“I am not a dictator,” Haitian President Jovenel Moise said during a national address Sunday, hours after announcing that the police had foiled a coup attempt and made more than 20 arrests.
Haitians woke Sunday to gunfire in areas near the national palace, and a high police presence was seen by VOA Creole reporters on the scene.
At midday, the president surprised the nation by going live on Facebook from the international airport in Port-au-Prince to announce a foiled coup attempt and the arrests.
The prime minister would give more details, the president said, before heading to the southern coastal town of Jacmel to inaugurate Carnival festivities. He was accompanied by his wife, first lady Martine Moise.
Moise has said he will serve another year because he was sworn in in 2017 for a five-year term. But the nation’s opposition party says the president’s term should have ended Sunday, February 7, the date set by the constitution when elected presidents are sworn into office. Moise failed to hold elections in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic and a climate of insecurity.
The Biden administration on Friday expressed support for Moise’s position that his term would end February 7, 2022, while urging him to respect the rule of law, refrain from issuing more decrees and organize elections as soon as possible. It’s a position also supported by the United Nations and Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro.
On Saturday, some U.S. lawmakers wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemning Moise’s actions.
The State Department and U.S. Embassy in Haiti did not comment on Sunday’s events.
Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe described the police operation during an afternoon press conference at his official residence as “operation catastrophe” during which police targeted a location called Habitation Petit Bois in the Tabarre neighborhood of the capital. The prime minister said police made 23 arrests and seized U.S. and Haitian currency, weapons and munition.
“Among the 23 arrested, unfortunately there was a Supreme Court judge and an inspector general for the national police force. We deplore this,” he said.
The Supreme Court judge has been identified as Hiviquel Dabrezil and the Police Nationale d’Haiti Inspector General was identified as Marie Louise Gauthier. Agronomist Louis Buteau was also detained.
Prime Minister Joseph described the alleged attempted coup:
“Those people had contacted the official in charge of security for the national palace who were to arrest the president and take him to Habitation Petit Bois and also facilitate the swearing in of a new provisional president who would oversee the transition.”
The prime minister added that he saw and heard proof in the form of audio recordings, signed documents and the text of a speech for the inauguration of the new president.
The opposition’s transition plan called for a judge of the Supreme Court to replace Moise after his term expired on February 7.
Asked by VOA Creole on Saturday who they had chosen among the judges, Andre Michel, a lawyer who represents the coalition of the Democratic and Popular opposition groups, declined to specify who it would be. He told VOA if he gave the name, the person would not live to see Sunday.
As the prime minister was speaking, Michel held a simultaneous press conference elsewhere in town to denounce the arrests and insist that President Jovenel Moise is now a de-facto leader because his term expired at midnight on Saturday.
“The CSPJ (Superior Council of the Judiciary Branch), who in principle has the last word in any political or legal conflict — this judicial branch of government — says Jovenel Moise’s constitutional term of office has expired,” Michel said, adding that this position is supported by members of the U.S. Congress.
Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks tweeted Saturday that he co-led a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Congresswoman Yvette Clarke “to condemn President Moise’s undemocratic actions in Haiti, urging for a Haitian-led democratic transition of power. The letter was signed by five other House representatives: Albio Sires, Andy Levin, Alcee Hastings, Ilhan Omar and Darren Soto.
Early Sunday, Congressman Levin tweeted condemnation of President Moise.
“I am deeply saddened but unsurprised that Moise has escalated his anti-democratic campaign with a mass arrest of opposition officials and others on what should be his final day in office,” Levin tweeted.
The congressman also questioned Moise’s “claims of conspiracy against his life” saying “Moise is demonstrating what my colleagues and I have said: there is zero chance of real elections, real democracy or real accountability while he remains in power.”
Moise has faced intense pressure internally and internationally over the past months for ruling by decree and failing to curb the rampant kidnappings and gang violence that have terrorized the nation.
However, he was jubilant Sunday, as he listed his infrastructure accomplishments that he said has brought electricity, irrigation and roads to towns nationwide. He implored the opposition to stop fighting him and work with him to make the lives of the people better because he has only 364 days left in office.
“The battle I’m waging is not for myself, it’s for you,” Moise said. “I’m not here to lie to you today, I’m here to tell you the truth. … My brothers and sisters in the opposition don’t let pride, revenge, selfishness keep you from working with me.”
VOA Creole spoke to people in Haiti about the president’s speech and the events of the day.
“Today we’ve reached a decisive moment. This is a moment to prove our sovereignty. This is a day to show that we are a symbol of democracy. And that is why we are in the streets today,” said a protester who said he belongs to a grassroots group called Slave Revolt. “We are living events we’ve never seen before and that has pushed us into civil disobedience.”
Another protester said he’d like to remind Jovenel Moise that his term is expired.
“We’re in the streets to remind the president that although he is reticent to respect the constitution — let’s remember it is the same constitution he was sworn to uphold when he was inaugurated. Now he’s letting the country tumble into a free fall,” he said.