Just two weeks ago in Haiti, thousands of demonstrators in Port-au-Prince and other major cities risked violence from gang members to demand change. They blocked roads, closed stores and marched in the streets, calling for Acting Prime Minster Ariel Henry to step down. They chanted, “If Ariel doesn’t leave, we’re going to die!”

Their words are not hyperbole. Many hundreds of Haitians have been killed by gang violence over the past year under Henry’s ineffective rule. When people protested Henry’s rule in recent weeks, police killed a dozen demonstrators.

In the year since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, Haiti has found no political path forward, and the country continues to hit new nadirs. Gangs, many linked to politicians and business profiteers, control more than half the country, and their brutal violence has displaced tens of thousands. There are now only 10 elected leaders in Haiti, a group of senators who are the only officials whose terms have not expired, after previous governments failed to hold elections. The court system barely functions and the police force operates under political pressure. The economy is contracting, with a fuel shortage and spiraling inflation. And now, Henry has refused to submit to normal checks and balances in a transitional government.

There is still only one way to avert cataclysmic disaster, and that is to create a path to reestablish a legitimate, democratic government. Elections are currently impossible, both because of the lack of security, and also because previous governments perverted democratic institutions that could ensure free and fair polls and inspire broad participation.

Yet we have a path toward reestablishing democracy. I am part of a civil society group that developed the Montana Accord, an agreement forged among more than 1,000 leaders of various sectors in Haiti a year ago, outlining a way to install a transitional representative government absent elections.

The Montana group has since expanded to include two powerful political alliances, including that of the president of the Senate. The group has elected a president and prime minister, a kind of legislature, and an oversight body.

At times, U.S. officials have acknowledged how crucial the Montana structure is for Haiti’s government to restore legitimacy. Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who handles U.S. policy in Haiti, has encouraged negotiations between Montana Accord members and Henry on a consensus path forward. Such negotiations are built into the plan laid out by the Montana Accord [Annex 1, Article 4].

Henry Refuses Checks on Power

But negotiations broke down on Aug. 2, when Henry’s negotiating team and Henry himself refused to discuss terms for a transitional government that would include checks on his power and a return to three branches of government. That is what’s different now, and what makes this moment so critical for Haiti’s chances for democracy and stability. Henry must not be allowed to use his support from the international community to continue to concentrate all powers under his exclusive — and failing — leadership.

Oftentimes, when I’m explaining what we have accomplished, I realize that to many Americans, the whole thing sounds esoteric, the kind of issue too often left to law school constitutional debates.

But in Haiti, amid state collapse, the project to recover a constitutional system and rule of law is alive and urgent, a daring effort to reestablish bonds of consent between governors and the governed and to reconstruct a functioning society.

The Montana Accord is a plan to establish an inclusive transitional government capable of rebuilding damaged institutions and, over time, mounting free, fair, and secure elections that inspire Haitians’ trust. The plan was developed through a months-long process of national consultation and includes representatives of sectors such as peasants’ alliances, labor unions, professional associations, universities, and artists, as well as religious, feminist, and human rights organizations — a common way in Haiti to ensure broad representation.

How the Biden Administration Could Wield Its Clout Constructively

The United States can play a powerful and important role in helping get democracy back on track in Haiti – without making all the decisions on the way forward, as it has done in the past. Instead, the Biden administration can and should use its political clout in three key ways to get the process back on track.

First, U.S. officials should make clear to Henry that a transitional government must be inspired by Haiti’s Constitution. Though the Constitution itself needs reform, its provisions contain the core ideas of the existence of three branches of government and the separation of powers. The U.S. administration should emphasize that a goal of the transition must be the reestablishment of three branches of power: the executive (including the role of president and prime minister), a legislature, and the courts. Haiti will need these institutions to weather the challenges of the transitional period and to organize democratic elections. How can we Haitians and international partners hope for democratic elections if they are to be organized by an anti-democratic government?

Second, American officials should strongly encourage Henry to engage with the Montana process, which has already elected members of a provisional legislature. Much can be negotiated and concessions can be made to include other civil and political actors, but a legitimate transitional government cannot merely move forward with Henry as head, governing without checks on his power as he has over the past disastrous year.

Third, to give this process a fighting chance of success, the United States should use creative and aggressive tactics to intercept criminal activity in Haiti. One of the highest barriers to the recuperation of Haiti’s democracy has been the close ties between the criminal world and political leaders who have governed Haiti for the past decade — some of whom are still in power and continue to support Henry. Prior to his assassination, Moïse and other political and business leaders served as gang patrons, creating a kind of stranglehold on power backed by violence and preventing legitimate elections and fresh leadership.

This is why civil society saw a need for a rupture with the past and the creation of a transitional government.

Not an Opposition Party or an Avenue for Individual Gain

Last week, we celebrated the Montana Accord’s anniversary in every administrative department in Haiti. Haitians support the agreement because they recognize that it is not an opposition party, or a mechanism for brokering power for individuals’ gain, but rather a process for restoring legitimacy to government.

Without legitimacy and without popular confidence in the electoral process, any elections held will be questioned and the new leaders will lack the popular support to institute desperately needed reforms. This is the cycle that has locked Haiti in paralysis for a dozen years.

The democratic process elaborated by the Montana Accord is still Haiti’s only chance to emerge from this crisis healthier and more stable.

Some doubt that civil society is powerful enough to enact a transition that can confront the deep security problems. But only an inclusive, democratic process such as the one Montana proposes has any chance to confer the legitimacy on a transitional government that will give it strength to make difficult decisions, including about the type and scope of security support needed for the transitional government to protect Haitians from gang violence and reassert territorial control.

Only the Montana mechanism has engaged and continues to engage in a broadly consultative, inclusive and transparent process that brings the transitional government legitimacy. Only Montana has been able to demonstrate a willingness and ability to prepare for a transition that includes checks and balances and a restoration of constitutional order.

U.S. officials should do everything in their power to seize this fragile opportunity to support and create space for Haitians engaged in an extraordinary effort to rebuild democracy. This may be Haiti’s most important transition in centuries.

IMAGE: Haitians protesting high prices and shortages burn tires on a street of Port-au-Prince on July 13, 2022, as a motorcyclist rides by in front of shopfronts. Soaring prices, food and fuel shortages and rampant gang violence are accelerating a brutal downward spiral in the security situation in the Haitian capital Port au Prince, and threatening the humanitarian aid the increasingly desperate population relies on. (Photo by RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images)