destroyed, and 80 percent of the city’s schools were demolished.

Civil society and Western media responded quickly to the catastrophe with countless celebrities donating millions of dollars to relief efforts, non-stop coverage from Port-au-Prince, and a multitude of online fundraising campaigns began. The “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon raised over USD $61 million and garnered over 83 million viewers—making it the most successful telethon ever.

Countries from across the globe also contributed to aid efforts, raising hundreds of millions of dollars. Foreign field hospitals were built to support the crumbling Haitian medical resources. International aid was flown in from every corner of the globe to mitigate damage, support survivors, and save lives.

As attention shifted away from the disaster during the summer of 2010, Haitians were preparing for parliamentary and presidential elections in November. Violent demonstrations broke out across the country due to the inconclusive, and possibly fraudulent, results of the election. Unlike just a few months before, however, international media attention was no longer paying attention. In early 2011, Michel Martelly ascended to the presidency. Early into his term, citizen protests erupted again, as Haitians were angry about luxury spending by the government and little action taken to alleviate poverty.

Much like today, the Martelly presidency was riddled with corruption, violence, and a lack of elections. During his time in power, two prime ministers resigned and protests were almost constant. Former President Martelly ultimately abdicated; however, his government did not organize elections to identify a successor. Rather, after one of the lowest voter turnout elections in Haitian history over a year later, a provisional electoral commission announced that Jovenel Moïse would be the next president.

Moïse immediately picked up where his predecessor left off. Arguably, his biggest feat of corruption occurred before he took office, as he helped government officials embezzle over USD $2 billion of aid from Hugo Chavez’s PetroCaribe program. The program allowed low-income countries in the region to receive aid from Venezuela through their preferential oil delivery system. The money secured through the agreement was not used for vital infrastructure and medical projects as promised, but rather was stowed away for personal gain by the Moïse administration. Protests against Moïse’s embezzlement kicked off in November 2019 after the Haitian Senate published a report citing evidence of widespread corruption. Today, with very few remaining elected officials in parliament, the Haitian people cannot rely on political opposition to hold the president accountable. 

Since then, President Moïse has taken his corruption to the next level by waging war on Haitian civil liberties. The Miami Herald disclosed that, since January, the president has issued “44 executive orders […] and another 110 other actions known as arrêtes, which are [measures] usually taken to respond to an ongoing situation.” One of these decrees, passed in November 2020, was the installation of the aforementioned national police force and the intensified sentences for crimes relating to protests. President Moïse appointed his cabinet without political approval, replaced all democratically-elected mayors of Haiti with personal allies, and established his own election commission and constitutional drafting committee.

While President Moïse has made moves to solidify and empower his corrupt regime, Haitian civil society has taken to the streets over the changes to the country’s government, sometimes leading to violent standoffs between police and protestors. However, the public has yet to receive the international support it saw following natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake or Hurricane Mathew. Instead of humanitarian support and media coverage, the U.S. government has provided inadequate political intervention.

In October 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that legislative elections in Haiti were “long overdue” and that the government should push to hold elections “as soon as technically feasible.” This statement, however, has led to more harm than good—along with a wave of anti-U.S. protests from the Haitian people. Secretary Pompeo’s statement fell directly into President Moïse’s hands. Since the statement, the Moïse administration has convened a provisional electoral council, which even Senate President Pierre Francois Sildor, a member of President Moïse’s own PHTK party, has branded as unconstitutional. The opposition party refused to participate in the selection of the committee members due to its unconstitutional composition, and the inevitable corruption intertwined with the commission.

American political interventionism is not the answer to Haiti’s current crisis. The Biden administration has already started on the wrong foot. On February 5, the State Department announced that they are supporting President Moïse’s plan to hold elections in September—as opposed to supporting the opposition’s efforts to oust him sooner. The people of Haiti require safety and food security before tax funds are used to organize a fraudulent election. The opposition has proposed that a transitional government be installed, as under the Moïse regime’s oppression, opponents cannot freely campaign for office. This process would include President Moïse stepping down, a transitional government being agreed upon, and eventually democratic elections.

The U.S. and other members of the Core Group, which consists of the United Nations, the United States, Canada, France, and others, fail to understand that the current crisis in Haiti is not only a political one, but also a humanitarian one. Statements put out by the Core Group largely focus on the political situation and tend to gloss over the unfolding humanitarian crisis. The group has even criticized protestors for their actions in the past, citing that the demonstrations have been prompted by “difficulties of everyday life” rather than the striking occurrence of kidnappings, food insecurity, and corruption.

Assassinations and kidnappings of high schoolers and teachers, rampant fear, and the criminalization of protests not only demands calls for political change from international governments, but also beckons humanitarian movements from civil society and media organizations, so why does the international community remain largely unaware of the Haitian people’s struggle?

The answer to this question is complicated and involves several confounding factors. One such factor that may be in play is that offering to help an impoverished country after it is struck by a natural disaster seems like the moral thing to do, whereas offering similar support when political catastrophe hits does not appear as immediately pressing. This hesitance could be due to the fact that even though White Saviorism applies to random events that no one has control over, that same paternal instinct to offer aid does not apply when Haiti, a predominantly black country, becomes embroiled in a political crisis. Obviously, the Haitian people did not have anything to do with President Moïse’s corrupt rise to power; however, the false notion that the people of Haiti somehow brought this upon themselves may be a powerful factor in why the world has not responded to cries for help.

Understanding and dealing with both a humanitarian and political crisis may be difficult for aid organizations and governments alike; however, the American response to the situation in Venezuela represents an interesting example of how both crises can be addressed at once. The current issues in Venezuela have been recognized widely as two-tiered, drawing necessary support for a democratic transition of power as well as politically neutral humanitarian aid.

Venezuela has received support for refugees and migrants as well as for Juan Guaidó’s political standing because of the political rivalry with the Maduro regime and the potential financial gain for American companies from Venezuelan oil. This same two-tiered approach is clearly needed in Haiti; however, there does not seem to be much emphasis on the human side of the situation. Unlike Venezuela, Haiti does not hold the same abundance of valuable natural resources often sought by the United States, which may also partly explain the general lack of political will.

The lack of media and humanitarian attention today is only making President Moïse’s grip on power stronger. As the U.S. demands that he organizes elections, his power is only further legitimized. In order to protect the struggling democracy and people of Haiti at the same time, a two-tiered response is imperative. Even though rampant crime and food insecurity are not as riveting as the immediate fallout of an earthquake, these issues demand attention just as much as any other disaster.

Garrett O’Brien is a student at Harvard University studying Social Studies with a focus on international democracy movements. You can reach him on Twitter at @Garrettobrien17 and by email at garrettobrien@college.harvard.edu.