Demonstrators protest against the government of President Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 28 2021. Picture: REUTERS/ESTAILOVE St-VAL
Demonstrators protest against the government of President Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 28 2021. Picture: REUTERS/ESTAILOVE St-VAL

Port-au-Prince — Haiti emerged from the brutal and dynastic Duvalier dictatorship to democracy 35 years ago. Now, many Haitians fear a return to autocracy as President Jovenel Moïse has been steadily amassing power.

The banana exporter-turned-politician has been governing by decree for more than a year since the Caribbean nation failed to hold elections in late 2019 due to political gridlock and violent unrest.

In this time, Moïse has passed dozens of decrees, some of which implemented reforms considered long overdue, such as an update to the penal code. Others, though, are deeply controversial — including an order designating certain types of street protests as terrorism, and the creation of an intelligence agency accountable only to the president.

“I don’t see how there is anyone, after God, who has more power than me in the country,” Moïse said in a speech last year.

Now Moïse hopes a referendum in June will approve a new constitution that would strengthen the power of the executive. He says he wants to end the political instability that has plagued Haiti, hampering development in the poorest country in the Americas. He has vowed not to benefit from the changes, and says he will not stand for a second term in presidential elections set for September.

But the opposition, rights experts and many Haitians say they fear Moïse is paving the way for his political camp — the Tèt Kale party and its allies — to retain power indefinitely.

Thousands have been taking to the streets nationwide in a new wave of anti-government protests, chanting “No to dictatorship!” and calling for Moïse’s immediate resignation and a transition government. The protests have shut down schools and businesses, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in a country where two-thirds of the population make less than $2 a day and gang violence has surged lately.

“This country cannot live any more in dictatorship, murders and repression,” said Kely Bastien, a former opposition senator, taking part in a protest. “Respect for the constitution! Down with dictatorship! Down with decrees!”

Moïse’s critics say his administration is using gangs to intimidate citizens, pointing to massacres in opposition-dominated neighbourhoods. Moïse denies these charges. His supporters emphasise that he was democratically elected and accuse the opposition of deliberately stirring up unrest and using gang violence themselves to create chaos.

Neighbouring countries have warned the situation could worsen as the referendum and presidential election approach, threatening the stability of the Caribbean.

The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti but has a GDP per capita six times greater, said in February that it would build a wall to keep out trouble. And, with Haitian Americans making up a large diaspora in the US and Haiti just 1,125km off Florida, the issue is attracting scrutiny in Washington.

“It’s something we are very actively looking at,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken told a congressional hearing earlier in March, adding that he shares concerns over “some of the authoritarian and undemocratic actions we’ve seen”.

Democratic mandate

Haiti became the first independent state of Latin America and the Caribbean in the early 19th century and the first black-led Republic when it threw off French colonial rule. It should be a beacon of freedom, historians say.

Instead, the toll of the war for independence and successive foreign interventions, as well as natural catastrophes such as a major 2010 earthquake, have contributed to instability, weak institutions and a blighted economy dependent on aid.

Nearly half of Haitians will need emergency humanitarian assistance this year, similar to the needs in war-torn African countries, according to the UN.

Fresh political turmoil erupted in February with a dispute over when Moïse’s term ends that resulted in the president denouncing a coup attempt and replacing three supreme court judges. Moïse told the UN Security council that the opposition’s “policy of chaos” had forced the government to “take off the gloves”.

The UN has denounced the erosion of the separation of powers under Moïse. The UN, Haiti’s Western donors and Caribbean neighbours have urged Moïse to fulfil his promise of holding legislative and presidential elections this year.

The opposition in Haiti accuses the US — Haiti’s top foreign donor — of being lenient towards Moïse, given his support for its foreign policy. His administration broke ranks with the Caribbean community to oppose Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

But Haitian officials and several Western diplomats said the situation was complex. Moïse won his mandate with 56% of the vote in 2016.

Members of the fractured opposition knew they could not win elections so sought to weaponise civil society discontent and foment unrest to gain power, they said. Opposition leaders have refused dialogue unless Moïse offers to resign.

Fears of a return to dictatorship were overblown, the diplomats said. “He’s made some worrying moves but there’s still freedom of the press, with people accusing Moïse of all sorts on the airwaves, and dozens of political parties with different views,” said one diplomat.

How to fix Haiti?

Haitians across the political spectrum agree the country needs an overhaul, including an update of the 1987 constitution that many say contains too many checks and balances in reaction to the Duvalier dictatorship.

Moïse’s reform would allow the president to serve two consecutive terms, eliminate the role of prime minister and the senate, lower the age limit for electoral office, streamline the election cycle and allow the large diaspora to vote.

Western diplomats said these changes would help improve governability and broaden political participation.

Critics, including opposition and civil society leaders who say they were not consulted by the government, argue that the reform goes too far and is being conducted without broad input.

“A constitution is too important to be changed in the middle of a crisis by a criticised government,” said activist Emmanuela Douyon of the Nou Pap Dómi (We Aren’t Sleeping) anti-corruption civil society group. She said the legitimacy of the referendum was threatened by a patchy rollout of new biometric ID cards, needed for voting, and the ongoing insecurity, which could hamper turnout.

Elections minister Mathias Pierre said the opposition has a habit of trying to delegitimise elections and the more democratic way forward would be to engage in the process.

Pierre said Moïse was taking measures to ensure elections could be held safely, such as declaring a state of emergency in the most gang-ridden neighbourhoods, and had invited the Organization of American States to send electoral observers.

While the political battle rages, ordinary Haitians are struggling to survive. Mimose, who declined to give her last name for fear of retaliation, is one of many street vendors whose work has been disrupted by the unrest. “The authorities need to unite to allow the population to survive,” said the mother of four. “As long as we are in this crisis, nothing will work.”

Reuters

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