Haiti teeters on the edge of constitutional crisis

A woman pushes her merchandise away from tires set on fire by protesters during a…

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A woman pushes her merchandise away from tires set on fire by protesters during a countrywide strike demanding the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. Opposition leaders are pushing for Moïse to step down on Feb. 7, while Moïse has said his term ends in February 2022.

AP

Haiti is once again engulfed in uncertainty as a brewing constitutional crisis plunges the country into unrest and President Jovenel Moïse fights off demands to step down by the week’s end.

Schools were shuttered and businesses and markets remained closed Tuesday as unions frustrated over an alarming rise in kidnappings and other crimes by armed gangs staged a two-day strike. Meanwhile, the embattled president’s opponents are vowing to continue taking to the streets unless he steps down Sunday, the day they argue his term legally ends.

But Moïse isn’t giving any signs he plans to leave.

“There will be no short pass,” he said Monday in an address to the nation, referring to a soccer term for quickly passing the ball to a teammate. “It’s up to the Haitian population to say, ‘Here is the person who I like, and who I want to give the pass to for five years.’”

The constitutional dispute over when Moïse’s term should end threatens to throw the fragile nation, already besieged by decades of turmoil, into a deeper crisis. In office since Feb. 7, 2017, the president argues his five-year term ends in 2022. But political opponents, civil society groups and some legal scholars contend his mandate ends on Feb. 7 this year. They argue that his term actually started in 2016, when his predecessor, President Michel Martelly, left office without a successor after the initial first round of voting in October 2015 was marred in fraud allegations.

Martelly was replaced with a provisional president, whom opposition parties and civil society groups say used the first year of Moïse’s term.

The Federation of Bars of Haiti is backing up the opposition’s claim, noting in a recent six-page declaration that the president himself utilized the same narrow interpretation of the constitution in dismissing two thirds of the Senate last year. The group’s president, Jacques Letang, said that set a precedent for Moïse’s term to end Sunday. He blamed the country’s leaders for failing to create a constitutional court as the magna carta requires.

“They did all that was possible to never put it in place,” Letang said. “If today there was a constitutional court, there wouldn’t be all of this chaos.”

The confusion is adding to the political turmoil and fueling tensions among Haitians fed up with a dismal economy, corruption and a surge in gang-driven crime. In recent days, protesters have filled the streets in major cities around the country demanding Moïse’s departure and an end to the violence.

Kidnappings for ransom are on the rise, with recent victims including schoolchildren in uniforms, teachers and public transportation drivers. Most of the abductions are tied to gangs controlling neighborhoods and demanding a high price for a victim’s release. Human rights groups have also accused the gangs of carrying out massacres in poor neighborhoods.

On Sunday, as mostly maskless Haitians made their way through the streets of the capital, the crowd sang “Mare yo, mare yo,” or “Tie them up, tie them up,” referring to Moïse and members of his government. They accused the president of being a dictator and failing to curb crime or improve their living conditions.

As one branch made its way down from Pétion-Ville, the upscale hilltop suburb of the capital, marchers referred to the current Haitian constitution, which ushered in democracy in 1987, citing lines on presidential terms and their right to health, education and food. Others yelled “No to kidnapping!” while vowing to keep demonstrating. Elsewhere, demonstrators burned tires, threw rocks and clashed with police who fired tear gas. Police were lined up along the streets and at the Champ de Mars public plaza, where riot police used tear gas and blocked protesters from getting near the presidential palace grounds.

“The population is here to say, ‘No to insecurity! No to misery! No to high cost of living!’” said protester Léveillé Pierre-Louis, who was standing with a crowd on the Champ de Mars between the Ministry of Defense and the state-run National Pantheon Museum dedicated to Haiti’s independence heroes.

A lawyer, Pierre-Louis said he came out to protest the uptick in crime and show solidarity with those who have been kidnapped and victimized by gangs.

“The authorities who are here and supposed to provide security are simply crossing their arms, leaving the population to fend for itself,” he said. “Massacres are happening, kidnappings are happening, insecurity. But there is a date coming, February 7, and on that day the president has to hand over power.”

In one incident, a radio journalist reported that a protester was bleeding from his head after being shot. Refusing help to go to the hospital, he dropped to his knees in front of officers.

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Smoke from tires set on fire by protesters fills a street in Delmas, where vendors sell clothing, during a countrywide transportation strike protesting rising insecurity and ransom kidnappings in Haiti Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. Opposition leaders are pushing for President Jovenel Moïse to step down on Feb. 7 while Moïse has said his term ends in February 2022. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

Moïse, who came into office with the backing of less than 10% of registered Haitian voters, has faced challenges to his rule from inception. An attempt to raise fuel prices, and later corruption allegations over Haiti’s mismanagement of billions in loans from Venezuela, and his purported benefiting from the corruption scheme before taking office, led to violent protests and fueled calls for his departure. Moïse has denied any wrongdoing.

Last January, Moïse began ruling by decree when he dismissed a second-tier of the Senate and the entire Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Haiti’s legislature, after the country failed to hold elections to renew parliament. Since then, he has published a slew of presidential decrees that have allowed him to accrue power for himself outside of the constitution — which he is now trying to replace.

Opposition parties and civil society groups oppose the constitution change, saying it’s illegal because referendums are forbidden, and contend that it’s impossible to organize legitimate elections under his rule.

During his address, Moïse did not mention the unrest or the strike. Instead, he tried to convey the image of an emboldened leader. He focused much of his speech on his planned projects — more electricity, a vote for a new constitution via referendum in April and elections for a new parliament later this year. He also told Haitians to prepare to elect his successor in September.

He also put his own spin on the ills plaguing the country, claiming that the alarming spike in kidnappings for ransom is being used as a political tool to destabilize his government and resist his reforms.

He vowed in vague terms to go after those who use kidnappings for political purposes.

“Faced with reforms, there is always great resistance from those who favor the status quo,” he said.

Liné Balthalzar, president of Parti Haitien Tèt Kale, the Haitian political party under which Moïse ran for office, said he believes the chief executive’s term ends next year. If, however, it is chaos that awaits the country, “we would rather take the path of dialogue rather than go to violence.”

Opposition leader André Michel said Moïse has two choices: Respect what opponents believe is the correct interpretation of the constitution and leave, or choose chaos and disorder.

“He is a man who has lost his mind,” said Michel, who represents the opposition’s main coalition, the Democratic and Popular Sector. “He speaks of a series of projects, election, constitution, electricity, while his constitutional mandate ends in six days, Feb. 7, 2021.”

Haiti’s chaotic situation has deepened concern about where the country is headed less than two years after a United Nations peacekeeping mission departed after 15 years. Though brought in to stabilize the country after a rebellion ousted then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, the U.N. left with a mixed legacy over what it actually accomplished.

The police force it helped train, is weak; institutions it was supposed to support are non-existent; and the country, chronically unstable. Meanwhile, the economy is crumbling and Haitians are facing rising food insecurity and human rights violations.

The U.S. and the Organization of American States have said they want elections to get the country back on a democratic path. The U.N. recently announced that it had reached an agreement with the government to manage a fund for the upcoming election and referendum vote. The European Union and others, however, have raised concerns about the credibility of any vote in the current context, where thousands of Haitians still lack voter registration cards, or the birth certificates to get one, and armed gangs are proliferating in the country.

On Monday, Sen. Joseph Lambert, a veteran politician, was frantically trying to see if he could mediate some kind of political accord this week between Moïse and the opposition and civil society groups seeking his ouster. Lambert is among the 10 remaining legislators in the Senate and was elected the chamber’s head.

“My big worry today is preventing a period of chaos before February 7 and after February 7,” said Lambert, who declined to share his opinion about when Moïse’s mandate constitutionally ends.

Political mediation and dialogue have failed to gain momentum in Haiti, where the international community has also been unable to broker any kind of agreement with Moïse and his foes during his time in office.

If Haiti’s political leaders cannot reach an agreement, Lambert said, “it is certain that 2021 will be a year of combat, a dying year, for all Haitians, starting with Jovenel over what I would call questions about his legitimacy.”

On Tuesday, Catholic bishops in Haiti, who have offered to serve as mediators in the political crisis, reiterated the church’s plea for dialogue.

“The country is on the verge of explosion; the daily life of the people is death, assassinations, impunity, insecurity. Discontent is everywhere, in almost everyone’s domains,” the Episcopal Conference of Haiti said in a written statement. “There are many angry subjects, such as: how to establish a Provisional Electoral Council, how to write another constitution, etc. So it’s not just the ravages of kidnapping that make the country totally unlivable. Should we accept or tolerate this?”

The bishops, like the Bar Federation, also noted the decision that Moïse took last year that led to him ruling by decree.

“The President of the Republic applied the electoral law and the constitution for the deputies, senators and mayors in previous years,” the church leaders said. “He thus affirmed the unity of the law for all elected officials, including himself.”

Haiti has had more than a dozen provisional governments since the departure of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986, and instead of progressing, the country has fallen deeper into despair.

In a report published last month, the U.N. noted that there has been a 333% increase in the number of human rights violations and abuses between July 6, 2018, and Dec. 10, 2019.

The dates marked a period of intense protests and included the three-month shutdown of roads, schools, businesses and streets known as “Peyi lòk,” or Operation Lockdown, which Moïse described Monday as a form of resistance to his reform attempts. At least 18 Haitians died during the opposition-led operation that forced people to stay home for weeks at a time as the country experienced violent anti-government protests, rioting and burning of businesses.

The report, prepared by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted an increase in the use of violence by pro-and anti-government gangs, as well as the use of force by law enforcement officials.

So far, the diplomatic community has not commented on the constitutional debate.

On Sunday night, various factions of the opposition, with the exception of former President Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas, once the most powerful party in the country, unveiled a proposal to the country for setting up a two-year transitional government to replace Moïse.

The so-called “Terrace Garden Final Accord” came after more than a year of discussion. Eight members of the opposition and seven members of civil society would be tasked with choosing an interim president, prime minister, and members of a transitional government. The president would come from the country’s Supreme Court or another institution.

While the sway of Fanmi Lavalas remains a matter of debate, the fact the party is not part of an opposition consensus underscores the division among the president’s detractors. Members of the opposition have been plagued by infighting and disagreement, as well as accusations that they want Moïse out to seize power for themselves.

Whether Moïse stays or goes, observers fear more chaos as the country becomes increasingly ungovernable.

“Trouble is bound to happen,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political science professor at the University of Virginia.

Fatton cited the country’s recent history with Martelly, who left office without a successor, and the late President René Préval, who faced his own electoral crises, despite being the first Haitian leader to twice serve out his full constitutional term and then hand over power to a successor in the opposition when Martelly was elected in 2011.

“Nothing has really changed with elections and presidential departure in Haiti,” Fatton said. “So yes, protests and more protests are very likely.”

Johnny FilsAimé contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.

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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.