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Haiti Braces for Further Instability Amid Grim Anniversary

FILE - Haiti's designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry gestures during his appointment ceremony in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 20, 2021, weeks after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on July 7 at his home.

Schools and businesses across Haiti shuttered their doors on Monday and large numbers of police patrolled the streets as the country confronted a grim anniversary.

Monday marked not only seven months since President Jovenel Moïse was slain at his private residence but also the end of his term, with opponents demanding that Prime Minister Ariel Henry step down, arguing that his administration is unconstitutional.

Henry brushed aside those criticisms during a press conference Monday evening where he again pledged to create a provisional electoral council to pave the way for general elections. He noted that exactly 36 years ago, former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country amid a violent uprising.

"Thirty-six years later, we must realize that we have failed to establish a truly democratic system," Henry said, adding that for every three steps forward, the country goes back two steps.

Henry blamed the economy for most of Haiti's ongoing problems, saying it was too small to allow people to live well, get jobs or obtain good government services. He said his administration is fighting to reduce a surge in violence and is looking for more resources to help those in need.

"We know there is a lot of misery out there," he said.

FILE - A poster depicting Haiti's President Jovenel Moise, who was assassinated in July, towers over a road in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sept. 28, 2021.
FILE - A poster depicting Haiti's President Jovenel Moise, who was assassinated in July, towers over a road in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sept. 28, 2021.

Thousands of people opted to stay home Monday, afraid that even greater violence would erupt as Haiti's political instability deepens, kidnappings spike and gangs grow more powerful amid a crumbling economy.

Lionel Fortuné, a 33-year-old law student, was among the few who ventured outside and waited a long time for a public bus to materialize on the empty streets.

"This country has totally deteriorated," he said. "You don't know who you can count on, who you can trust to lead the country to the right path."

Henry has promised to hold general elections by the end of this year as his administration tries to improve security conditions.

Haiti currently has only 10 elected officials since it failed to hold legislative elections in October 2019 amid political gridlock and massive protests, with Moïse ruling by decree for more than a year before was killed. Since then, numerous opponents have challenged Henry and nominated their own leaders, moves that the prime minister has not recognized.

"The basic thing today is not to fight for a short-lived piece of power," Henry said. "No one has the authority or the right to meet at a hotel or abroad to decide in a small committee who is to be president or prime minister. All this is a distraction."

Bocchit Edmond, Haiti's ambassador to the U.S., echoed those thoughts in an interview with The Associated Press, saying that Henry did not make himself prime minister but rather was chosen by a legitimate and democratically elected president. He said the process of choosing an electoral council was very well advanced and called on opponents to work together with Henry, adding that he remains optimistic that elections will be held.

"My only fear is to see my country not moving forward," Edmond said.

He dismissed accusations that Henry is not considered a legitimate leader given that Haiti's chief public prosecutor, whom Henry has since fired, noted that the prime minister spoke with one of the main suspects in the presidential slaying hours after it occurred. Henry has said he received multiple calls that day and doesn't remember all of them.

"It's an ongoing investigation," Edmond said. "Let us leave (this to) the justice system."

One of the most high-profile groups that oppose Henry, the Montana Accord, named after the hotel where it was signed, has proposed a two-year transitional period to allow Haiti time to create a safer environment for voters. The group, made up of thousands of supporters including prominent politicians and civil society leaders, recently nominated as its leader Fritz Jean, former governor of the Bank of the Republic of Haiti.

In a speech on Saturday, Jean said he plans to reach out to more groups and political parties to find solutions to Haiti's issues and noted that violence is not the road to democracy.

As political figures keep vying to be Haiti's new leader, Fortuné, the law student, lamented the spike in prices of basic food staples and accused the government of not doing anything to improve people's lives: "The economy has hit rock bottom. It can't go farther than it has. No one can really survive."