Haitian rights activists, a former ambassador to the country and civil society groups are pressing the U.S. government to drop its support for Haiti’s president’s plan to hold a referendum and elections at a time of rising violence and kidnappings in the country.
During a virtual hearing last week on Capitol Hill, Congressman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, was blunt. “Haiti’s a mess. The people are suffering. This has to stop!”
Two members of Haitian civil society, a former U.S. ambassador to Haiti and the leader of a Haitian American nongovernmental organization working on immigration issues testified before American lawmakers Friday, saying no elections can be held because the Haitian Provisional Electoral Council lacks credibility and gang violence is rising.
The panel urged officials not to support Haitian President Jovenel Moise’s plan to hold a constitutional referendum in June, followed by legislative and presidential elections in September and November of this year.
“It is difficult for me to imagine having successful elections this year in Haiti,” said Pamela A. White, who served as U.S. ambassador to Haiti from 2012 to 2015. “I do not believe right now the necessary institutions are in place to assure a smooth transition.”
Some Haitians, including the political opposition and civil society members, view Moise’s electoral council as illegitimate because it was named unilaterally and without input from civil society. Members were not sworn in by the Supreme Court as mandated by the constitution, and they answer only to the president.
Moise has largely ignored the criticism while expressing support for the electoral council. He also says he is willing to hold discussions with the opposition.
"As Haitians and patriots, we need to stand together for dialogue for a better tomorrow for our people. We stand ready to engage in meaningful dialogue with the opposition for a brighter future for our children and our nation while rejecting Violence," he tweeted on February 26.
Rising gang violence
Meanwhile, a spike in gang violence and kidnappings that the national police force has been unable to control have hindered candidates’ ability to campaign in the most populous areas of the country.
Haitian activist Emmanuela Douyon of the Nou Pap Domi (We Aren’t Sleeping) anti-corruption civil society group says the U.S. should not repeat the mistakes of the past.
“The U.S. government should recognize that past foreign-led attempts aimed to strengthen democracy in Haiti have not led to progress and have even been counterproductive. It is time to follow the lead of Haitian civil society in determining when to support elections in Haiti and respect the current effort to solve the crisis as they want to,” Douyon said.
Lawyer Rosy Auguste, program director for the human rights organization Reseau National de Defense de Droits Humains (RNDDH), said the country needs a credible electoral council before it can hold a vote.
“Stop supporting an electoral process that will lead to political instability,” Auguste said.
Haiti’s Ambassador to the U.S. Bocchit Edmond did not participate in the congressional hearing, but later in an interview with VOA dismissed their complaints as political posturing.
“I think this is just a group of people who want to fight a government that was democratically elected, who want to overthrow it and replace it with a transitional government because the transition will do their bidding — that’s all it is,” the ambassador said.
Edmond said Haiti’s woes are not Moise's fault and that Haitians should work together on a solution.
A Haitian solution to the political crisis is one of the few things all sides agree on.
So far, President Joe Biden has maintained the U.S. backing for Moise that existed during the Trump administration. The State Department and U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison have repeatedly said free, fair and credible elections, the restoration of democratic institutions, and adherence to the rule of law are essential. The Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations have made similar statements.
During testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 10, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was pressed on Haiti by Congressman Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has been outspoken about his lack of confidence in Moise’s ability to organize free and fair elections.
“I share your concern about some of the authoritarian and undemocratic actions that we’ve seen,” Blinken said, “particularly this irregular rule by decree and decrees getting into the heart of Haiti’s democratic institutions. So we’re making it very clear that for now, while we have this, decrees need to be limited to essential functions and to your point, we need to see the Haitians organize with international support — genuinely free and fair elections this year.”
For all of the concern over the upcoming votes, Laurent Weil, a Latin America and Caribbean country analyst for The Economist magazine’s intelligence unit, says he does not expect the congressional hearing will have a meaningful impact on U.S.-Haiti relations.
“This is the second hearing organized by Congress since the current crisis in Haiti started in 2018. It was organized by the same committee as the previous one, held in December 2019, and included the same witnesses as last time. While the previous hearing received media attention, it did not cause a shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Haiti. I don’t expect this one to change things dramatically either,” Weil told VOA via email.
Weil believes the Biden approach will be similar to policies pursued by the Obama administration.
“As was the case during the Obama era, the U.S. under the leadership of Joe Biden is likely to explore diplomatic solutions to the crisis by focusing its attention on efforts to organize elections,” Weil told VOA. “Given that the Haitian administration of Jovenel Moïse is committed to organizing elections, Mr. Moïse will remain part of the solution to the crisis, he will keep his seat at negotiating tables.”
With dissenting voices pressing to drop a vote, it’s unclear if the referendum and elections are held, how many people will take part in voting. White, Douyon and Auguste say inclusivity is essential for credible and fair elections.
“I think the entire question of a referendum to change the constitution is extremely dubious,” she said. “If we do not get minimal consensus among the relevant actors, Haiti will not be able to pull off credible elections — period.”
Weil says most Haitians do not share the view that the referendum must be stopped.
“Although many political actors, including those who participated in the hearing, and interest groups have echoed the view that Mr. Moïse must step down and abandon his project of a constitutional referendum, it does not represent the view of the majority of Haitians. In fact, according to recent opinion polls, the broad majority (over 80%) of Haitians agree that a referendum should be held to change the constitution,” Weil told VOA.
A local opinion survey published in December by America Elects, a poll aggregation and election analysis group, indicated some 87% of Haitians support the referendum.
“Moreover, many of Mr. Moïse’s opponents are actually in favor of the referendum, but they do not trust Mr. Moïse to run the process. So, the real question is on the referendum’s feasibility amid the security crisis and deepening political polarization,” he added.
Congressman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, says the U.S. will continue to support Haiti.
“No matter how difficult the situation, the United States remains committed to supporting the Haitian people. Haiti is the second largest recipient of U.S. assistance in the Western Hemisphere receiving over $180 million in FY 20 (Fiscal Year 2020),” McCaul noted.
“However, given the huge challenges facing Haiti, I think it’s fair to ask how effective our assistance has been and explore how our aid can achieve the desired outcome.”