Haiti leaders and ex-US diplomat: ‘Haiti is a mess’

People protest to demand the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday,…

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People protest to demand the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. The opposition is disputing the mandate of President Moise whose term they claim ended on Feb. 7, but the president and his supporters say his five-year term only expires in 2022.

AP

Kidnapped women and girls are gang raped and subject to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. A federation of influential armed gangs have their demands met by the government, while illegal weapons, banned under a U.S. arms embargo, freely enter the country.

With such a volatile social, economic and political crisis, elections organized under Haitian President Jovenel Moïse will not work and will not be seen as legitimate by the people, three Haiti-born civic leaders and a former U.S. ambassador to the country told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Friday.

The virtual meeting came after Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s answered questions Wednesday during a hearing on U.S. foreign policy about Moïse’s abuse of power during the 15 months he has been ruling by decree. Blinken expressed worry about the nation’s worsening predicament.

“It’s something that we are very actively looking at,” Blinken told Rep. Andy Levin, D-MI, who asked what Haiti policy could be expected to look like under President Joe Biden. “I share your concern about some of the authoritarian and undemocractic actions that we have seen, particularly this irregular rule by decree.”

Friday’s all-female panel of witnesses featured an immigration advocate, an anti-corruption activist and a human rights defender, all Haitian, along with former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Pamela White. They all agreed that Haiti’s human rights environment is deteriorating and insecurity widening. In a fresh reminder of the country’s mounting crime, three policemen were killed Friday during an operation in a gang stronghold and kidnapping lair in Port-au-Prince.

“It is difficult for me to imagine having successful elections this year in Haiti,” said White, who served in Port-au-Prince from 2012 to 2015 and was tapped by the Republican members of the committee to share her opinion of the situation. “Free and fair elections are important pieces in any democracy’s complex puzzle. But having an election will not transform Haiti— it never has and it never will.”

The panel’s Haitian witnesses also raised concerns about the continued deportation of Haitian asylum seekers by the Biden administration and called on the U.S. to distance itself from a planned referendum by Moïse this June to introduce a new constitution. They urged for a new way forward in U.S.-Haiti relations that starts with listening to Haitian civil society.

“We want to end with all of the corruption and impunity. We want to end with the old practices; so many people do not want to give us this chance to decide for ourselves,” said Emmanuela Douyon, an activist with the anti-corruption grassroots group, Nou Pap Dòmi (We Aren’t Sleeping), underscoring the frustrations of members of Haiti’s opposition and civil society who have felt dismissed in the current crisis plaguing their nation. “This is what we are defending: the right to decide for ourselves.”

Haiti is in the midst of a spiraling political crisis and a surge in crime led by armed gangs and for-ransom kidnappings. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand the resignation of the president, who has been ruling by presidential decree since last January and whose term, critics say, ended last month. Moïse, who immediately addressed the nation after the committee’s virtual hearing ended, has said he still has a year left in office.

The Biden administration, which supports Moïse on when his presidential term ends, has repeatedly called on him to hold legislative elections as quickly as technically feasible in order to end his rule by decree. However, the U.S. has come under criticism for not being tough enough on Moïse, and for continuing to expel Haitians back to Haiti under Title 42, a health order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Invoked by former President Donald Trump during the pandemic, Biden has continued to use it, returning more than 900 Haitians back.

“As we are speaking there is a flight to Haiti carrying asylum seekers,” California-based immigration activist Guerline Jozef told the panel. “As we speak over 129 people are on a flight to Haiti, including what seems to be a newborn baby…it is unconscionable for us as a country, as a people of as this great United States of ours to continue the cruel, inhumane practice.”

On Friday, U.S. Senators Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, called on the Biden administration to re-designate Haiti for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, the senators cited the importance of reinstating protection to eligible Haitians in the United States who are unable to return safely to their homeland due to devastation from national disasters, political unrest, and the extraordinary conditions facing the island.

“While the government of Haiti has been able to receive limited numbers of Haitian nationals removed from the United States, it lacks the capacity to provide the needed reception and care for tens of thousands of returnees,” the senators wrote. “[TPS redesignation] would also lessen the burden on the Haitian people, government, and aid organizations, and mitigate risks of further destabilization.”

Last month, 61 members of the House signed a Feb. 23 letter, spearheaded by Miami U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, to rescind the TItle 42 order for Haitian migrants. Weeks earlier, another group of U.S. lawmakers including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, other members of the committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the powerful president pro tempore of the Senate, called on the Biden administration to wash its hands of Moïse and back a transition government to run Haiti.

“This is bipartisan witnesses and all of them have basically said, ‘Haiti is a mess,’ ” Meeks said after the four witnesses provided opening remarks during the three-hour virtual hearing. “The people are suffering, this has to stop; there’s gotta be some order. That’s the reason why we are doing this hearing.”

While some members echoed his concerns, others pressed for solutions on what the U.S., which provided more than $150 million in humanitarian aid last fiscal year to the country can do. One member of the committee who did not chime in during the hearing was Miami Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar. According to Salazar’s office and a second congressional source, she did log in.

First-year members of Congress typically ask questions at the end of hearings. Salazar’s GOP predecessor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, led the Foreign Affairs Committee from 2011 to 2013.

Last month, Salazar complained that the House Foreign Affairs Committee was “sending a message that we don’t care” when the number of seats on the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, which oversees Haiti, was cut to three. Salazar was ultimately named to the Western Hemisphere subcommittee in February.

As the witnesses testified, Haitians were reminded of the country’s menacing crime problem. Social media was flooded with a graphic video of a police vehicle going up in flames after an operation in the Port-au-Prince slum of Village de Dieu, Village of God, left two cops dead.

Moïse confirmed the deaths in a Facebook Live that immediately followed the 10 a.m. congressional hearing. While he didn’t address the criticisms raised at his administration, he insisted that he was a democrat.

During the hearing, Haiti Ambassador to the U.S. Bocchit Edmond tweeted that the government was making investments in the Haiti National Police and that more than 4 million voters had been registered. He said the hearing was “a missed opportunity to hear from a representative, inclusive range of Haitian voices and hold a robust discussion.”

The Haitians who testified Friday disagreed, and at least one lawmaker, Levin, referred to Moïse as the country’s de-facto leader.

“We call on the Biden administration to listen to and respect the Haitian civil society’s demand and recognize that the mandate of former President Jovenel Moise has ended and stop supporting an electoral council that would lead to political instability,” said Rosy Auguste Ducena, the program director for the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights. “Instead, support free and fair elections with a legitimate electoral council resulting from a political agreement.”

Ducena gave a bleak report on the state of human rights in the country

Between 2018 and 2020, at least 10 massacres have been perpetrated in Port-au-Prince, the most dangerous city in the country, resulting in the murder of 343 people, the disappearance of 98 others, and the gang rape of 32 women, she said. Two hundred and fifty-one children have been orphaned because of these bloody events.

Outside of the massacres in poor, working class neighborhoods, more than 1,085 people were murdered last year, including 37 police officers, Ducena added. The police is politicized, the judiciary dysfunctional and opposition parties and civil society are blocked from protesting while wanted gang leaders are allowed to protest freely and make demands on the government.

A number of members of Congress, highlighting the U.S. support for the Haitian National Police, expressed concerns about their role in the ongoing crisis and allegations that they have fired live round on anti-government protest. The U.S., they noted has spent millions on rebuilding the force.

Throughout the three-hour hearing, members repeatedly came back to one question: Can Haiti have free, fair and credible elections?

“If you have elections with kidnappings and this crime level, I don’t know many people who will be able to join, to campaign, to participate in those elections and I don’t know who in the civil society is going to accept the results of those elections,” Douyon said.

Her sentiments that elections would only further stoke the ongoing crisis was echoed by White. She called the planned constitutional referendum “extremely dubious” and wondered what election support there would be in the international community “for elections that are so tainted.” The last elections, which had to be rerun after widespread fraud allegations, cost over $150 million dollars.

“I do not see the U.S. government giving $33 million dollars as in 2016 considering the current chaotic atmosphere. The international community will have to draw some firm lines in the sand that will hold Haitian leadership accountable for both a smooth transition and vastly improved security. “

It’s time she said that for the U.S. to get tough.

“If President Moise will not step down, he should step aside,” she said, adding that she did not believe that the current Provisional Electoral Council, CEP, appointed by Moïse and lacking representation from organizations long considered requirements can carry out balloting. “He must be completely transparent and honest. He must bring relevant actors to the table. A well-respected Haitian not from either the private or political sectors should be appointed Prime Minister. He or she should immediately dissolve the current CEP and call a summit of some kind with all relevant political actors to establish a legal CEP.”

White last served in Haiti during the tenure of Moïse’s predecessor, President Michel Martelly, who also faced his own share of political crisis. As ambassador, White and the U.S. also endured criticism, before forcing Martelly to agree to a coalition government.

Still, he left power in May 2015 without an elected successor after elections were denounced as fraudulent and had to be re-run. A transition government was put in place, which eventually led to the delayed vote that brought Moise to power and is now at the center of the constitutional dispute over when his presidential term end.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chair of the subcommitee on Africa, concerned about the role of the police and Haiti’s inability to resolve its current crisis, asked White, the former ambassador, for insight, questioning what she feels she could have done to prevent to prevent the political calamity she witnessed years earlier.

“If you’re not bringing the opposition to the negotiating table than you can’t make progress,” White said. “I assume they are doing that. I just do not know.

McClatchy Washington Correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.