There is a strange and dangerous disconnect between how our federal officials and much of our media discuss the international response to the tragic assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse, and how Haitians discuss it. U.S. leaders keep asking what more they can do, while Haitians demand that the United States does less. It is time to listen to the Haitian voices.
Regardless of who ordered the assassination, President Moïse’s death is only the latest in a deepening cycle of political violence generated by his PHTK party and President Moïse himself to maintain power despite overwhelming opposition. Human rights groups tally at least 13 massacres in the last four years. A recent report by Haitian human rights groups and Harvard Law School categorized three massacres by government-linked gangs as crimes against humanity. The most recent massacre, on June 30, killed 19 people including a journalist and an activist, both Moïse critics.
The political violence has been fueled by the persistent dismantling of Haiti’s democracy, especially the checks on Presidential power. Moïse deactivated Parliament in January 2020, and local elected officials in July, by letting their terms run out without elections for their replacements. He packed the judiciary with his supporters, and removed officials suspected of being more loyal to Haiti’s constitution than to its President, including three Supreme Court justices fired unconstitutionally in February. The police force was politicized, and used to attack opponents. Journalists were threatened and killed.
The United States supported this dismantling, by providing vital financial and diplomatic support to the Moïse regime, even after his term ended last February, according to Haitian experts. Haitians call the U.S. the poto mitan, or centerpost, that propped up the regime and saved it from having to negotiate in good faith with mounting civil society opposition. This was not an oversight. Haitians, including demonstrators at the U.S. embassy, and U.S. human rights groups, editorial boards and members of Congress (including most Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee), ensured that the U.S. government was aware of the PHTK violence and corruption.
Haitians are particularly outraged at the U.S. insistence on imposing obviously-flawed elections planned by PHTK for this year. The party has run Haiti for nine years, without holding a single election that was either timely or fair. Haitians believe that the current election scheme, run by an unconstitutional electoral council and featuring a patently illegal constitutional referendum that would concentrate more power in the Presidency, would set their democracy back for decades.
President Moïse’s death provided the Biden administration an opportunity to reconsider its support for PHTK and the cycle of violence and impunity that underlay the killing. But the administration quickly affirmed its support for the PHTK government. The next day, Ambassador Helen La Lime, the U.S. career foreign service officer leading the UN’s Haiti mission, clarified that Claude Joseph, who Moïse had appointed Prime Minister in April without the constitutionally-required Parliamentary approval, and replaced two days before he died — would serve as Prime Minister and preside over the government Haiti until a new President is elected. On July 17, the “Core Group” of countries led by the United States announced that it now preferred the replacement — Dr. Ariel Henry, another PHTK stalwart — as Prime Minister.
Ambassador La Lime also stated that the PHTK elections scheduled for September would go on as scheduled. The Pentagon considered a request from Mr. Joseph for U.S. troops. Haitians have been telling anyone who will listen what they want the international community to stop doing. They want us to stop considering a military intervention, stop propping up the PHTK party and stop imposing unfair elections on them. They are confident that if we allow it, a Haitian-led, consensus solution will emerge to put the country on track towards democracy. Months before the assassination, there was already consensus on some important elements, including the need for a transitional government to address some of the structural damage to Haiti’s democracy.
Sending help is a normal human response to Haiti’s severe humanitarian crisis. But Haitians see the crisis as only one symptom of a more serious disease, PHTK misrule. They note our eagerness to discuss alleviating the symptoms while refusing to address our role in the underlying disease.
COVID vaccines illustrate the limitations of addressing symptoms while averting our gaze from the underlying problem and our role in it. Until July 14, Haiti was the only country in the Americas that had yet to vaccinate anyone. Haiti was slow to apply for the World Health Organization’s COVAX vaccines, and refused its allotment of Astra-Zeneca vaccines before it reversed course and accepted them. PHTK corruption had diminished the country’s public health capacity and earned broad distrust, so vaccines expected in June did not arrive. On June 26 the government gave up and authorized pharmacies and health care providers to import and distribute vaccines themselves. That was an admission of the government’s total incapacity to manage the epidemic, and raised the serious risks of fraud and spoilage.
The Biden administration stepped in last week and shipped 500,000 donated vaccines to Haiti. This generosity will save lives, especially among health care workers who are first in line for the vaccine. But many Haitians are vaccine hesitant, because of rampant distrust of the government and of the countries who they believe propped up the Moïse, including the United States.
Getting enough donated vaccines into Haitians’ arms to control COVID will require us to allow the emergence of a government that Haitians can trust to tell them the truth about vaccine risk and run fair elections. Other proposed responses to Haiti’s humanitarian crises, including food aid and shelter for people displaced by PHTK violence, similarly require a credible government.
Respecting Haitians’ request to do less should be easy, except that it forces the international community and the U.S. in particular to face up to our policies, which have — over the years, decades, and centuries — contributed to instability and poverty in Haiti. It is easier to discuss sending vaccines, food and soldiers, which are relatively cheap and short-term, than it is to make the longer-term structural policy changes necessary to allow Haiti to become more stable and our actions more principled.
On Thursday, President Biden announced that sending troops was off the table, raising hopes that the administration is starting to listen to Haitian voices. If he really wants to help Haiti, Biden will next take U.S. support for the PHTK regime and its flawed elections off the table as well, and allow Haitians a chance to solve their own problems.