Thirty-six years ago, on Feb. 7, 1986, I was asleep in my home in Port-au-Prince when the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti. He drove a silver BMW to the airport in the dark of night, I saw in images later broadcast on the news and now indelibly imprinted on my brain. His wife, Michele, sat beside him in the passenger seat, wearing a white turban and smoking a cigarette. A U.S. military plane flew the family into exile in France.

Hours later, a friend came to my house and said, “They’re gone!” It was hard to believe. We picked up other friends and drove downtown, honking the horn to celebrate. We broke off the branches of Poinciana trees and waved them, swishing the leaves, as we joined a mass demonstration of pure joy at Champ de Mars, across from the presidential palace. People were hugging, jumping up and down, singing and dancing. It was one of the greatest days of my life.

The father-son Duvalier dictatorship had lasted almost three decades. While tens of thousands of Haitians had suffered exile, imprisonment, torture, or death, the U.S. had provided unstinting support for the reliably anti-communist regime. Eventually Haitians revolted, and the dictator finally left when the U.S. told him it was time to go.

Since then, the date Feb. 7 has carried symbolic weight in Haiti. We Haitians wrote a constitution that names it as the first and last day of the five-year term of every democratically elected president. This makes the day a small celebration of democracy, of Haitians’ enormous sacrifices over generations to build a representative political system, and—when the government turns over to a new leader—of our modest and fragile successes.

Last year, Feb. 7 marked our system’s failure. President Jovenel Moïse refused to step down at the end of his term. His government had failed to hold elections; without a functioning legislature, Moïse ruled by decree. He had been elected in 2015 to a five-year term intended to begin in 2016, but allegations of election fraud delayed his assumption of office by a year. The Haitian Constitution says the president’s term begins the February after his election, regardless of when he takes office. Haiti’s Superior Court of Justice ruled that Moïse’s term expired in 2021.

Most Haitian legal and electoral experts, including the national federation of bar associations, supported the court’s ruling, as did much of civil society and tens of thousands of Haitians who joined mass protests last February.

But for reasons unclear, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden supported Moïse’s assertion that, because he did not actually take office until 2017, his term should have extended until Feb. 7, 2022.

A Democratic Path Forward

So Moïse stayed put. Haitian civil society groups established a commission to search for a democratic path forward, most often known in English as the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. I became one of 13 commission members engaged in a lengthy consultation process with hundreds of leaders across the country.

Ariel Henry, who is currently serving as prime minister, rules Haiti without legitimacy or popular support. Moïse, as president, had named Henry to be prime minister days before his assassination, but Henry had not yet assumed office. Amid disagreement over who would serve as head of state, 10 days after the assassination, the U.S. embassy in Haiti anointed Henry by tweeting an extraordinary statement from a group of ambassadors asking him to form a government.

But Henry has proven himself unable to secure a country paralyzed by gang violence. In the northern city of Gonaïves and again in the Pont Rouge neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital Port-au-Prince, he had to flee official events when he came under fire. Over the last six months, the economy has continued to shrink; food insecurity has continued to rise catastrophically; fuel has become increasingly scarce.

Meanwhile, the civil society commission I am part of is making strides in constructing a democratic alternative. Last month, we reached a historic consensus agreement on a transitional government with a powerful alliance of seven political parties, including that of the president of the Senate, one of the most powerful political figures in Haiti.

On the last weekend of January, a National Transitional Council that is part of the process elected a prime minister and the first member of a five-member Presidential College that will govern Haiti in the interim. The College will include representatives of civil society and the politicians who have joined the alliance formed in January, with an open space reserved for a representative from those who hold power currently, presumably Moïse’s Haitian Tèt Kale Party. While those of us who reached the January accord do not believe Henry has any right to govern Haiti, we recognize the practical need to make compromises across political divides for the good of the country. After Duvalier left Haiti, Article 291 of the new Constitution barred political participation for 10 years to anyone close to the dictatorship. That was a mistake that intensified the divisions among Haitians — now, we need to find ways to work together to heal.

In a country where power has been negotiated through secret backroom deals, we conducted unusually transparent elections for the prime minister and first member of the Presidential College.

Candidates mounted campaigns. We broadcast candidate debates on Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube with an audience of tens of thousands of viewers. Haitian radio and television stations interviewed candidates, carried the debates, and broadcast the results. Members of the National Transitional Council, whose role is to elect these leaders, voiced and held up their votes to show their choices. Losing candidates conceded to those who won.

This is what democracy looks like.

Our coalition plans for the transitional government, over a two-year period, to restore the functioning of Haiti’s institutions and to provide humanitarian aid. It will reform the security apparatus to combat gang violence, and begin to restructure the justice system to prosecute corrupt officials and perpetrators of massacres. It will reform electoral institutions. All this is dangerous but necessary work.

Inexplicable U.S. Support

Bewilderingly, the Biden administration continues to back Henry.

Brian Nichols, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, says the U.S. will not impose a solution, ignoring the fact that the ongoing U.S. support for Henry props him up. His argument seems circular: he says the U.S. is waiting for Haitians to reach a consensus on a path forward, though Haitians already have a consensus, absent only Henry, who concedes nothing, because he has international backing.

The United States has in the past insisted on a Feb. 7 exit for Haitian leaders as a pillar of Haitian democracy. Just last year, U.S. officials promised Moïse would leave office on Feb. 7, 2022. Back in 2015, at a joint press conference with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Haitian President Michel Martelly vowed to step down Feb. 7, 2016, an act that ended up leaving the presidency filled by an interim leader until Moïse took office. And in the ‘90s, even when a coup forced Pres. Jean-Bertrand Aristide to spend three years of his presidency in exile, after his return to Haiti with U.S. help, he promised Pres. Bill Clinton he would leave office on Feb. 7, 1996. Why are U.S. officials now breaking with their own longtime policy, the Haitian constitution, the tenets of democracy, and the overriding consensus among Haitians?

It’s time for Henry to go. Even Moïse had said he planned to leave this Feb. 7 — so must his appointee. A group of ministers in Moïse’s government is calling for Henry to leave office on Feb. 7. Henry’s own ombudsman published a new report saying that Henry’s term expires today, Feb. 7.

Years ago, on Feb. 7, Haitians overthrew a dictator with U.S. support. Since then, we have not been able to make our hopes for democracy incarnate. Now we need U.S. pressure on Henry to step aside in favor of a peaceful, Haitian-supported transition — because our best chance to save our country is for Haitians together to rebuild our democratic processes.

IMAGE: Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry speaks during an ecumenical mass in memory of the victims of the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, in Port-au-Prince, January 12, 2022. (Photo by RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images)