By Federico Larsen – Mar 3, 2021
Jovenel Moïse’s government seems destined to fall soon. But in Haiti, even what seems inevitable can take unexpected turns.
From underneath the burnt chassis of a motorcycle, only a pair of legs, also charred, could be seen a few centimeters from the sidewalk of the avenue that marks the beginning of the Delmas neighborhood, in the southwest of Port-au-Prince. Some neighbors commented to the journalists of the international agencies that approached the place, that the man had been killed by a bullet, and then the corpse had been set on fire. It was Moïse’s gangs, they added.
A few blocks away, the umpteenth massive demonstration to demand the resignation of the president was still going on. A small group had separated from the rest of the march to attack with a shower of stones a dozen policemen prepared to repress. The uniformed officers responded with lead bullets to the stones, injuring several of those participating in the protest.
The opposition had managed to bring to the streets an unexpected number of people that Sunday. A week earlier, on February 7, the mandate of conservative President Jovenel Moïse had expired without new elections, and Judge Joseph Mécène Jean Louis, first in the line of succession according to the current constitution, accepted the position of “president in charge of the breakaway transition”. Despite the dead and the lead bullets, the gear for a new change of course in Haiti seems to have been set in motion.
Crime is political
“Haiti is a country that has a really very low level of common crime. The country’s peasant culture has always been very resistant to crime. In the country about 25 years ago you couldn’t even get guns. But there are very high levels of political violence,” explains Lautaro Rivara, sociologist and journalist, member of the Dessalines Brigade of Solidarity with Haiti. “For some decades there have been criminal groups that are armed directly by the political power.
It is quite common for senators, former senators, ministers, presidents or former presidents to arm their small shock groups, which over the years have been growing in arms, financing and power with a very concrete objective which is to terrorize the people.”
Marie Yolène Gilles, of the human rights advocacy group Fondasyon Je Klere (FJKL), in her statement to the United Nations Security Council in January 2020 estimated that there are about 150 active criminal gangs in the country. The most important ones are based in the populous neighborhoods of the capital Port-au-Prince, those which, at the same time, make up the most important electoral districts.
There are frequent incursions of armed collectives that on more than one occasion end in massacres. Last August twenty people were murdered in the working class neighborhood of Bel-Air, and the houses of the survivors were set on fire, forcing the inhabitants to set up an emergency camp in the esplanade surrounding the government palace. The most recognized massacre carried out by gangs linked to political power occurred on November 13, 2018 in the opposition stronghold of La Saline. 71 people were killed on that occasion, eleven women gang raped, 400 houses set on fire.
An investigation released by the US government months later confirmed the presence of departmental representatives and close associates of President Moïse among the “architects” of the massacre. In fact Fednel Monchery, former Director General of the Ministry of the Interior, and Rigaud Duplan, former Departmental Director of the West resigned from their posts for their responsibility in the massacre.
“It is very common to see things that are difficult to typify in terms of common criminality,” Rivara explains. “A group of criminals enters a populous market, in broad daylight, shoots people at point-blank range, fires shots in the air, does something very showy but steals absolutely nothing. And so there are a lot of facts in that sense.”
One of the best-known men in this interweaving of organized crime, institutions and political parties in Haiti is Jimmy Chérizier, alias “Barbecue,” a former police officer involved in the massacres of Grand Ravine in 2017, La Saline in 2018 and another run that happened in Bel Air in 2019. In June 2020 Chérizier managed to create the “G9 an Fanmi” (G9 and family), an alliance between gangs in the capital that, according to analysts and opponents, in fact co-governs Haiti.
It was to the G9 that the witnesses who spoke of “Moïse’s gangs” in front of the charred corpse in Delmas last Sunday referred to. Those neighborhoods that have participated the most in the string of anti-government protests of the last four years have generally been the hardest hit by gang action.
The repressive and coordinated actions of these illegal groups became more visible starting in mid-2018, when the scandal over the “Petrocaribe Challenge” broke out. Haiti was included in the plan designed by the government of Hugo Chavez to facilitate the access of the countries of the Caribbean basin to Venezuelan hydrocarbons.
Petrocaribe member countries received huge quantities of oil at heavily reduced prices, provided that the difference that each government saved with respect to the market price was invested in social development programs within the beneficiary country. Haiti entered the agreement in 2007, and in just over 10 years saved US$3.8 billion (more than a third of its current GDP) in fuel and borrowing costs, which however were not used for the purposes foreseen in the agreement.
Thousands of people took to the streets. Demonstrations against corruption and bad governance touched their apex between February and June 2019, and intensified again between September and December due to fuel shortages and the economic crisis that followed.
It was in the repression of these demonstrations that the union between crime and political power was consolidated: dozens of people were killed by machetes and gunshots in attacks on their neighborhoods or during anti-corruption demonstrations. A recent UN report documented 133 deaths and 698 cases of human rights violations committed by police forces and government-linked gangs in protests held between July 6, 2018 and December 10, 2019.
The 2019 crisis due to the Petrocaribe scandal was resolved with the umpteenth change of prime minister and the umpteenth loan from the International Monetary Fund to temporarily heal the state coffers. But after a few months another scandal brought several neighborhoods of the capital back to the streets. In January 2020 Moïse decided to close the parliament, since due to the instability experienced at the end of 2019 the legislative elections scheduled for November of that year had not been possible. Moïse in fact rules by decree since then, and the parliament remains closed.
Following the large protest mobilizations that broke out in the first half of 2020, the gangs were back in action. Between May 23 and 27, they attacked the neighborhoods of Font-Rouge, Chancerelles, La Saline, Tokyo and Fort-Dimanche with the support of police officers, causing the death of 34 people according to the Réseau National de Défense des Droits de l’Homme (RNDDH) and US Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Two weeks later, “Barbecue” announced the creation of the G9 with a video on social networks.
The end of the rope?
The conduct of Moïse, known as “Nèg banann”, the “banana boy” for his activity as a banana businessman, had so far not yet had any repercussions on the international scene. His quick reflex to break relations with Venezuela, a few months after the Petrocaribe scandal, recognize Juan Guaidó as interim president and the alignment with Trump’s policy in the Caribbean allowed him a certain protection despite the obvious outrages committed in most aspects of domestic political life.
In late November 2020, Haiti was the first American country to open an embassy in Western Sahara , effectively recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over that territory as Trump had imposed a few days earlier. But the change of tenant in the White House, and above all the growth of opposition claims, increasingly widespread even within state institutions, forced the president to modify his plan of action.
In mid-2020, he announced his intention to reform the constitution in order to give the country an institutional configuration that would make it possible to deal with the continuing crises. The current Haitian constitution was the fruit of the brief democratic spring that the country experienced after the long dictatorship of François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, in power since 1956 and then succeeded by his son, Jean Claude, nicknamed Baby Doc, who maintained the regime until 1986.
To contrast the creation of a new disastrous dictatorship like those of the Duvaliers, the Haitian constituents set up a complex institutional system of checks and balances, which mixes typical American presidentialism with elements typical of the more diffuse parliamentary systems in Europe. The president, in this way, is not head of government but head of state, and the parliament must approve the prime minister appointed by the president.
A complex design that proved unsound in the face of Haiti’s political ups and downs: since the return of democracy, the country has had 19 presidents – of whom only two have completed their term of office – and 34 prime ministers, in addition to eight coups d’état and three foreign military interventions. The reform proposed by Moïse was justified precisely by the need to address this instability from an institutional point of view.
However, two months before the date set for the referendum for the approval of the new Magna Carta (a mechanism not even foreseen by the current constitution), the draft of the reform is still being worked on in secret. The electoral calendar presented by Moïse, moreover, was drawn up by a Provisional Electoral Council appointed by decree by the President himself, without recognition by the opposition, and foresees the holding of general elections on September 19.
After announcing the constitutional reform, Moïse approved two decrees last November 26 “for the strengthening of public security”. The first extends the definition of the crime of “terrorism” to acts of simple street vandalism, which could be punished with up to 50 years in prison. The other instituted the National Intelligence Agency, an espionage and repression agency whose agents can neither be prosecuted nor tried, in fact allowing the commission of all kinds of abuses with guaranteed impunity.
Even the Core Group, composed of ambassadors from Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United States, the European Union, the Special Representative of the Organization of American States and the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, has expressed its criticism of these measures. In a communiqué published a few days after the approval of the regulations, it states that they “do not appear to be in line with certain fundamental principles of democracy, the rule of law and the civil and political rights of citizens”.
Another decision that generated adverse reactions at the international level was the reduction of the attributions of the Superior Court of Accounts, the body in charge of overseeing the use of public money and investigating corruption cases, to a merely consultative role. “The rulings of the Superior Court of Accounts and Administrative Disputes (…) will not be binding for the National Commission of Public Contracting, nor for the authorities of the Executive Branch”, states the decree also signed last November, and which generated international repudiation.
Last month’s demonstrations in Port-au-Prince cast further doubts on the tolerance enjoyed by Moïse’s government abroad. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs of the U.S. State Department, Julie Chung, described as “authoritarian” and “anti-democratic” the recent actions of the government in the face of the new protests unleashed since January.
The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, prepared a report to be presented to the Security Council next week in which, according to international media reports, he compiles 66 critical points that the country is currently experiencing, and that could only be faced with new transparent and democratic elections.
The explosion of 2021
The main trigger for the series of massive demonstrations against the current government, despite the risks involved, which began in January, revolves around the controversy over the length of Moïse’s presidential term. The current constitution provides for a president to remain in office for a five-year term.
Moise was elected in 2017, but the elections in which he was consecrated were actually a repeat of those of 2016, annulled after fraud was found in different districts. The opposition interprets that the presidential period Moïse occupies should be considered since the failed elections of 2016, having ended last February 7, 2021.
Moreover, according to the 1987 Constitution, in extraordinary situations, the parliament could shorten the presidential mandate by one year, something that the opposition assures that the parliament had the intention to do before the president closed it.
Thus, thousands of Haitians terminated Moïse’s constitutional mandate last February 7, and with the parliament closed and the action of the G9 in collusion with the police, they now consider him to be a dictator. On that day there were demonstrations and pronouncements by various political actors in the country. Among them, several magistrates positioned themselves in favor of the opposition interpretation that Moïse is usurping an office whose mandate has already expired.
Three of them were replaced and arrested that same Sunday along with 20 other people accused of coup, despite the fact that the constitution forbids the president to dismiss and appoint judges. The opposition then appointed the most senior judge of the Court of Cassation, as provided for in the constitution, as interim president.
Joseph Mécène pledged to organize free and fair elections, but recently added that progress must first be made in the consolidation of a sovereign national conference, a constitutional reform, the strengthening of the judiciary and the electoral system, as well as the restoration of security.
A rather ambitious agenda, which for now has the support of a heterogeneous and disorganized movement, whose only agreement would seem to boil down to the removal of Moïse. “There is a very strong opposition from people who are not organized,” Rivara notes in this regard.
“That relationship that exists everywhere between an organic and a rather inorganic mobilization component is very different from other countries. There are mobilizations of hundreds of thousands of people where the really organized structures, with militants, unions and movements are really in the minority. Then there are traditional political parties, such as those referring to the Democratic and Popular Sector, the closest thing to an institutional opposition headed by the lawyer André Michel.
And there is the field of social movements and the most combative unions such as those found in the Patriotic Forum. These are territorial, women’s, peasant and even religious movements that represent the most radical and transforming opposition. These are the three great components of these mobilizations, the inorganic which is the majority, the more formal and institutional and the social movements”.
Nothing is happening here
“Let’s not dramatize. We do not have a situation as serious as it tends to be projected. It is a controlled situation. The situation is under control. Today is better than yesterday. Tomorrow will be better than today”, affirmed the Haitian Chancellor, Claude Joseph, the same night of February 14, a few hours after a charred corpse appeared in the middle of the street in the neighborhood of Dalmas and the police repressed a march with lead bullets, injuring, among others, the third journalist since the beginning of the crisis.
In spite of the critical situation in the country, the forces holding the government in check maintain their plan for constitutional reform and promises of elections, dismissing all criticism as part of a coup plan. Moïse has on his side the inertia that pushes Haitian politics to remain in a status quo in which what could be considered an exceptionality in any part of the world is assumed almost as routine.
Political violence, already the order of the day at the time of the dreaded Tonton Macoutes, the militias of the Duvalier regime that terrorized the population for thirty years, corruption and poverty. The government of Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, seems to justify what is happening on the basis of the inevitability of certain historical problems.
Any study on Haiti pivots on the same themes: debt, corruption, foreign intervention, international cooperation. Haiti has had a deeply dependent economic structure since the time of its independence, punished by Enlightenment France with a fine that it was only able to pay in 1947. The constant need for financing led all Haitian governments to become even more indebted to North American and European banks, which, faced with the possibility of a possible default on payment, did not hesitate to turn to their governments.
Thus, in 1915 the United States invaded Haiti after one of the many revolts that had ended with the assassination of the then President Guillaume Sam, and placed under its control its entire economic structure. When it left the country in 1934, it continued to maintain a preponderant influence over the political and economic elections. It was also thanks to Washington’s blessing that the Duvaliers managed to hold on to power for almost three decades.
After his overthrow (also on February 7), Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier took some $900 million of the public treasury with him into exile in France. By 1996, Haiti owed 22.8 billion dollars, and it was not until then that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank began to include it in the List of Heavily Indebted Poor Countries .
In the meantime, Haiti had become the main recipient of NGOs and humanitarian organizations in the Americas, a characteristic that in the long run turned out to be more negative than helpful. Given the long history of corruption cases, the funds sent by international organizations are managed directly by their representatives in the country and not by the government, in fact sustaining the structural poverty of the state and financing projects according to the discretionary criteria of private donors and volunteers on the spot.
A new coup d’état in 1991 cut short one of the most interesting experiments in Latin American progressivism led by the Salesian priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first president democratically elected by the Haitian people. Returned to power in 2001, he was again overthrown by a coup in 2004, and the political instability unleashed from that date onwards served as justification for a new foreign intervention.
This time under the orbit of the UN through the United Nations Stabilization Mission (Minustah). The role of these international forces involved in multiple scandals deserves a separate chapter. Part of its 10,000 soldiers were responsible for introducing a cholera outbreak that affected 780,000 people and caused more than 10,000 deaths.
In 2016, then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took responsibility and apologized to the Haitian people. Minustah soldiers were also accused of rape and forcing minors into prostitution in exchange for food. More than 2,000 women denounced the abuses they received and there are at least 265 children born of this violence  to whom the United Nations even denied DNA tests to determine paternity.
The earthquake of January 2010 further worsened the situation. Nearly 300,000 people died and another 1.5 million lost their homes, in a catastrophe that ultimately served to further fuel the country’s dependence on foreign capital, either through multilateral and private loans or through donations from NGOs.
Haiti’s path over the last decades is the necessary context to understand the parsimony that the current government wants to demonstrate at the international level in the face of the current crisis. Its plan is long term and offers a reasonable medium and long term solution to the quagmire in which the country has found itself for almost 34 years.
And at the same time, as Rivara  rightly explains, it aims at achieving an institutional normalization that fits in with the project of the conservative and oligarchic bloc that Moïse represents. On the other hand, an extremely heterogeneous and poorly organized democratic sector drives a resistance that is increasingly obtaining greater echoes at the national and international level. Its strength, the street, remains firm in spite of the repression, but the project for the institutional future of the country remains, once again, in a nebulous state.
Featured image: File Photo