U.S. Reverses Its President Precedent In Haiti. Is It Moïse's Invitation To Dictatorship?
The U.S. once told a Haitian President he had to follow the Constitution's calendar. Now it's telling another the opposite. The democratic stakes — and risks — are big.
When I interviewed Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2001, he was months into his second stint as President of Haiti. But he was still bitter about his first go-round a decade earlier.
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In 1991, Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected president. But a military coup that year burst the bubble and kept Aristide in exile for three years of his five-year term. U.S. troops invaded Haiti in 1994 and restored him to office.
Restored him, that is, to only one more year in office. Aristide thought he was entitled to serve a full five years in the Port-au-Prince presidential palace; the U.S., however, insisted he stick to the new Haitian Constitution’s calendar and step down in 1996.
“It was not fair,” he told me in 2001. “It did not allow me to accomplish what I could have.”
Aristide, who would be overthrown and exiled again in 2004, was arguably the bigger enemy of his potential for presidential accomplishment. But whether it was fair to truncate his first presidency or not, the U.S.’s judgment in his case set a precedent that matters. And it matters even more right now as Haiti, and a new U.S. administration, debate when current President Jovenel Moïse’s term should end.
The eventual answer could mean the difference between resuscitating democracy or reviving dictatorship in a poor but vibrant country whose potential for accomplishment is enormous – as is its potential for causing policy agony in Washington and personal anguish in South Florida.
But before the answer, the problem:
I understand the practical reasons the Biden Administration is indulging Moïse's term interpretation — but I hope it understands the terrible ways he could end up exploiting that indulgence.
Streets in Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities have again been thick with burning tire smoke in recent weeks because many if not most Haitians want Moïse out as badly as many if not most wanted Aristide gone 17 years ago. And it’s hard to blame them.
For starters, Moïse is surrounded by the stench of corruption – including Haiti's $2 billion oil fund fraud – which has helped sink Haiti’s already beleaguered economy. On his watch, Haitians have faced a terrifying wave of ransom kidnappings that allegedly involves the national police. Then there’s Moïse’s increasingly toxic authoritarianism: he’s ruled by decree for the past year while refusing to hold long overdue legislative elections. And, oh yeah, he wants to create a secret police force. Not exactly the résumé of a democracy defender.
Which is why Moïse’s opponents insist he should have stuck to Haiti’s constitutional calendar and left office last Sunday – the end of a five-year term that technically started in February 2016. Moïse argues that because his actual inauguration was delayed until February 2017 – due to unrest that delayed his election – he deserves to stay on until February 2022.
That's the Aristide argument. The one the U.S. dismissed. But which the U.S. is now accepting from Moïse.
Last Friday, the Biden Administration – and, admittedly, the U.N. and the Organization of American States – said they agreed with Moïse’s presidential calendar, as long as he keeps his promise to hold parliamentary elections and a new presidential vote in September.
On a practical level I can understand the decision: as foul as Moïse is, plucking him from the presidency now could create the sort of interim-government chaos that could make Haiti’s situation even more unstable and violent.
But I hope the Biden Administration understands how terribly Moïse could exploit this indulgence – starting on April 25, when he wants to hold a referendum on his proposals to reform the 1987 Constitution. Some of them are reasonable, particularly measures to strengthen the presidency in order to make Haiti’s dysfunctional government more effective. But many others are power-grab landmines.
Most alarming: a re-wording that permits presidential re-election to a second consecutive term – instead of two non-consecutive terms, a safeguard response to Haiti’s dictatorial past – which would open the door to Moïse’s immediate re-election. Another red flag: scrapping Haiti’s Senate and Chamber of Deputies for a unicameral legislature – a change that per se is not a democracy-buster but certainly has been in authoritarian regimes like Venezuela’s.
The answer, then, is that if the U.S. and the international community are going to bless Moïse’s extended stay, they should firmly request he drop a plebiscite that could lead to a much more extended stay – whose potential for democratic disaster would be enormous.