This week’s brazen assassination of the man who led Haiti into its worst period of violence and chaos, Jovenel Moïse, is a surefire sign that the United States needs to change its foreign policy towards Haiti – and fast. In the current state of insecurity in Haiti, the Biden administration must work to create the conditions in which we, the Haitian people — not the United States and the international community — can decide the future of our country, strengthen our democracy, and guarantee our basic human rights.
From day one of President Joe Biden’s administration, the U.S. has backed Moïse – a man who came to power in 2016 as Haiti’s president and proceeded to unleash violence across our country and dismantle our democratic institutions. Ironically, the Biden team apparently viewed him as the only person positioned to bring democracy and long-overdue elections to Haiti. U.S. support for him persisted even after Moïse outstayed his constitutional mandate, which Haitian judges, legal scholars, and civil society agreed had ended in February this year.
Moïse also has been ruling by executive decree since Parliament’s term expired in January 2020. Unfortunately, continued U.S. support emboldened Moïse and his Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) to consolidate his power. One of the ways Moïse and his party did so was by providing gangs with protection, money, and arms, which they used to rape, murder and kidnap Haitians for ransom across the country. This exchange operated to create a state of terror in order to quell political dissent. My organization, which has been documenting these crimes in Haiti for decades, could not keep up with the carnage: another massacre by gangs, regularly in anti-government enclaves, would take place before we could even report on the previous one.
As a human rights activist, I condemn the assassination of Moïse. I wish the best for his family, including his wife, Martine Moïse, who was injured during the attack. And I am worried about what this assassination means for Haiti’s future: it marks the culmination of years of growing insecurity, deteriorating human rights, and increasing disregard for human life. Every day, between 2018 and now, violent deaths by bullets or kidnapping have been recorded. For my generation, this is the first time we have experienced this level of violence; nobody is safe – not nuns, not schoolchildren, and certainly not activists and journalists.
Yet, in the wake of Moïse’s assassination and as chaos and violence reigns, the U.S. shamefully continues to push for elections to move forward in September as planned — a path sure to result in sham outcomes and countless deaths of Haitian citizens. Even before Moïse’s death, Haitian civil society, with the support of both Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, have had the same message for the Biden administration: the conditions do not exist for free and fair elections to take place in Haiti in 2021. In such a violent, lawless environment where no credible state institutions function — a situation which Moïse cultivated and which ultimately cost him his life — how could opposition candidates campaign safely? How could people turn up to vote and know they will get home alive? How could people trust in the results?
Better U.S. Strategy for Haiti and for America
Now is a critical moment for Haiti. Our Constitution does not provide a solution to this crisis, with no president, no sitting parliament, and no functional Supreme Court. This means the international community, including the United States, will likely play an outsized role in figuring out what comes next. We fear the U.S. will do what it has always done: impose its own solution on Haiti, including by throwing its support behind the people and policies it thinks will be best for key U.S. interests — specifically of securing political stability to stem Haitian migration to the United States and supporting U.S. business and trade advantages – rather than the interests of the Haitian people. But when the United States decides for us — as it did in the 1990s, when then U.S. President Bill Clinton encouraged trade liberalization while flooding the Haitian market with subsidized U.S. rice, or when his wife, Hillary Clinton, in her capacity as U.S. Secretary of State, interfered with the outcomes of the 2010 Haitian election that delivered the corrupt PHTK party to power — we Haitians suffer: we suffer in our blood, in our lost livelihoods, and in our stolen future.
But the U.S. has another option – one that is in the best long-term interests of both Haitians and the United States. That option is to support Haitian civil society in its call to create a transitional government that will be tasked with mending our weak and dismantled democratic institutions and that can prepare the country for elections.
What we are proposing is not a quick-fix solution, nor will it be easy, but we know we cannot put Band-Aids on a dying patient. The United States and the world should not underestimate the ability of Haitians to create a better future for their own country. Haiti needs deep change at its roots, and the U.S. should help create the conditions in which the Haitian people can accomplish that.
Supporting Haitian solutions for Haiti is not as difficult as it sounds: civil society has known a transitional government would be necessary for quite some time. Civil society has developed a roadmap for a transition. The plan would include, among other things, the need for a transition period of sufficient length to restore electoral infrastructure, to strengthen the judiciary to credibly rule on elections, and to reinforce police capacity to counter gang violence and ensure a safe environment for elections. The Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis – a body created in January 2021 with the support of more than 300 notable Haitian organizations and institutions, including the Episcopal and Protestant churches (as well as my own organization, the National Human Rights Defense Network) – is the latest iteration of this effort. This commission has already met with Haitian political parties, civil society organizations, and the private sector to build out a plan for a feasible political transition.
For sure, the commission has its detractors – but most criticisms relate to individual representatives, and not the work of the commission itself. In an environment in which there is no constitutional way forward and we have no elected officials left to take the lead, I believe this effort, which boasts broad-based civil society backing, is still the most credible way forward and the one that has the most popular support.
High level officials from the Biden administration, in addition to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, should meet with the commission as a matter of priority — and seek ways to support the commission’s work in the months ahead, including by reversing the U.S. policy on elections and giving the commission the diplomatic support and time it needs to finalize its recommendations.
To assist with this longer-term process for a transitional government, the United States should also appoint a special envoy for Haiti. This special envoy should both support this Haitian effort and have a direct line to the U.S. secretary of state and the U.S. president to advise on policies and approaches that focus on the needs and hopes of the Haitian people. Such a focused, time-bound position will be particularly necessary in the months ahead, as the current U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Michele Sison, has been nominated to fill another position in the Biden administration. It may take time for her replacement to be appointed.
Finally, the United States needs to learn from history: U.S.-led efforts to install governments in Haiti have never worked, and Biden’s ill-conceived policy supporting Moïse has clearly failed. It is time for the U.S. government to listen to the Haitian people. As politicians come and go, we are the ones who continue to risk our lives every day to work for a better future for our country. We ask President Biden and his team this question: don’t we finally deserve a real chance to achieve a truly democratic Haiti?