A protester holds up a copy of the Haitian constitution during a protest to demand the resignation of Haiti's president Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.
( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega. Welcome back to the Takeaway. Haiti is in the middle of a political crisis as its current president refuses to relinquish power. It's an issue that extends back to 2015, when President Jovenel Moïse was elected during a contentious process with allegations of election fraud that consumed the country for more than a year. Five years later President Moïse is refusing to step down claiming his term ends in 2022 and not this year. Demonstrators have since taken to the streets demanding he relinquish power.
The US government under President Joe Biden says it supports President Moïse and that protestors and opposition leaders should support the electoral process for the next year. The protests continue and criminal gangs are controlling the streets across much of the country pushing Haiti further from a resolution. Jacqueline Charles is a Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald and she joins us now. Jacqueline welcome.
Jacqueline Charles: Hi thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Jacqueline take us back to 2015. What happened there with the elections that is now being used by the president of Haiti to explain why he's not stepping down?
Jacqueline: He held general elections in 2015 and they were very much marred by violent unrest as well as election fraud. As a result, the following year, President Michel Martelly who was in power, he stepped down because it's five years was up but he did not have a successor. So we had an interim government that came into power and eventually redid the elections, so President Moïse physically took office in 2017 and there lies the debate. He is saying, the constitution says that a presidential term in Haiti is five years. I've only been there four years.
But his detractors are saying, no, the constitution also says that the clock on that five-year term starts when the predecessor steps down, which would have been in 2016 with President Martelly. Both sides are reading different articles inside the Haitian constitution and they are applying it to their argument and the United States, the United nations and the secretary general of the OAS have all said that they agree with President Moïse's claim and Haitians in response have said, when did you become our constitutional court?
Tanzina: Is there something about President Moïse's governance that the protesters are responding to where they want him out now, or is this purely a reading of the Haitian constitution as we're understanding?
Jacqueline: I'll quote you a tweet from Julie Chung, Western Hemisphere assistant secretary in the Biden administration, who yesterday, and this is probably one of their tougher tweets or languages where she says, "I'm alarmed by recent authoritarian and undemocratic acts from unilateral removals and appointments of supreme court judges to attacks against journalists. Respect for democratic norms is vital and non-negotiable." President Moïse has been ruling by decree for over a year which means that he has no parliament.
He dismissed all of the mayors last year. He is just one of 11 elected officials in this entire country of over 11 million citizens, and he has issued dozens, scores of executive decrees which have basically strengthened his power under the presidency, weakened state institutions and the latest of which is that he fired three supreme court judges and he nominated three others, although it was not done legally and he didn't have the authority to do it in the manner in which he did.
Tanzina: Who is the opposition?
Jacqueline: That's an interesting question because the opposition is not a collective group, it's oppositions, and that's their huge problem, is that they have not really been able to coalesce around one agreement on everything. They have put together an accord for a transition but we have for instance former President Aristide, his political party which was once the most political party in Haiti, while they agree that President Moïse needs to go, they don't necessarily agree with the details on who should step in in the interim and how that should happen.
The international community led by the United States, they work with this. They point to the fact that the opposition is divided and they are at odds. That has been the problem with them in terms of this whole effort of getting President Moïse out. This just didn't happen overnight. From the minute President Moïse came into office he was contested, and we have seen these waves of unrest. Today it is centered around a constitutional crisis but this constitutional crisis is really about a larger political and governance crisis in this country.
Tanzina: What has been the response so far from the federal government at least in Haiti?
Jacqueline: President Moïse is the federal government and he is not ruling with any sort of consensus and so he controls the courts. The courts this week are objecting to his attack on the judiciary and they've announced that there's a complete shutdown of the court system. But he controls the police, he controls all arms of government, the prime minister is his and this is what we saw on Sunday. You saw thousands and thousands of Haitians take to the streets saying we are not going to go back into a dictatorship.
We were there 35 years ago. President Moïse is trying to bring us back and we're not going to do that. President Moïse has said I am not a dictator. He sees his mission as to bring Haiti into the modern era, to stop this cycle of crisis upon crisis, but Haiti's crisis are all built around the electoral process. Every time you talk about elections we're going to see some sort of crisis and today on top of all of the problems this country's facing, you have armed gangs and you have this rampant uptick in kidnappings that are happening.
The question that people are asking, while the US is saying, you have to go to election, they were saying how can anybody even campaign in a situation where armed gangs are terrorizing the population and even school children are being kidnapped off the streets?
Tanzina: The US government response has been pro President Moïse.
Jacqueline: Yes. He enjoyed widespread support under the Trump administration and we are seeing the same with the Biden administration. At least they're saying that they support his claim, that his term in office does not end until next year, but there's been pressure on Biden to change. We've seen a number members of Congress that have basically written to Secretary Blinken and asking them to support a transitional government in Haiti.
Also within the diaspora, Haitian Americans are also reminding President Biden of his visit to little Haiti in October, and also three weeks later a tweet where he criticized President Donald Trump and his policy on Haiti. He actually accused him of ignoring Haiti while that country was in a political crisis. People are reminding the Biden administration of this and saying what we're seeing is more of the same. We're continuing to see deportations of Haitians to Haiti and this country is in crisis.
It's even a deeper crisis [unintelligible 00:07:12] and your administration is still supporting him. To be fair, President Biden still doesn't have his key personnel in place in the Western Hemisphere in the state department. Right now the only person really in charge of Latin American policy is Juan Gonzales at the NSC and he has his hands full with the migration issue at the Southern border.
Tanzina: What are Haitians saying about the US approach right now?
Jacqueline: It's mixed. Haitians always they go from two things. They go from wanting the US to intervene, to saying to the US you have to stay out of our business. I think the biggest issue has been the feeling that the US has been very dismissive of Haitian civil society. We have the Catholic church, you have the federation of Haitian bars, you have the administrative offices of the judiciary, all have said that President Moïse's term ends next year.
You have the United States and others taking a position but really haven't taken into account their opinions or even sat down with members of Haitian civil society. Put the opposition aside for a minute, but institutions, civil society. We even saw with the Trump administration where they publicly attacked Haitian civil society.
Haitians feel that the United States has basically been completely dismissive and treat them with a certain disdain in this matter and so that is creating a reaction on the ground where they're basically saying that why is it that every time we have our internal politics, it is a matter of international debate. Of sort of big brother telling us what we need to do, yet at the same time they want that big brother, the blonde, the foreigner, to come in and save the day.
Tanzina: How is the Haitian diaspora responding to this, Jacqueline?
Jacqueline: You are starting to see [unintelligible 00:08:51] diaspora that feels very much in terms of how their family members in Haiti feel. For the Haitian diaspora, what happens in Haiti is very much a domestic issue for them because they're still tied to that country. They are also reminding President Biden of his visit and his promise and him courting Haitian American voters and they also want President Biden to step in, for the US to try and figure out this. The real debate I think too is this: Is it elections that Haiti should be pushing for or is it a transitional government?
The history of this country is every time there's elections there's always a crisis. Today you're in a crisis that did not come after a transitional government. It came after an election, but the United States always supports elections because that's part of democracy, that's part of the definition. It's going to be interesting to see at the end of the day is it the Haitians who end up resolving this or is it going to require for an intervention or some special envoy from the United States that goes in and really tries to get both sides to sit and to agree?
Tanzina: Jacqueline Charles is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. Jacqueline, thanks so much.
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