The Biden administration has lurched from one poor policy decision to another since the July 7 assassination of Jovenel Moïse, the man who illegally clung to Haiti’s presidency after his mandate expired. The Biden team’s latest bad choice came on July 19, when the United States, with others in a United Nations-organized grouping, threw its support behind Ariel Henry, who Moïse tapped to be Haiti’s Prime Minister just a day before his murder. This is not the government that Haitians want or need to get our country back on track. There is another, more credible option – and the United States would do well to support it if it wants democracy in Haiti to have a fighting chance.
It is no secret in Haiti that Henry and his newly appointed cabinet – of which 12 of the 17 members come from Moïse’s party, the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK), and the other five are from PHTK allies — do not have the popular legitimacy or constitutional mandate to rule Haiti, even for an interim period. PHTK has spent years dismantling our democratic institutions and providing protection, money, and guns to gangs in exchange for terrorizing our population to quell political dissent. Yet Biden’s team sees Henry, PHTK, and their political allies as the best bet for rushing to organize elections this year in order to “stabilize” Haiti. But, as others (including two former U.S. ambassadors to Haiti) have noted as well, in the context of dismantled democratic institutions, destroyed electoral infrastructure, a non-functioning judiciary and rampant gang violence, free and fair elections are just not possible in the coming months.
A better policy option exists – and it is being led by Haitian civil society. In January this year, more than 360 Haitian organizations — including the Episcopal and Protestant churches as well as the organization I lead, the National Human Rights Defense Network – came together in a forum and took the decision to establish the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. The commission had its first meeting in March, led by 13 highly respected Haitians who are charged with negotiating a political accord to create a transitional government that would have credibility with Haitian society. We set up this process because even back in January, we knew a transitional government would be necessary – Haitian lawyers and judges agreed that Moïse’s presidential mandate ran out in February, with no elections in sight. Now, after six months of Moïse illegally clinging to power before his murder, the creation of a transitional government that can restore people’s faith in democracy and governance is all the more crucial.
For the past four months, the commission has traversed the country, facilitating negotiations on what the transition should look like. The commission has brokered agreement on the path for getting there – including a transparent and inclusive process for choosing the transitional president, prime minister, and cabinet in the absence of elections. In doing so, the commission has garnered the buy-in of opposition political parties, the private sector, civil society, and churches alike. All of us see this as the first necessary step in forging a long-term, sustainable solution for Haiti that includes rebuilding our dismantled electoral institutions, strengthening the police to restore justice and accountability, and bolstering the judiciary to pave the way for free and fair elections over time.
The only major actors not on board with this vision for a transition are Moïse’s party (which dismantled our democracy), the gangs that terrorize our people – and the international community, including the United States. The U.S. apparently maintains this position because it believes that swift elections are the only way out of Haiti’s crisis and is placing its bet on Moïse’s former regime as the fastest way for elections to happen.
Not Too Late for the US to Shift Course
However, it is not too late for the U.S. to change course. In fact, recognizing and supporting the commission’s work is the logical next step from the current U.S. policy of supporting Henry. Undoubtedly, there needs to be a temporary Haitian manager of Haiti while a transitional government is put in place within the next few months. However, no one should pretend that Ariel Henry and his cabinet have any constitutional claim to power. The U.S. and the international community must make clear that their support for Henry and his team only extends until the accord being facilitated by the Commission for a Haitian Solution is operationalized. After that time, international powers must withdraw their political and financial support for these individuals.
Even then, two major challenges exist which could undermine the success of a civil society-brokered transitional government in Haiti – in each case, the U.S. and international community will have a crucial mitigating role.
The first is the resistance of Moïse’s party, PHTK. Though it has been part of the negotiations for the transitional government, it will not sign any accord agreeing to a political arrangement that diminishes its power. Nor will it agree to a credible transitional government that is committed to bringing accountability for the corruption and human rights abuses that have wracked the country – with PHTK members as key perpetrators – over the past decade. The only way that PHTK will come around is if the international community, and especially the U.S, withdraws political and financial support for its abusive and illegitimate political power.
Cutting off support to PHTK will also help address the second challenge: the gangs that PHTK empowers and protects. Quelling the violence and lawlessness will not be easy or quick. The first step is for foreign governments to politically empower and financially support the transitional government to reform and bolster its police and security forces, which were politicized under the PHTK regime, and repair the judicial sector that had its independence significantly weakened under Moïse.
Specifically, the international community needs to provide support to the national police to control the border and ports for arms coming into the country. Guns and ammunition are not manufactured in Haiti, so strong border and port control, combined with better enforcement of the arms embargoes already in place by the United States and other countries, can start to cut off the supply chain to the gangs. Disarming the gangs will take time, but if this happens in conjunction with prosecutions and imprisonment of gang leaders by a reinvigorated judiciary, they will gradually loosen their grip on the country.
A Credible Transitional Government
We don’t need the United States to give us permission to choose our own leaders. But we do need the U.S. to stop getting in the way by throwing its power behind the political party that has driven Haiti to ruins. In the coming weeks and months, the Biden administration can support a successful move to a credible civil society-brokered transitional government in three key ways:
- First, make clear the support for Henry and the current cabinet is limited to caretaking until the transition government is named through the accord brokered by the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis.
- Second, recognize publicly the legitimacy of the process of the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis.
- Third, ensure that the new U.S. special envoy appointed today is well-positioned to channel U.S. political support to the transitional government that Haiti needs during this delicate process.
The special envoy appointment is a positive step. Daniel Foote, a former U.S. diplomat to Haiti, will have a focused mandate to facilitate efforts towards peace and stability, coordinate assistance to Haiti, and work closely with the current U.S. ambassador in Haiti on the U.S. role in the country, although that role, disappointingly, includes pressure to hold elections. A key part of Foote’s mandate, as asserted in the State Department’s announcement, is to “engage stakeholders in civil society … as we pursue Haitian-led solutions.” But that must mean prioritizing the voices of Haitian civil society, especially the commission, in monitoring the transition process. While the Haitian political and business class are spending small fortunes on lobbying in Washington, it is the commission that has the best potential for reaching an agreement to lead Haiti out of the crisis.
If the U.S. continues on its current path, we will not reach our destination — a fully democratic and legitimate Haitian government by and for Haitians. Rather, Haiti will be doomed to continue to crash against the shoals of institutional dysfunction, gang violence, and community despair, led by the same politicians who created this mess. The Biden administration must change course and join Haitians in achieving our vision for a brighter and more democratic future.