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Can Haiti Reverse Spiraling Violence and Kidnappings?

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse Moïse // File Photo: Haitian Government.

Haiti is wracked by deepening political unrest and economic misery, as well as a rash of kidnappings, which, according to the United Nations, tripled last year. President Jovenel Moïse acknowledged on April 14 that efforts to fight insecurity have been “ineffective,” and the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Port-au-Prince recently said the country’s society is suffering a “descent into hell.” What are the reasons behind the surge of kidnappings and worsening insecurity in Haiti, and why haven’t policies to improve security worked? Is Moïse able to turn the country around, or should he step down? What kind of international support does Haiti need, and does enough political will exist among international actors to deliver such support?

Bocchit Edmond, Haitian ambassador to the United States: The insecurity challenges in Haiti are incredibly nuanced and multifaceted. Considering this reality, the Moïse administration has increased the national budget for the Haitian National Police by 53 percent to strengthen its capacity and implemented an aggressive policy to dismantle gangs. Out of 102 existing gangs, the government has dismantled 64. It is significant to note that the rise in insecurity is politically motivated due to reforms in various sectors across Haiti. The government has ended currency manipulation and contracts gained through corruption. These cases involve more than $6 billion in interest. Consequently, the government is facing a powerful lobby with significant means. Peyi lòk in 2019, financed and supported by some of these interest groups, caused severe economic damage, with nearly $2.4 billion and about 80,000 jobs lost. On Sept. 19, Haiti will hold its general elections with the support of international partners, ensuring a democratic transfer of power to a new administration chosen by the people. President Moïse’s term ends on Feb. 7, 2022. Haiti will also hold a referendum on the new constitution on June 27. The government intends to utilize all its resources to improve the sociopolitical climate to ensure that the deadlines are met and that the elections can be held in optimal conditions with the broadest possible participation of candidates and voters. We welcome foreign assistance with our electoral process in funding for elections, international observers or other means. The Haitian government has been working with the country’s friends and allies, including the Organization of American States and the United Nations, to ensure free, fair, transparent and inclusive elections. We are committed to holding credible and legitimate elections that will stand up to international scrutiny.”

Jacky Lumarque, member of the Inter-American Dialogue and rector of Université Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince: “President Jovenel Moïse has said that 80 percent of Haiti’s kidnappings are political, suggesting that insecurity was a weapon used by the opposition. Paradoxically, the main human rights organizations have documented the authorities’ complicity in the rise in insecurity and kidnappings. The measures taken have not reassured the population and have had the opposite effect by reinforcing the audacity of the kidnappers. No known gang leaders have been arrested despite their open appearance in public events, nor has anything been done about any of the high-profile assassinations. Most law experts and political analysts agree that Moïse’s term ended last February. While the government and its international allies (the United States, the OAS and the United Nations) present a different interpretation, the consequence is a weakening of the president’s legitimacy. Instability has even moved from the streets to the government itself: a dysfunctional parliament, five prime ministers and four police chiefs in four years, and a portion of the police force in open rebellion against the leadership in a battle for union recognition. Haitian political actors too often turn to Washington for support, either to stay in power or to overthrow an established power. In view of the lessons of these failed external interventions—including Moïse’s invitation to the OAS to intervene in his proposed elections—the best support that the international community can show is to stay out and affirm its neutrality with respect to the solutions envisaged by Haitians themselves.”

Juan Gabriel Valdés, former special representative and head of the U.N. mission in Haiti and former Chilean ambassador to the United States: “The Haitian state has practically disappeared. Its institutions, always weak in the past, have collapsed before the autocratic character of an executive branch that has not hesitated to systematically violate the constitution in order to accumulate power. The increase in poverty and urbanization in neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince has multiplied an evil that Haiti has carried for a long time: the existence of armed gangs that live off the kidnapping of people. The police lack sufficient preparation, and support from the government has not been clear. There are many Haitians who think high public or private spheres have some degree of complicity with the kidnappings. Furthermore, as has been proven in the past, the kidnappers do not come only from shantytowns and can constitute profitable businesses. The drama is that this ‘industry’ is growing without any restraint from any authority. After overwhelming the other public powers, the only one left standing is the government of Jovenel Moïse; but, at the same time, everything he does lacks legitimacy. After resisting demonstrations against him, and in a context in which he feels supported by international organizations and the silence of the new administration in Washington, the president continues to advance an autocratic project, with a plebiscite on a constitutional reform that does not have the least possibility of being considered legitimate, as well as elections organized under his mandate. The well-known ‘Haitian fatigue’ is apparent in the international community, but in Haiti there is also enormous fatigue with international intervention. The current crisis is greater than the one in 2004, which caused the start of Minustah. The international community has no choice but to clearly point out the current government’s illegitimacy and inability to resolve a crisis that progressively dissolves all semblance of society. This implies facilitating an exit through a transitional government. The latter may later call elections and control violence. The basic principle is that only a government that has institutional and popular legitimacy can do both.”

Gabrielle Apollon, Haiti project co-director at the Global Justice Clinic of NYU School of Law: “Human rights defenders in Haiti have been sounding the alarm about rising insecurity and the Moïse administration’s connections to deadly attacks against the most vulnerable since 2018. Analyzing these attacks, a recent report from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Haitian Observatory of Crimes against Humanity found that the ‘pattern of state-sanctioned violence, human rights abuses, and refusal to hold perpetrators accountable … likely amounts to crimes against humanity.’ This impunity and violence define the current moment in Haiti. Human rights defenders’ mobilization and mass participation of Haitian civil society demands recognition by the United States and other states in the Americas of the Haitian people’s right to self-determination. Through demonstrations, strikes and acts of solidarity, the Haitian people have denounced state-sanctioned violence, made clear that Moïse has overstayed his mandate and lost legitimacy, and uncovered the impossibility of free, fair and credible elections organized by his administration—not to mention an unconstitutional referendum. While 69 U.S. House Democrats expressed their deep concern regarding Moïse’s ability to fairly administer elections in a letter last week, it remains to be seen whether the international community can muster sufficient political will to censure Moïse’s unconstitutional actions. Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to expel thousands of Haitians seeking refuge at the U.S.-Mexico border, using a Trump-era public health order as authorization. At the very least, not one more person should be deported to Haiti at this time of extraordinary crisis.”

Georges Fauriol, fellow at the Caribbean Policy Consortium and senior associate in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “Haiti’s governance crisis is increasingly perplexing and dangerous: perplexing in that the international community’s voice remains hesitant, unfocused and unconvincing. This contrasts with sometimes overwhelming—some argue, even crushing—engagement over the past three decades. The crisis has now also entered dangerous territory because the timetable to effectively execute the Moïse government’s key objectives by the end of this year is narrowing. That includes a referendum on a reform text of the 1987 constitution and national elections this year. All of this is greatly enabled by the breathtaking absence of a clear operational consensus among key international actors, including the United States, the United Nations and the OAS, as well as by the fuzzy notions from Haiti’s fractured political opposition (and increasingly, voices among the diaspora) of a ‘transition government’ in the event of Moïse’s ouster. A recent exchange with U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and a related April 27 Haitian Embassy press release criticizing ‘undemocratic policy recommendations’ from the U.S. Congress, has allowed Moïse to remain obstinate, and worse, accuse elements of the international community of pursuing ‘regime change’ in Haiti. By remaining committed to a constitutional referendum in June (and a very dubious claim that 87 percent of the population supports it) and a ‘democratic transition of power in February 2022,’ Moïse’s uncompromising position contrasts with indications from some insiders that the wheels are about to come off—and is probably a factor behind the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe last month.”

Boaz Anglade, economist and political analyst: “The Haitian government is unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens due to a lack of resources, a weakened justice system and a lack of political will. The situation has gotten out of control, with gangs becoming increasingly more powerful and better equipped than the police. We have not seen any concrete proposal put forth to neutralize gang activities and restore order. The current policies are shortsighted and do not tackle the root causes of the problem. The president has reached a crossroads where he will need to prioritize the country’s interests, even if that would imply him stepping down. With each passing day, his goals of implementing a constitutional reform in June and organize general elections in the fall are becoming unattainable. The electoral institutions are not sufficiently prepared to hold a referendum in less than two months and general elections two months after that. Besides, it would be impossible to have free and fair elections under the current climate. President Moïse should prioritize dialogue with political actors and civil society to reach a political agreement that will allow elections to take place as soon as it is technically possible. It is possible to get things right this time. In this sense, this crisis might represent an opportunity. For years, when facing these types of situations, the international community has prioritized short-term band-aid solutions over a process, however long it might be, that could lead to solid change. The international community should pay attention to the concerns expressed by organizations on the ground that are part of civil society and support a process led by Haitians and for Haitians that could lead to profound systemic change. Unfortunately, I am not sure that enough political will exists among international actors to deliver such support.”

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