A protest in Haiti. (AP)

A protest in Haiti. (AP)

Constitutional Crisis and Crime Have Haiti on Edge

By Chase Harrison

President Jovenel Moïse’s constitutional referendum stalled, but he’s found other ways to consolidate political power amid calls for his resignation.

Haitians were slated to vote on a constitutional referendum on June 27 that could have resulted in major shifts in the country's governance. But that vote will be postponed, with the electoral council saying there were too many difficulties in training staff to carry out an election. No new date has been set for the referendum, which had already been pushed from its original date in April.

The postponement only adds to the building political chaos in Haiti stemming from President Jovenel Moïse’s efforts to expand his power in the country. Not only do opposition members claim his term ended in February, but they also point to exploding gang violence and the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine campaign to suggest that the president has failed and must be removed.

Moïse’s referendum

The constitutional referendum championed by Moïse would see Haitians voting on wide-ranging government reforms drafted by a five-person commission hand-selected by the president. On July 17, President Jovenel Moïse gave issued a decree giving the commission until July 31 to work on their draft.

The proposed new Constitution includes measures that replace the role of prime minister with a vice president, make the legislature unicameral by abolishing the Senate, make legislative terms uniformly five years, lower the age limit on elected officials, mandate military service, give immunity to former presidents, and allow Haitians abroad to vote. Critics claim that the reforms are a tool for Moïse to further concentrate power for himself and his Haitian Tèt Kale Party by weakening the parliament in favor of the presidency. They are also skeptical over the inclusion of a provision that would lift the ban on consecutive presidential reelection. But Moïse says he does not plan on running for reelection in the presidential elections slated for September 2021. For his part, Moïse counters that the current Constitution makes Haiti ungovernable.

An ongoing crisis

Haiti is facing a protracted political crisis that centers on a question of when the president’s five-year term actually started and ends. Moïse won the first round of the presidential election in 2015 with 32.8 percent of the vote but, after allegations of voter fraud, the runoff was postponed and the results of those elections eventually scrapped. Meanwhile, outgoing President Michel Martelly’s term expired on February 7, 2016, at which point he left office, and Jocelerme Privert stepped into the role on an interim basis. In November 2016, Moïse won the presidency outright in “do-over” general elections with 55.7 percent of the vote and took office on February 7, 2017. The opposition claims that Moïse’s term began in 2016 after Martelly stepped down, with Privert essentially serving the first year of Moïse’s five-year term, which they say ended on February 7, 2021. Haiti’s Superior Council agrees, ruling on February 6 that Moïse’s term ended then.

Moïse, however, refused to step down. He argues his term started when he assumed office in 2017 and, therefore, his mandate should last through February 2022. At that point, a new president—selected through a September 2021 first round and a November runoff—would assume the office. Members of the international community, such the Organization of American States and the U.S. government, support his interpretation. Moïse also has the backing of the Armed Forces of Haiti.

On February 7, the day the opposition claimed Moïse’s term ended, authorities arrested 23 citizens accused of engaging in an alleged coup attempt. Among them was a Supreme Court justice, Yvickel Dieujuste Dabrésil, as well of members of his family and security team. Dabrésil was believed to be the opposition’s likely nominee to serve as interim president if Moïse stepped down. The justice has since been released but other prisoners remain detained.

On February 8, opposition and civil society groups named Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, another Supreme Court justice, as the interim president. In retaliation, Moïse forced three members of the eight-person Supreme Court, including Dabrésil and Jean-Louis, into retirement. According to the Constitution, Supreme Court justices can be only be removed when two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies votes that they abused their authority. Moïse then nominated three replacement justices, again not following constitutional procedure, which states that the president should choose new justices based on a short list selected by the Senate. However, Haiti currently lacks a functioning parliament after the Electoral Council indefinitely postponed the legislative elections slated for October 2019. Without those elections, the entire Chamber of Deputies and two-thirds of the Senate saw their mandates end. Currently, only one-third of the Senate is in office until new legislators are selected in the upcoming September elections.

On April 14, Prime MinisterJoseph Jouthe announced his resignation. The president replaced him with the minister of foreign affairs and worship, Claude Joseph—the fifth prime minister since Moïse assumed office. Usually, the parliament approves the prime minister selection.

With no functioning legislature and an impaired judiciary, Moïse is increasingly ruling unilaterally through decrees. He’s also replaced all 141 elected mayors in Haiti and appointed his own ambassadors without parliamentary approval.

Mounting opposition to Moïse

Moïse’s actions set off a wave of protests across Haiti in February. In Port-au-Prince, protestors blocked major highways and burned tires. His opponents—which include political parties, religious groups, and civil society organizations like the Federation of Haitian Lawyers—have crusaded against Moïse’s decision to remain in power until the new president assumes office. They argue that a transitional government should be installed until then. The protestors also opposed his intention to hold a constitutional referendum, as the Constitution states that popular consultations cannot be used to modify the foundational document.

The demonstrations compound existing frustration with Moïse, who has been the target of continuous protests since he won election amid allegations of fraud. Protestors express widespread frustration with the lack of economic opportunities, insecurity, and turbulent politics in Haiti. Individual actions by Moïse, such as the implementation of anti-inflationary austerity reforms and corruption scandals have prompted particular protest episodes. For example, in the summer of 2018, the suspension of gasoline subsidies sparked additional unrest in a country where nearly 60 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Protestors also railed against accusations that Moïse and other members of government embezzled at least $2 billion from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe.

For his part, Moïse passed a law in late March designating some forms of street protest as terrorism, and inaugurated a new government intelligence service.

An environment of insecurity

Complicating matters even more, Haiti has been struggling with a proliferation of gang violence that’s resulted in a kidnapping epidemic, particularly in Port-au-Prince. Kidnappings last year tripled to 234 when compared to 2019, though NGOs place the tally closer to 800, and thousands more have been displaced by gang warfare. After seven clergymembers were kidnapped this spring, the Catholic Church called for a general strike and demanded the government to do more to prevent what the archbishop of Port-au-Prince called Haiti’s further “descent into hell.”

Battling insecurity is the responsibility of Haiti’s National Police. The UN has criticized the force for being corrupt and for not properly protecting citizens. A UN peacekeeping force was installed in 2015 but left in 2019.

Moïse increased the police budget in early 2021 and created an anti-kidnapping task force. Gang activity tends to be more common in opposition-aligned areas, and the government has been accused of collaborating with gangs—an allegation officials deny.

Further, Haiti is experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases after seeing cases stay low for much of the pandemic. The country made it through the first year relatively unscathed when compared to the rest of the world. But in the past few weeks, it experienced its first major outbreak of the virus with 15 percent of the country’s cumulative case count coming in the past month. On June 14, it recorded 482 new cases, its highest-ever single-day number, and hospitals are struggling to keep up as scientists point to variants as the reason for rising transmission. Haiti remains one of the few countries in the world that has not started vaccinating its citizens, as the country awaits its first COVAX delivery of 130,000 vaccines.

Looking to the future

The president plans to hold presidential and legislative elections in September with the new office holders slated to assume their positions in February 2022. Moïse claims he won’t seek reelection. The opposition and international observers worry that the September elections cannot be safe and free in the country’s current security conditions.

The Haitian opposition has asked for help from international actors, especially the United States. While Washington supports Moïse completing his term in 2022, it expressed disapproval of the constitutional referendum. In May, partially in response to the political violence, the United States extended Temporary Protected Status by 18 months for 150,000 Haitian immigrants in the country.

Katie Hopkins contributed to this article.