President Jovenel Moise is making Haiti an autocratic nation
Haiti, the Caribbean country has been mired in a violent crisis with political, economic, and constitutional dimensions since President Jovenel Moise was implicated.
Since February 2019, when President Jovenel Moise was implicated in the largest corruption scandal Haiti has ever known, the country has been mired in a violent crisis with political, economic, and constitutional dimensions. Instead of heeding protesters’ demands to step down or addressing the allegations against him, Moise formed alliances with armed gangs that continue to terrorize the population and quash anti-government demonstrations.
Moise, who has been ruling by decree since July 2018 due to his inability to form a government, has also eviscerated the independent institutions that could hold him and his allies accountable. He is clinging to power even though his term in office technically ended on Feb. 7, arguing that he has more time because of a year-long delay in his swearing-in amid an electoral dispute surrounding the 2016 ballot. Now, Moise is trying to change the constitution through a referendum in order to secure immunity for himself and his cronies. Haiti’s young democracy is turning into an autocratic regime, while the economy remains paralyzed and armed gangs are free to kidnap and assassinate their opponents.
The current regime, led by the right-wing Tet Kale Party—meaning “bald-headed” in Haitian Creole—first came to power in 2011, following its victory in elections that were widely seen as fraudulent. Tet Kale’s presidential candidate was Michel Martelly, a former pop star who went by the nickname “Sweet Micky” and was known for profanity-laced tirades against his opponents, particularly the Lavalas party of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. After “winning” the elections with the backing of the United States and the United Nations, Martelly inaugurated a period of corruption, violence, and incompetence that led to today’s acute crisis.
Over a single five-year term, he left behind a trail of unfinished construction projects that did nothing to improve the economy. He also failed to organize legislative elections and ruled through decrees and administrative orders, even though the 1987 constitution prohibits presidents from doing so. However, his unilateral reign did allow him to enrich his allies. In 2014, the government granted a no-bid contract that included tax-free access to land and a $6 million loan to Agritrans, a newly created banana production company owned by Moise, who went on to succeed Martelly as president.
Moise won that year’s election with a dismal voter turnout of just 18 percent of eligible voters. But despite the new administration, there was little change in conditions on the ground. Funds allocated for reconstruction from the devastating 2010 earthquake continued to mysteriously disappear while skyrocketing rates of inflation and unemployment paralyzed the economy. In 2019, an estimated 2.6 million people in Haiti needed humanitarian assistance. In 2021, that number has risen to 4.4 million. Much of this was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which crashed the global economy and reduced the remittances many Haitians rely on to get by.
The reality, though, is that Haiti’s troubles predate the pandemic.
In July 2018, Moise’s government sparked an uproar when it announced a plan to end fuel subsidies, effectively raising gasoline prices by 50 percent. The measure was a condition of a new loan package from the International Monetary Fund, which Moise’s cash-strapped government had agreed to. Though the plan was suspended soon after it was made public, it prompted massive protests that were violently repressed by the police, resulting in at least seven deaths.
The following month, Haitians again organized mass protests, this time to demand accountability for the disappearance of public funds from the PetroCaribe program. In theory, the program allowed Caribbean states to buy discounted oil from Venezuela, thereby freeing up budgetary funds for their own development. Instead, some $2 billion—nearly a quarter of the country’s 2017 GDP—vanished.
Instead of heeding protesters’ demands to step down or addressing the allegations against him, Moise formed alliances with armed gangs.
The scandal only came into full view in 2019, when the Haitian High Court of Auditors published two thorough reports—an initial one in January, followed by a more complete accounting in May—on the embezzlement of the PetroCaribe funds. Among the many egregious examples of graft, they found that Agritrans, Moise’s banana-farming company, received a $700,000 contract to fix a road, despite having no experience in construction. Another one of Moise’s companies, Betex, received the same amount of money for the same work, on the same date. The road was reportedly never built.
The shocking findings of the audits provoked numerous strikes and violent protests throughout 2019. In response, armed gangs linked to Moise and his cronies terrorized the population, notably through waves of indiscriminate kidnappings.
Moise, proclaiming his innocence, has fought back by crippling the independent branches of Haiti’s government. Today, the lower house of Parliament sits empty, and the Senate has only a third of its seats filled—not enough for a quorum—due to the administration’s failure to organize legislative elections. And in November, Moise issued a decree that stripped the High Court of Auditors of its powers.
On Feb. 7, the end of Moise’s term, he defied the constitution by refusing to step down. That day, he ordered the arrest of two dozen people, including a Supreme Court judge, allegedly for plotting a “coup” against him. The accusations of coup plotting were met with suspicion by the opposition, business, and civil society leaders, as well as by international partners.
Despite the blatant power grab, the U.S. and the Organization of American States have failed to condemn Moise, backing the view that his term should last until February 2022 due to the delay in his taking office. They are calling for a renewed dialogue between the Tet Kale regime and the opposition, and have supported Moise’s proposal for a referendum to change the 1987 constitution—even though that charter specified that it can only be amended by Parliament, not through a referendum. While the plebiscite is currently scheduled for June 27, it would be impossible to hold such a vote in the current context of uncontrolled violence.
In one sense, this is a shame, because there are strong arguments in favor of changing the constitution. Haitian scholars and politicians have long critiqued the country’s current charter because, for instance, it divides the executive branch between a president and a prime minister without clearly delineating their respective powers. Even some of Moise’s opponents argue that certain constitutional changes could be beneficial and bring more stability to the country.
However, the new constitution being proposed by Moise is a world apart from such reforms. It would reinforce presidential powers and would allow either Martelly or Moise to run for a second term, which is currently prohibited. According to Haitian lawyer Guerby Blaise, the new constitution would replace the prime minister with a vice president who directly answers to the president. The Senate would be eliminated, and, most importantly, all elected officials would have full immunity during and after their tenures. In effect, it would allow Moise to be reelected while he and his allies escape justice. This prospect has only fueled tensions in the streets.
Moise’s proposal is so extreme that even some of his close allies have distanced themselves from the planned referendum. On April 21, the head of Tet Kale, Line Balthazar, came out against the proposal, telling a local radio station that the party “is not interested in creating a constitution that favors one group at the expense of another, and repeating what we have been doing in this country for years.” Days later, Haiti’s main international partners—the U.N. and OAS representatives in the country, as well as ambassadors from a number of countries including France, the U.S., and Canada—criticized the Tet Kale government for not putting forth an electoral schedule and for crafting a new draft constitution without serious input from all actors of the Haitian society.
Nonetheless, Moise has indicated he plans to move forward with his project. It seems that the international allies who helped to put the Tet Kale party in power in 2011 will do little to prevent the transformation of Haiti’s democracy into an autocratic regime led by corrupt politicians.