A senior U.S. State Department official warned Wednesday that there could soon be consequences for those in Haiti seeking to stand in the way of the country’s democratic process.
The Trump administration and the Organization of American States have each separately called on Haitian President Jovenel Moïse to organize legislative elections. But Moïse, who has been ruling without a Parliament since January and is one of only 11 elected officials in the entire country of nearly 11 million, has had a hard time sitting a nine-member Provisional Electoral Council.
Key sectors that have been part of a provisional electoral commission, or CEP, since 1986 — the Catholic Church, the Protestant Federation, private sector associations, presidents of universities and human rights advocates — have all categorically refused to participate and designate a representative as they have done for past elections.
But the Trump administration is having no part of the resistance.
“Frankly, I have to say I’m a little bit tired of every group, every opposition party in Haiti saying, ‘Well, I won’t appoint my person,’ or ‘We won’t have an election,’ or ‘We won’t run in this until you meet all of my political demands,’ ” said the official, speaking during a State Department briefing ahead of a visit this week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Suriname, Guyana, Brazil and Colombia. “That’s not democracy. And so we are quite insistent on this, and it’s going to start to have consequences for those who stand in the way of it.”
On Wednesday, Haitian Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe, appearing on a Port-au-Prince-based radio show, said that a new CEP would soon be named and sworn in by Moïse via executive order.
Appearing on Vision 2000 as its guest of the day, Jouthe said he believes that elections could take place despite what some political observers are describing as the most severe crisis Haiti has faced since dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was overthrown by a popular uprising 34 years ago and the country ushered in democracy.
“It is neither the CEP nor the government that will conduct the elections. It is the competitors,” Jouthe said, echoing similar comments made by the State Department official, who continued to blame Parliament and not Moïse, for the lack of an electoral law. Moïse never sent a law to be voted on by the chamber before it became dysfunctional in January.
During the briefing, the official compared Haiti to Guyana, saying the issue the State Department has in the French-speaking nation is very similar to what the U.S. faced in the South American country, where former President David Granger and his government last year were accused of overstaying their constitutional mandate while insisting Guyana had a democratic government.
“That’s what’s happened in Haiti, perhaps through no fault of President Moïse, but the legislature there never passed a electoral law during the entire time it was in. So he has the opportunity to do that by his rule by decree, and we believe he should,” the State Department official said. “You can’t maintain a democracy for very long with one of the main branches of government being absent.”
Robert Maguire, the former chair of the Haitian Area Studies program at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, said it is unfair to compare Haiti, a country where a disillusioned electorate is being asked to vote on empty bellies, to Guyana, which is poised to become one of South America’s wealthiest nations following its recent discovery of oil off its coast.
“This thing about ‘It’s going to have consequences for those who stand in the way,’ well, it already has consequences,” Maguire said. “They are getting shot. They are getting beat up and they’ve been demonstrating in the streets for years about the lack of any kind of responsible democracy in the country. These are people who are already suffering the consequences of Haiti’s failure.”
On Wednesday, Haitians, already hit with a worsening lack of food, armed-gang conflict and five weeks of street paralysis by protesting schoolchildren and their teachers, were forced to shelter in place as rogue cops turned the streets of Port-au-Prince into scenes of panic and chaos. Part of a group known as Fantom 509, the officers, riding on the back of motorcycles with their faces covered, burned cars and attacked government buildings while demanding the release of a jailed Haitian National Police officer, Pascal Alexandre.
Earlier in the week, the cops’ violent protests led to the release of five specialized police officers who had been thrown in jail after failing to secure the premises of a high-profile attorney, Monferrier Dorval, who was assassinated in the yard of his home two weeks ago. Hours after the assassination, Dorval’s home was ransacked.
“Everyone knows or should know that organizing elections in the current political climate is an invitation to further chaos,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti political expert and political science professor at the University of Virginia. “And since Jovenel is not prepared to make concessions to bring about some semblance of national unity, the crisis will continue.”
In addition to the almost daily violent protests, Haiti is facing a climate where gangs are being normalized and politicized in the absence of public authority, the government is publicly attacking some areas of the private sector, and poverty is growing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Should Moïse go ahead and name a CEP without consensus or political negotiation, many fear the situation will only worsen in a country where elections have historically made things worse.
The State Department official said that while the U.S. would like to see on the electoral commission people “who have a reputation for integrity, honesty, competence, and who can do a good job of organizing elections, they’re not supposed to produce the outcome of the election. They’re supposed to produce a good electoral process. That’s all we ask in any of these countries, and that’s what we ask in Haiti.”
“For us, the Haitian constitution spells out what a provisional election council should look like. The president has some responsibility to appoint it with ... input from those other groups,” he said.
Those articles of the constitution in fact gave the de-facto military government of Henri Namphy the powers of both the executive and the legislative branches until the first election could be held in 1988 after the end of the Duvalier dictatorship.
While the provisions spelled out how a provisional electoral commission would be chosen, including which sectors would send representatives, nowhere do the articles give the president the power to repeat those procedures or decide which groups in civil society would be asked to name members.
In the absence of a permanent electoral commission, which is spelled out in Haiti’s 1987 constitution, presidents have opted to put together a provisional electoral commission by negotiation and consensus with civil society and political parties.
“What we’re saying to the Haitian players is: Do your respective jobs,” the State Department official said. “The president’s got a job to do, the legislators had a job to do and didn’t do it, but civil society has jobs to do too. And you can’t say ‘Doing my job is contingent on me extorting from you everything I want.‘ That’s simply not a democratic way to go forward.”