Haiti On the Brink: How the Moise Government Brought Haitian Democracy to its Knees
On July 7, 2021 President Jovenel Moise was assassinated by a group of at least two Haitian Americans and twenty-six Colombian nationals. Much about the perpetrators and their plot is still unknown. Besides the slain president, the only other victim of the early morning ambush was Moise’s wife, who was shot and taken to Miami, Florida for treatment. No other Presidential guards have been reported as wounded. There is also a large degree of uncertainty about the current leadership in Haiti. Although Haiti's acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph has finally ceded the central figurehead position to Ariel Henry after initially refusing to step down, the government remains on shaky ground. Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing seems clear: the assassination of President Moise represents the culmination of political violence that has been rapidly increasing throughout Haiti.
For the past several months, the small island nation seated in the center of the Caribbean has seen a dramatic surge in politically motivated gang violence. Government instability compounded by the nation’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis has encouraged this trend. At the center of Haiti’s political disarray were questions over Moise’s legitimacy as the Haitian president and whether or not he was still the legitimate leader of Haiti. Tensions over Moise’s power led the opposition to demand a civil shut-down of the country in hopes of forcing the resignation of President Moise. The lack of solid leadership helped encourage a flare up in gang violence that has existed in the country for decades.
This groundswell of outrage and violence must be understood in the context of President Moise’s rise to power and his tenure in office. Before embarking on his political career, Moise was a businessman focused on revitalizing Haiti’s agricultural sector and created thousands of jobs in the process. In 2015, Moise made the crossover from the private sector to public service. The former President of Haiti, Michel Martelly, picked Moise to be the Tet Kale Party (PHTK) candidate for the upcoming presidential election in 2016. Martelly tapped Moise to run because he believed Moise’s extensive experience improving the Haitian economy would be a major asset for the party.
Moise’s campaign played to Martelly’s expectations, making the economy an integral part of his platform. Throughout the entirety of his campaign, Moise drove forward a message of economic prosperity for Haiti, focusing on programs such as bio-ecological agriculture. Moise also echoed Martelly’s calls for universal education, health care, and energy reform.
In the first round of elections which took place in early October of 2015, Moise had received around 33% of the vote qualifying him for a runoff with the runner-up candidate. However, when an exit poll reported that Moise had only garnered around 6% of the vote, the results were immediately overshadowed by accusations of fraud from opposition parties and political challengers. The accusations of fraud resulted in massive protests throughout the nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince. Even before an official victory was declared, it was clear that Moise was not going to have an electoral mandate from the Haitian people.
In a special election that occurred the following year in November, election officials declared that Moise had won in the first round voiding the need for a runoff election. Moise was finally sworn in on February 7, 2017, the year after he was supposed to be sworn in according to the Haitian Constitution. This delay set the stage for Haiti’s current political crisis. According to Article 134-1 of the Haitian Constitution, the term of president is five (5) years. This term begins and ends on February 7 following the date of elections. The dispute has become whether or not Moise’s term began in 2016 after the initial elections were won, or in 2017 when he actually took office.
Without a constitutional authority to weigh in on the matter, it is required by law for Haitian jurists to submit their opinions on the matter. The Haitian Bar Federation, the Superior Council of Judicial Power, and other civil groups all agreed that Moise’s electoral mandate had ended in February of this year. Despite this consensus, Moise declined to step down from the presidency.
Moise’s refusal to step down aligned with his consistent efforts to consolidate power. In 2019, the Haitian electoral council postponed legislative elections indefinitely and Moise ruled by decree ever since. Moise also suspended several judges from the Supreme Court and proceeded to appoint allies more inclined to keep him in power. Moise’s actions made clear that he intended to leave office when he deemed his term was over and blamed the opposition for pressuring him to leave prematurely.
After Moise refused to leave in February of 2021, the country erupted into protest. The opposition called on its supporters to keep up a “permanent mobilization.” The opposition, led by former civil magistrate Jean-Charles Moise, has also called on the United States to recognize Moise as a de facto president whose term has concluded. Jean-Charles Moise represents an opposition that directly confronted the Haitian government during President Moise’s time in office.
The fighting between the opposition and the Moise government brought everyday life in Haiti to a standstill. Many parts of the country have been seized by armed criminal gangs. During Moise’s tenure, at least three gang massacres have been deemed crimes against humanity by The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and the Haitian Observatory for Crimes Against Humanity. Other key pillars of Haitian life have also suffered under the Moise government. Without a functioning civil sector, the nation’s education system has been paralyzed and hundreds of thousands of Haitian students are being kept out of the classroom. Businesses have also been forced to run at half capacity, adding stress to the nation’s economy.
In June, amidst this rising wave of civil unrest and violence, the Organization of American States (OAS) came to visit the country. The OAS is one of the world’s oldest regional organizations that was established to achieve peace and security among its member nations. The five-member delegation from the OAS arrived in Haiti for a two-day visit. The intention of the visit was to mediate dialogue between the Moise government and the opposition in hopes of achieving a resolution to the constitutional crisis. The opposition charged the OAS visit as being nothing more than a mere ploy by Moise to steer the dialogue in his favor and keep power in his corner.
President Moise’s most recent power grab came a week before the OAS visit in the form of a controversial constitutional referendum that he proposed. The referendum called for the abolition of the Haitian Senate and the creation of a unicameral legislature, the abolition of the position of Prime Minister, and the modification of presidential term limits to two consecutive five-year terms. The vote was supposed to take place on June 27th but was pushed back due to “difficulties” cited by the electoral council. These referendum’s radical propositions inflamed political tensions. With the proposed referendum, Moise could have run for reelection and potentially won another five-year term. From the dissolution of the Haitian Senate to the removal of the country’s Prime Minister, many saw this referendum as another conspicuous effort by Moise to control the country’s judicial and legislative branches.
Haiti is a country with a challenging past. It has been plagued by foreign intervention, corrupt politicians, and dictatorships. It has been the center of some of the worst natural disasters in the world, including the infamous 2008 Haitian earthquake which devastated the country’s infrastructure. Haiti’s democratic institutions have faced pressure from internal and external factors for years. It is safe to say that President Moise’s anti-democatic actions have added to that pressure. Moise’s assassination cannot reverse the debilitating effects of civil unrest and rampant gang violence that took shape under his leadership.
It seems that, for the time being, the widespread political and gang control will continue to destabilize the country. With an ill-equipped police force and a government unable to secure economic and political stability, Haiti could be in a perpetual cycle of unrest. The question remains, can this historic country with an embattled past salvage a functioning government or will this assassination be the final nail in the coffin for Haitian democracy?