President Moïse’s declaration of a state of emergency on March 16th marked the first official recognition of the political crisis which swept over Haiti at the start of the year. Escalation of the crisis over recent months has led to widespread civilian protests, increasingly violent repression by the Haitian National Police (PNH), a surge in crime rates across the country, and a destabilisation of authority.
The ongoing crisis pertains to the length and legitimacy of the standing president’s current term in office. Opposition leaders claim Moïse’s 5 year term ended, according to the constitution, this year on February 7th; and have disputed his rule ever since. Moïse and members of his cabinet believe his presidency to be valid until February 7th of 2022. In the months leading up to February 7th, this disagreement dominated Haiti’s political sphere: opponent demands for popular elections as well as a peaceful transfer of the presidency were firmly refused by Moïse. Failed negotiations between both sides has led civilians to call for Moïse’s resignation from the presidency.
The disagreement over Moïse’s term length stems from a dispute over the start date of the president’s term and disparate interpretations of the constitution. After Moïse’s first-round election victory in 2016 was tainted with allegations of corruption, runoff elections were rescheduled to the following year. Moïse would go on to win those elections and take office on February 7th, 2017. Members of opposition cite Article 134-2 of the constitution as proof that Moïse’s term formally began in 2016. The article states “in case the vote cannot take place before February 7, the elected president takes office immediately after the vote is confirmed and his mandate is expected to begin on February 7 in the year of the election.” Moïse and members of his party, the PHTK (Haitian Tèt Kale Party), have labelled these allegations ‘ridiculous,’ insisting that his term only started when he took office in February 2017.
Civilian dissatisfaction has been constant throughout Moïse’s term, which has been characterized by widespread distrust of his cabinet’s practices. 2018 and 2019 also saw periodic bouts of intense civilian protest amidst the nation’s growing economic difficulties. Opposition – taking the form of opponent political parties, local civil society groups, and international diaspora – attributed rising fuel and basic good prices to government embezzlement of funds generated from the ‘Petrocaribe’ program. Launched in 2006 in alliance with Venezuela, the program was essentially a development loan project which aimed to improve Haiti’s economy and fund social programs. With no evidence of tangible progress in these projects, a Senate probe launched in 2017 reported that the funds were misallocated by three consecutive governments, including Moïse’s. The scandal resulted in widespread anti-corruption protests by Haitians that circulated online through the hashtag ‘#petrocaribechallenge’.
Skeptics also argue that Moïse has been gradually moving towards authoritarian rule by attempting to change the constitution and remove checks and balances against his power. The president postponed the last legislative elections that were to take place from October 2019 to September 2021, meaning he has ruled by presidential decree for over a year. He insists that he will step down after the elections, despite opponent skepticism.
Haiti’s main international partners, the US, UN, and OAS (Organisation of American States), have supported Moïse’s position, but insist that regular elections should be carried out this year, bringing in a new president in February next year. They also called for protestors and national police to end all violent practices. Receiving support from the international community, particularly the Biden administration, has been crucial to Moïse’s pursuit to legitimise his actions throughout the course of the crisis. Haitian civil society actors oppose this aid as they believe the nation’s current electoral council is too weak and lacks the credibility to facilitate free and fair elections. As Haiti’s largest donor of economic aid, the US has considerable sway in the nation’s political affairs. Despite this influence, the amount of coverage on the matter by Western outlets has been minimal. Conditions in the nation are getting more desperate by the day, and evermore unsolvable.
Edited by Zachary Beresin
Joel Sawmadal is in his second year at McGill University, where he studies Economics and Political Science. This is his first year as a Catalyst staff writer and his interests include economic development and politics in developing countries.