Who will replace Jovenel Moïse? Exploring his assassination and Haiti’s future

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John Yang:

Judy, the investigation is generating as many questions as answers.

The 15 Colombian nationals under arrest are former members of that nation’s armed forces. Eleven of them were captured after breaking into the Taiwanese Embassy in Haiti. Meanwhile, the political storm is intensifying, with competing prime ministers claiming the right to run the country. After Moise was assassinated, Prime Minister Claude Joseph announced a 15-day state of siege.

But a new prime minister appointed by Moise, Ariel Henry, was supposed to have taken over that very day, and he says he’s the rightful ruler.

To help us try to sort through this, we are joined by Pamela White, a former U.S. ambassador to Haiti, and Garry Pierre-Pierre, the founder of The Haitian Times, a newspaper serving the Haitian diaspora.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Garry, I’d like to start with you.

Haitian officials have arrested these 17 men. They say that they’re responsible. But they say, as is often said in political assassinations, it’s not important who pulls the trigger. It’s important who pays for the bullet.

Given President Moise’s service in office, does that give you any clues as to who may have paid for this operation?

Haitians’ voices need to be heard in country’s rebuilding, former Amb Pamela White says

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Haiti faces a political and security crisis after gunmen assassinated the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, early Wednesday morning in his home. Police have now killed four suspects behind the assassination and arrested two others, according to Haitian authorities.

Two men believed to be Haitian Americans — one of them purportedly a former bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince — are in custody, according to a senior Haitian official.

Related: Haitian asylum-seekers face discrimination in Tijuana migrant camp

The last time Haiti was thrust into turmoil by an assassination was more than a century ago when an angry group of rebels raided the French Embassy in 1915 and beat to death President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, ushering in weeks of chaos that triggered a nearly two-decadeslong US military intervention.

Prime Minister Claude Joseph assumed leadership of Haiti with the backing of police and the military, and on Thursday, he asked people to reopen businesses and go back to work, ordering the reopening of the international airport.

Related: Haitian American musician Nathalie Joachim pays tribute to underrepresented women of Haiti

Pamela White served as US ambassador to Haiti from 2012 to 2015 and is now with the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine. She discussed the situation in Haiti with The World’s host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: First of all, what was your reaction when you heard that Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, was killed? Pamela White: Someone called me at like 4 o’clock in the morning, and they said, “Have you heard it?” And I’m like, “Have I heard what?” And they said President Moïse has been assassinated. And I’ve known Haiti for many, many years because I first served there for five years from 1985 to 1990. So, you know, I’ve been very familiar with its rocky past. But, even remembering what went on when the United States and France and others managed to convince Baby Doc to leave the country, and the complete chaos that I experienced after that departure — this is another level and I feel deeply saddened, and, of course, for President Moïse’s family.

Can you take us back then a little? I mean, in 2015, you were the US ambassador to Haiti when Moïse was just running for office. What can you tell us about him? How did he come to power? Well, he was very good friends with President Michel Martelly, and President Martelly really brought him into the inner circle. He was, kind of, known up north as being a banana farmer. So, we didn’t really know very much about him. You know, Moïse, the four or five times that I met him, struck me as being incredibly shy and uncomfortable in the political role which he had taken on. Here’s the problem, I think, maybe the real root of the problem, and that is the voice of the Haitian people is not heard through elections. When Moïse was elected, I think it was 22% of the population even bothered to come outside their door. Of that 22%, he got 11% of the population to vote for him. So, he had no mandate ever.

I mean, the political instability has led to social upheaval. We’ve seen thousands of families taking shelter in Haiti, displaced by violent clashes between armed gangs. What’s fueling those clashes between the gangs? Well, the money. It’s rumored — I have never seen any proof of this — but a lot of the private businessmen, the elite of the elite, each have their own private interest. And some of them fund these gangs. Sometimes, as horrible as it is to say, but the worse Haiti gets, the richer certain people get. Certainly, this was true during the earthquake. I mean, the richest of the Haitians made millions and millions off that earthquake. The richest take it off the top, and there’s very little left to develop the country. I think that’s what’s happening. And people get very, very angry and they want that to be known. And politics has been wrapped up in violence in Haiti since Papa Doc left, and before. So, it was a long, long, long, long history. Even the police is infiltrated with corrupt individuals on the take. So, there’s no security mechanism down there that really is working. And the justice system is in shambles, too. I mean, Moïse fired three or four Supreme Court judges, there is no parliament. So, everywhere you look, there is a void.

Ambassador, as you said, economic crisis and poverty have contributed to the deep political crisis in Haiti. The US has given Haiti billions of dollars in aid over the last decade. From your perspective, how impactful has that aid actually been? Well, you know, I tell people that in the five years after the earthquake, we did miraculous things with the help of the Haitian people. We employed tens of thousands of people. We rebuilt roads. We rebuilt the port. We rebuilt the airport. We built schools. We trained teachers. We built a health delivery system that was, I mean, it wasn’t perfect, but it was functioning. Some of my favorite people in Congress would say to me, “But, Ambassador White, why haven’t you turned this around? Why haven’t you turned this around?” And I would be, like, “Listen, after Katrina, we gave New Orleans $40 billion to rebuild one city, and Haiti was given $2 billion by the United States to rebuild Haiti. We did wonderful, wonderful things there after the earthquake. There’s no doubt about it. But it wasn’t enough money to get down deep enough to change the fact that people did not have the skills to build Haiti back better. And that was going to take years to do. And in the meantime, chaos starts raising its ugly head. And you can’t do long-term development in the middle of chaos. You can’t expect them to rebuild the country when they are afraid to go outside their door.

Hmm, $2 billion is not as much as the $40 billion that went to New Orleans, but $2 billion for Haiti, comparatively speaking, is huge. Critics say the bedlam in Haiti has been enabled over time by the US, perhaps with the best intentions, no doubt, but I’m wondering, what would you have done differently if you could have? Well, yeah, my whole career, “I should have done this, I could have done that.” But, I think maybe we should have concentrated more on two areas instead of eight areas. I mean, it does sound like a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money when you’re doing big-time infrastructure. And the country was, you know, in shambles. There was enough rubble to fill dump trucks from Florida to Maine. That whole city was under. There was no parliament building. There were no schools. Tens of thousands of teachers were killed, tens of thousands of the health workers. I mean, you had a country that was trying desperately to move forward. And I do think that you can’t abandon Haiti. But, I do know that without investing in security — both food security and physical security — Haiti is not going to move forward. I’m sure of it. And I do not believe elections will help it move forward at this time either.

Well, you spoke earlier about the wisdom of holding the elections in the midst of this crisis, if it continues. State Department Spokesman Ned Price says the view from Washington is that elections that are scheduled in Haiti this year should proceed. Other experts on Haiti say slow down. With the current instability and violent conditions, a push for new elections is dangerous. What do you think? That’s what I think. I think we have to find a mechanism to hear the Haitian people’s voices. And I do not believe that an election will get that done. Even the last elections in 2016, 2017, they were very chaotic, also. And 20% of the people came out and voted. The rest said, “We don’t believe in these elections, we don’t consider them valid and we’re not coming out.” And then only 10% of them voted for Moïse. So, when you get to an election and that’s the turnout you have and that’s the interests of the Haitian people in the election at all, I think you have to look at it for a better solution.

So, let’s talk about that solution briefly. How do you see the US role in trying to give Haitian people a voice? Is it unilateral or is it working through the UN? What’s the next step here? We have got to get talking about how Haitians feel that we need to rebuild Haiti. And people say that all the time, “This is the Haitians’ problem to solve and that Haiti needs to take care of Haiti.” Well, OK, how do we get that done? Especially at a time when elections, to me, seem so far-fetched when there are no mechanisms to oversee an election. There’s no real judiciary, the opposition is there and they said they will not participate in an election under the current circumstances, so you don’t even have any opposition. You don’t have any really viable candidates. You just can’t say let’s have an election, and it miraculously happens. We say we don’t, but the United States equates democracy with an election. And I don’t. I equate democracy with people’s voices being heard. And I don’t think we found the right mechanism in Haiti to make that happen. And we’ve got to do that.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

Biden Administration Under Pressure to Drop Support for Haiti Elections

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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.

FILE - Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise speaks during a news conference at the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, March 2, 2020.

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.

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. #Haiti — Président Jovenel Moïse (@moisejovenel) February 26, 2021

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.

FILE - A man throws a tear gas canister back at the police during a protest against Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Feb. 10, 2021.

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.

FILE - Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington.

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.”

Vote legitimacy

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.”