Moïse Refusal to Exit Locks Haiti – And Haiti's Diaspora – In Constitutional Crisis
With Haiti in economic and security collapse, President Jovenel Moïse's increasingly authoritarian rule is a point of bitter debate in the country – and South Florida.
Life in Haiti is harrowing right now. The economy has tanked and almost half the population is facing acute hunger. Public security has collapsed, including a terrifying wave of ransom kidnapping.
Many Haitians, as a result, want a different leader — and so thousands of them hit the streets again last week demanding the removal of President Jovenel Moïse.
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In fact, they say legally his term is up and he should have left office weeks ago. He disagrees. And here’s why:
Moïse was first elected president in the fall of 2015 and was supposed to start serving his five-year term in February 2016. But because of unrest over alleged voter fraud — which forced a re-do election that Moïse also won — his inauguration was delayed until February 2017.
So now Moïse insists his term doesn’t end until next year. His opponents insist that, according to Haiti's constitutional calendar, it already ended last month.
As a result, they argue, Moïse is violating the Constitution by sticking around — and they want to block him from sticking around even longer. They fear Moïse is trying to change the Constitution to let presidents — including himself — run for two consecutive terms (Right now in Haiti, you have to wait five years to run again).
But in South Florida, and other Haitian expat communities, one other Moïse proposal is of special — if not — controversial interest: he’d let members of the Haitian diaspora run for President of Haiti. That’s a sign Moïse is trying to court favor with that diaspora — a diaspora that itself is very divided about Moïse.
“I think from the very beginning he was never really given a chance," said Marie Lambert, a Haitian-American business IT consultant in Miami.
Lambert supports Moïse largely because, despite his success as a banana plantation owner, he's not part of Haiti’s political and business elite — which she says has tried to block him from the start.
“Whether they want to admit it or not, there is classism and racism in Haiti," said Lambert.
"And because Moïse is trying to help the forgotten people of the country — building roads, electricity, which some folks in rural Haiti have yet to see even today — that elitist group may have an issue with that.”
Lambert, who was born in New York to Haitian immigrant parents, says she felt some of that Haitian class prejudice herself as a teenager when her family moved from New York to Miami.
“Going to high school in Miami," she said, "I knew many Haitians from the elite class that wouldn’t identify themselves as Haitians or wouldn’t even hang out with anyone they knew was Haitian.”
Today Lambert travels regularly to southeast Haiti because she owns a farm there and helps train people for agricultural and other employment.
But she recalls the moment when says she first really connected with Haiti, in 1994 — one of the most explosive years in the country's history. Just graduated from college, Lambert signed up as a Creole translator for U.S. army special forces sent to restore democracy in Haiti.
Moise is trying to help the forgotten people of Haiti, and the elite have an issue with that.
“I learned Haiti was a lot more complex than I thought," Lambert recalled.
"I remember one day we went to secure a food distribution area in Port-au-Prince. And in a split second it went from calm to a riot calling for [a local borough] mayor. They wanted to drag him out; they were saying he was stealing food. That did have a major impact on me.”
An impact especially because, Lambert says, there was little if any evidence that official was guilty. Just as, she argues, Haitians demonstrating against Moïse are jumping to conclusions about him.
But a lot of other Haitians in South Florida believe their anti-Moïse conclusions are on the mark.
“Unfortunately Mr. Moïse leads an administration characterized by incompetence and total disregard for the rule of law," said Pierre Imbert, who was born in Haiti and lives in Aventura.
As a founding director of the Ayiti Community Trust, a nonprofit that promotes development in Haiti, Imbert also works to help Haitians escape poverty. And he argues Moïse does not really help Haiti’s poor — not the Moïse, anyway, who's allegedly tied to a million-dollar road-building corruption scheme. Moïse has denied those claims.
That scandal is part of a multi-billion-dollar government fraud involving Haitian political and business leaders, one that's helped lead to Haiti's current economic despair.
“People are focused on their own survival right now," Imbert said by phone from an agricultural development project site in southwest Haiti.
"Because of the kidnapping phenomenon, it’s like you take your life in your own hands trying to get from one place to another.”
Once you get into the area of arresting Supreme Court justices who don't agree with you, that is a straight road toward dictatorship.
The often violent kidnappings in Haiti started more than a year ago and just keep getting worse. But Imbert says the equally scary phenomenon is Moïse’s authoritarian governance.
Moïse has ruled by decree for the past year while refusing to hold overdue parliamentary elections — the president now says they'll be held in September, along with the next presidential election. Last month, on a questionable charge of coup conspiracy, Moïse even arrested a Supreme Court justice who argued Moïse’s constitutional term as president has now ended.
“And once you get into that area," said Imbert, "that is a straight road toward dictatorship.”
Imbert says it reminds him of the abuses of Haiti's 20th-century Duvalier dictatorship — and the moment he decided to flee Haiti in 1983 as a college student after he refused to give his seat on a bus to one of Duvalier’s Tonton Macoute thugs.
“He declared me an enemy of Duvalier — and he threatened to kill me," Imbert recalled.
"I had lost hope. And that’s what worries me at this moment. You talk to young Haitian people, and it’s about fighting or fleeing. That should also be of concern to the Biden-Harris Administration."
But President Biden supports Moïse’s claim that his presidential term ends next year, not last month. Imbert says he can’t understand why, claiming that’s not the Biden he met 15 years ago in Washington, D.C. — the senator who gave full-throated support to democracy in Haiti.
“He knows better," Imbert said. "He’s told us so.”
The Biden Administration seems to fear a Moïse exit now could create even more interim-government chaos in Haiti — especially since the opposition may not have its act together any better than Moïse does.
Either way, the controversy is a reminder that whether Haitian-Americans back or boycott Moïse, one thing they do seem to agree on is that the diaspora needs to be a more vocal, organized and influential lobbying in Washington.
"The Haitian diaspora pumps billions of dollars [in remittances] to the Haitian economy every year, but our voice doesn't match that input," said Haitian-American attorney Regine Theodat, who was born in Boston but went to live in Haiti shortly after the country's catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
"This shouldn't just be a matter of what Biden has to say," she added, "it should also be a matter of what the diaspora has to say. We're just not organized enough."
Theodat too helps Haitians with legal and economic development efforts, and a few years ago she started a restaurant and food-and-beverage-packaging business, Myabel, in Croix des Bouquets near Port-au-Prince.
Theodat also believes it's time for Moïse to exit — and that the constitutional reform referendum he's scheduled for next month is illegal. But one thing she, Imbert and Lambert all agree on is that Moïse's proposal to let diaspora members run for president of Haiti without a significantly longer residency requirement is a bad one.
"The learning curve in Haiti is rather steep," said Theodat. "If you haven't lived here for the past decade or so, thinking you could be president of this country is a pipe dream."
Right now Haitians, the diaspora and the international community need to dream up a way out of its country-crushing crises — with or without Moïse.