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VOA Interview: US Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison

FILE - US Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison

U.S. Ambassador in Haiti Michele Sison recently spoke with VOA Creole, in Creole and English. She discussed the alleged Feb. 7 coup attempt, the country’s political impasse and the Biden administration’s foreign policy focus.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA Creole: Ambassador Sison, Haiti is facing a crisis. The president, the government has just retired three Supreme Court justices. What is your reaction, especially since this happened after the government announced there had been a coup attempt against President Jovenel Moise?

Ambassador Michele Sison: Good morning, Jean Robert. Good morning to all the friends of VOA. I want to let you know that the U.S. Embassy in PAP [Port-au-Prince] is following Haiti events closely. Of course, the United States is an ally of Haiti. We work for the Haitian people. We work for political stability. We work for economic stability in Haiti. We concentrate on good governance, protection of human rights and the promotion of economic growth. I also want to confirm once more the essential role of civil society has to play.

So, yes, we did see the Arrete [official announcement] published on February 8, the retirement of three Cour de Cassation [Supreme Court] Justices. We are very concerned about any actions that risk undermining democratic institutions in Haiti. Now, experts are examining the official announcement to determine if it conforms to the constitution and Haitian laws.

VOA Creole: How can the U.S. help the actors in conflict? I am referring to the government of President Moise and the opposition. Is there a way the United States can intervene to help resolve this crisis?

Ambassador Michele Sison: What troubles us is governance by decree, governance by presidential decree that has been going on in Haiti for a period that is not normal and is ongoing. We work with our partners in the international community like the U.N., OAS, the CORE group to make the Haitian government aware of our concern that President Moise is using decrees during this period, during which there is no functioning parliament. According to the democratic laws of Haiti, the only thing that can put an end to governance by decree is organizing free legislative elections. So that Haiti has a parliament that restores its rightful role in a democracy.

The people of Haiti should have the right to elect its leader and its representatives and that is the solution to this crisis in my opinion.

VOA Creole: Since you mention elections, we know that the opposition will not participate in elections organized by President Moise. They say his term ended on February 7, 2021. And the Provisional Electoral Council he created - they [opposition] say was not created legally. How can the United States support an election with an Electoral Council that the opposition refuses to participate in any election with?

Ambassador Michele Sison: President (Joe) Biden and Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken said democracy and human rights have a central place in United States foreign policy. That is clear. We are very concerned about any action that risks undermining democratic institutions in Haiti.

VOA Creole: Do you agree that the U.S. has faced a lot of criticism due to the fact that the U.S. and the OAS and U.N. agree that President Jovenel Moises’ term ends February 7, 2022. How do you respond to that criticism? You were also criticized for not commenting when President Moise decided that two-thirds of the parliament's term had expired.

Ambassador Michele Sison: We at the United States Embassy speak to many Haitian citizens. And, naturally, many of them are very concerned, very concerned. They would like to see Haiti move forward. Especially the economy, security. Elections are essential to end the political paralysis that exists in Haiti since a long time. For more than a year. ...

Haitians should have their say, so they can realize their own vision for their country. We are asking all the actors in Haiti to stay focused on restoring the constitutional order. The Haitian people elected President Jovenel Moise in November 2016. President Moise was sworn in on February 7, 2017, for a five-year term that will end on February 7, 2022. That is the same analysis that the OAS made - the Organization of American States.

VOA Creole: So for now, the U.S. is encouraging President Moise to hold elections. You know that the government recently signed an agreement with the U.N. for a $20 million basket fund. Is the U.S. prepared to contribute financially to the organization of elections and a referendum on the constitution?

Ambassador Michele Sison: Of course, our position for a year has been that legislative elections should have been held long ago. So legislative elections must be held as soon as it is technically feasible so the parliament's rightful role can be restored. Free and fair presidential elections must also be held so that a newly elected president can succeed President Moise at the end of his term.

VOA Creole: There is a question of security so that the elections can be held. What kind of support can the United States give the national police to guarantee the security of the voters and the candidates who are campaigning for office?

Ambassador Michele Sison: For a number of years, we have worked with the National Police of Haiti to reinforce their capacity to protect the citizens. That is to say, during the elections and during the entire year. Guaranteeing the security of the citizens is an essential role. We have worked with experts for over 10 years to reinforce their ability to protect the citizens of Haiti.

VOA Creole: What about the deportation of Haitians, which has continued after President Biden was sworn in? ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has deported many people back to Haiti over the last days. Do you know why this decision was made?

Ambassador Michele Sison: That's a question for Department of Homeland Security, ICE. It's a question for DHS in Washington.

VOA Creole: How do you see the relationship between Haiti and the new Biden administration? Has the Moise-(Prime Minister Joseph) Jouthe government contacted you to reinforce bilateral relations?

Ambassador Michele Sison: As I said, President Biden and our new secretary of state, Tony Blinken, said clearly that democracy and human rights have a central place in American foreign policy. So the United States is supporting the people of Haiti. We are working for the improvement of Haiti and the region. It's our region, too.

VOA Creole: One last question in Creole. On February 7, the government of Haiti said it uncovered a coup plot to assassinate the president. Arrests were made, 23 people were arrested, among them Supreme Court Justice (Yvickel ) Dabresil. Were you aware of this plot that President Moise announced?

Ambassador Michele Sison: The United States is following the situation in Haiti with concern. We urge the political actors to address their differences peacefully. We understand that the national police of Haiti is investigating 23 people who were arrested over the weekend of February 6-7. We understand that Justice Dabresil was released yesterday (February 11). We are awaiting the results of the police investigation -- the PNH (Police National d’Haiti) investigation.

VOA Creole: There were two editorials in The New York Times and Washington Post about the situation in Haiti. What is your opinion on the measures they say the Biden administration should take to resolve the political crisis in Haiti?

Ambassador Michele Sison: Political and economic stability is only going to come when Haiti's leaders set aside their differences. When they set aside their differences in order to serve the Haitian people. And set aside their differences also to support Haiti's democratic institutions.

So we share the Haitian people's concern about insecurity and the health and education sectors and food insecurity. We share their concerns about gang violence. So I would say that Haiti's political actors have got to set aside their differences and tackle these challenges together for the good of the Haitian people.

VOA Creole: Do you have a message for the Haitian people and President Moise?

Ambassador Michele Sison: Today there is a political impasse and there are challenging security and economic conditions. Haiti is operating without its full three branches of government, following the expiration of the terms of most members of parliament. There has to be an inclusive solution.

People have got to talk to each other. And they've got to find peaceful means to resolve their differences. Haiti must hold legislative elections to form a fully functioning government that is responsive to meet the needs of the Haitian people and to exit this period of irregular rule by decree. Political polarization has affected governance. It has affected the lives of the Haitian people.

I want to add that we continue to call for accountability for human rights abuses and accountability on any allegations or corruption and we reiterate the need for the government of Haiti to investigate and prosecute those who are responsible for the La Saline and Bel Air violence.

So let me say that we are committed to the people of Haiti. The people of Haiti are our neighbors. We want to see a more secure and prosperous future for Haiti and for the region. It is a region that we all share.

There is a strong U.S. interest in strengthening Haiti's democratic institutions and supporting the Haitian people in their desire for a more stable, secure and prosperous future.

VOA Creole: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Ambassador Michele Sison: I just want to underscore - because there does seem to be some misunderstanding that our Consulate section is closed. It is not closed.

We are offering U.S. citizen services, facilitating the issuance of passports, we are facilitating the adoption process for Haitian children who are headed to the United States to join their families. We are also doing priority visa cases, including priority visa cases for medical or humanitarian (cases) and students.

But I have to say that the website -- our embassy website -- does provide a lot of useful information. Because we are doing a very methodical intake in order to protect both our Consulate employees and the clients who come to the Consular section. So they will notice enhanced social distancing and so forth, but the Consulate section is open. It is not closed.

VOA Creole: Thank you, Ambassador Sison.

Ambassador Michele Sison: Thank you, Jean Robert, for the conversation, and have a good weekend.