What Does Haiti’s New Prime Minister Bring to the Job?
Haiti’s president on March 21 named Jean-Michel Lapin as the country’s acting prime minister, a move that followed lawmakers’ no-confidence vote against Lapin’s predecessor, Jean-Henry Céant. The vote to censure Céant followed protests in February in which Haitians demanded better living conditions and a change in government. What does Lapin bring to the job, and how much success is he likely to have in improving living conditions in Haiti? What tasks should be the first on his agenda, and what are the biggest obstacles he will face? What are the main reasons behind this year’s protests, and will the change in prime minister lead to calm?
Daniel Erikson, managing director at Blue Star Strategies: “Ever since Haiti’s 1987 constitution created the role of prime minister, every officeholder has been quickly thrust into a tug-of-war with the president who offered the appointment. In theory, prime ministers are supposed to run the government of Haiti while the elected president serves as head of state and sets overall domestic and foreign policy. In practice, Haitian prime ministers serve as expendable political shock absorbers that allow the president to better absorb the blows of the body politic. With the recent removal of Prime Minister Jean-Henry Céant, President Jovenel Moïse has firmly grasped this tradition. Thus, acting Prime Minister Jean-Michel Lapin will face the same daunting challenges that defied his predecessors, with perhaps fewer tools and more constraints. On the bright side, Lapin has some prior experience in public office as former minister of communications and culture, but he will need to confront deep concerns about the high cost of living and cutting state expenditures. The recent surge in protests makes it clear that the Haitian people remain frustrated by corruption and the country’s economic deterioration. In early March, the IMF approved a three-year no-interest $229 million loan to Haiti, but last week suspended implementation until a new government and budget are introduced. As acting prime minister, Lapin is allowed only to oversee day-to-day affairs but is not permitted to enter the government into new contracts. Therefore, his success will rely on building confidence with the Haitian people without full authority to deliver. It will be a hard trick to pull off.”
Raymond Joseph, former ambassador of Haiti to the United States: “Naming Jean-Michel Lapin interim prime minister four days after the lower house of parliament fired Jean-Henry Céant underscores President Jovenel Moïse’s decision to get rid of the lawyer he chose for the job six months earlier. That had nothing to do with the nationwide demonstrations that began on Feb. 7 and shut down Haiti for 10 days. The people had demanded the resignation of the president. Last July, when riots broke out in protest of exorbitant fuel price increases, then Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant, fired by parliament, was kept for two months until Céant was approved. From the outset, relations soured between the president and Céant, who vowed to attack corruption and deal with the PetroCaribe scandal. Céant ordered cuts of 30 percent in the budget for his office and asked that this be done in all departments. Apparently, an International Monetary Fund mission liked what was happening. After a 10-day mission in Haiti, on March 8, a zero-interest loan of $229 million was negotiated for Haiti, contingent on the IMF board’s approval. But one day after Lapin’s nomination, the IMF’s director of communications said due to ‘political uncertainties’ with the changes, there would be a delay in presenting the report to the board. Lapin’s success will depend greatly on his ability to carry out the reform initiated by his predecessor while a permanent prime minister wins parliamentary approval.”
Cécile Accilien, director of the Institute of Haitian Studies at the University of Kansas: “As a prime minister, Jean-Michel Lapin’s most important tasks should be working toward securing the people’s basic needs: food, access to gas, education, health care and security, to name a few. That is how people will measure whether or not he is listening to them. He will also have to address the issues dealing with the missing PetroCaribe funds. It is hard to say whether the change in prime minister will lead to calm in the long term. That will depend on whether or not Haiti has true leadership that is not governed by outsiders’ interests but rather by the interest and well-being of the Haitian people. There must be continuity from one government to another and long-term stability. Last November, bitterness and resentment were building over a scandal involving the apparent diversion of PetroCaribe funds that Venezuela had promised would help build up Haiti’s infrastructure. People are angry about gas shortages, failed government promises, inflation and corruption. This, after hurricanes, earthquakes and a cholera outbreak that killed thousands of people in the past decade. Only time and actions will allow us to judge whether the government is listening to people and serving them the ways they need and deserve to be served. When people’s basic needs have been totally ignored for so long, it is hard to expect them to just sit and wait. Governments have made false promises and created projects that are not truly helping the Haitian people but instead are being used to enrich foreign nations.”
Georges Fauriol, senior associate in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “Tension between President Jovenel Moïse and Prime Minister Jean-Henry Céant finally blew up two weeks ago with the prime minister’s forced resignation and a somewhat messy parliamentary no-confidence vote. As interim prime minister, Jean-Michel Lapin, communications minister in the outgoing cabinet, has the task of overseeing a hazardous mix of issues—pressures from the streets demanding a government that works and provides answers to the PetroCaribe scandal, or worse, demands for the resignation of Moïse himself. With violent outbursts occurring like clockwork every three months since last July, the outlook is grim. Moïse’s political weakness suggests choosing a prime minister closer to him politically—not a competitor like Céant—and some speculation points to the current foreign minister, Bocchit Edmond. It may just be a coincidence that Edmond issued an editorial in the April 1 edition of the Washington Examiner singing the praises of the meeting Moïse and four other Caribbean leaders had with President Trump on March 22. There is logic to painting the U.S. president as Haiti’s new best friend—and it is relevant in the wake of Haiti’s recent tortuous shift on Venezuela policy. Moïse needs to show results, and the Mar-a-Lago meeting points to U.S. trade/investment policy promises. Two other issues cloud the horizon: uncertainty with the 2019 calendar for parliamentary and local elections, a problem that complicated Moïse’s election in 2016. The other issue revolves around the rolling back of TPS status for more than 40,000 Haitians residing in the United States. Under a reprieve extended to January 2020, Haiti is in no shape for a forced return—highlighted again last Sunday with Haitian migrants drowning off the Turks and Caicos Islands.”
Daniel P. Erikson, former Director of Caribbean Programs and Senior Associate for US Policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the subject of “Haiti on the Brink: Assessing US Policy Toward a Country in Crisis.”
As the political crisis in Haiti ensues with mounting social discontent and economic instability, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a conversation on the current conditions in Haiti as well as approaches to securing peace and democratic governance in a country beset by turmoil.