Biden once criticized Trump on Haiti. Can he do better?

As Haiti descended into violent anti-government street clashes last fall, then-U.S. presidential contender Joe Biden, fresh off a campaign visit to Little Haiti, took to Twitter to slam Donald Trump.

“The Trump Administration is abandoning the Haitian people while the country’s political crisis is paralyzing that nation,” Biden wrote. “As president, I would press for dialogue to prevent further violence and instability.”

Now as Haiti’s political turmoil deepens, the nation’s crisis is quickly becoming one of his administration’s first foreign policy tests. There are worrying signs that President Jovenel Moïse is becoming Latin America and the Caribbean’s newest strongman. He has been ruling by decree for over a year after dismissing most of the legislature and issued a number of executive orders strengthening his powers as president. Opponents say his term expired on Feb. 7. He disagrees.

Since then, Moïse’s government has jailed 23 people, accusing them of plotting a coup. He’s also fired three Supreme Court justices named by the opposition as potential replacements. And he’s appointed three magistrates to the high court in a move experts say is illegal and designed to pack the judiciary with loyalists. He also named a new head of public security, jailed for his involvement in a 2005 police-involved massacre at a U.S.-funded soccer match in a poor Port-au-Prince neighborhood.

Late Saturday, following public outcry, the nomination was revoked and Moïse named instead a current Haiti National Police inspector with military experience to the job.

The Biden administration has stated it supports Moïse’s claim that his term expires in 2022 and called on Haiti to hold new legislative elections and ensure a peaceful transfer of power when the president’s time in office ends. But thus far there have been few changes from the Trump administration’s policies. Planeloads of Haitian deportees continue to arrive in Port-au-Prince. Official remarks still skirt around addressing broader concerns about human rights and rising fears of authoritarianism. No high-level visit has been announced, something former diplomats believe could help break the impasse if the right person is sent.

In Haiti and in the diaspora, some are looking to the U.S., which has long played a role in the nation’s politics, to take a stronger stance.

“During Biden’s visit to Little Haiti on Oct. 5, 2020, he promised he would work to bring his support to the Haitian community,” said Ancelyn-Glinaud Vilbert, 25, a resident of Cap-Haïtien who was among those who felt compelled to seek out Biden’s October 23, 2020 tweet and offer up a fresh response.

“We are headed into a dictatorship,” Vilbert said in an interview. “The United States of America must stop supporting these acts.”

A State Department spokesperson told the Miami Herald that the Biden administration will push for accountability for current and former Haitian government officials involved in human rights abuses and corruption, including through individual sanctions.

“President Biden has been very clear that we will put democracy and human rights back at the center of American foreign policy,” the spokesperson said. “The U.S. government has criticized a number of actions President Moïse and his administration have taken, and we will continue to press for the prompt organization of overdue legislative elections.”

Mounting fears over abuse of power

The constitutional crisis currently plaguing the Caribbean nation is part of a larger battle over governance and who is in charge. Moïse wants to introduce a new constitution. He has described the country’s current Magna Carta — written after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship 35 years ago this Feb. 7 — as “an act of corruption.”

The constitution, he said, is a roadblock to governing because it requires the president to seek approval from parliament for many decisions, including the appointment of a prime minister, who is then tasked with executing the programs.

In the proposed overhaul, there would be a unicameral legislature, eliminating the Senate, and the new parliament would be elected every five years to match the term of the president, whose powers would be strengthened.

While the current constitution doesn’t allow two consecutive presidential terms, the draft is silent on it and only states that a president cannot serve more than two terms— leaving the door open for Moïse, 52, to run again.

The proposed overhaul, which has the support of the United Nations, is being viewed by some as unconstitutional and a power grab by Moïse because the current constitution forbids referendums and requires any changes to go through parliament.

Many in Haiti still vividly recall the years of the father-son Duvalier dynasty, whose brutal repression resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people and forced many more to flee. And they have watched with concern, and fear a return to dictatorship, as Moïse modifies decrees on life in Haiti and weakens state institutions.

The country’s local daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, has documented more than 154 modifications, including executive orders, issued by Moïse in the last 13 months. He has dismissed all of the country’s elected mayors and hand-picked their replacements; unilaterally appointed an elections body; and named a constitutional commission, without political consensus, to draft the new constitution.

AFP_92G2TCjpg.JPG
Protesters clashed with police in several cities in Haiti Sunday, February 7 as they demanded the departure of their president. Haitian authorities said they had foiled an attempt to kill President Jovenel Moise and overthrow the government, as a dispute rages over when his term ends. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Embassy in Haiti has expressed concerns about the lengthy period in which Moïse has been ruling by decree. Earlier this week, it also expressed concern that Moïse’s removal of three Supreme Court judges could damage Haiti’s democratic institutions in the new administration’s strongest statement yet.

But three days later, Moïse issued a decree appointing three new judges to the high court. Three different judges associations denounced the move as illegal because the appointment of magistrates to the Supreme Court by the president requires Senate nomination and approval of the judiciary’s administrative arm. They have called for an indefinite shutdown of the justice system to force the president to respect the constitution.

“For those of us who have lived through a dictatorship, we see this as catastrophic that the Biden administration would give support to Moïse,” said Édouard Paultre, 66, a longtime human rights and democracy defender, who is helping to organize a Sunday march in Port-au-Prince to denounce what he and other opponents call a dictatorship. “It’s a disappointment for everyone who supports democracy in the country and for those of us who lived through the Duvalier dictatorship.”

Recent measures by Moïse, the deployment of the army during protests, the increased aggressiveness of the Haiti National Police and the proliferation of pro-government gangs have only further ignited those fears.

Meanwhile, concerns about widespread immunity remain. On Saturday, former Moïse government official Fednel Monchéry, sanctioned by the U.S. for his involvement in a 2018 massacre in the La Saline neighborhood of the capital, was briefly detained after authorities found license plates in his car considered suspect. Though the international community has called for his arrest, he was allowed to exit the station, stepping into a waiting vehicle with gang leaders and police officers, said Pierre Esperance, a leading human rights advocate who has been pressing for arrests in the case.

“Everyday, he’s targeting the population with his power. There is no reconciliation that can be done with this government,” said Lyonel Trouillot, a widely respected Haitian intellectual, poet and novelist in Haiti and in Europe, whose wife’s school in Port-au-Prince was inexplicably surrounded by police earlier this week. “There is no road to democracy that this country can take with Jovenel Moïse. The only thing that can be done is to negotiate an exit.”

Haiti’s envoy to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, has been trying to reach out to U.S. lawmakers to explain the situation. He said this week that Moïse will not be stepping down, but called for the international community to support talks between him and the opposition. Haiti’s opposition has rejected such calls in the past, accusing Moïse of not being interested in governing by consensus.

Key international leaders back Moïse

Opposition parties and civil society groups in Haiti want a transitional government and earlier this week named their own interim president, Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, 72, to lead it. The oldest member of the Supreme Court, Jean-Louis was later fired by Moïse. The U.S., the United Nations and Organization of American States’ secretary general do not support the idea of appointing new leadership before 2022 and without Haitians voting.

Along with France and Canada, the U.S., the U.N. and the OAS have historically played an active role in Haiti because of the country’s weak institutions and deep polarization. Over the past 30 years, there have been numerous U.N. missions and four U.S. military interventions. But lately Haitians have grown increasingly resentful of the country’s politics being dominated by the opinions of the international community.

Recent statements from the US, the U.N. and the OAS secretary general support Moïse’s claim on power for another year, but show different priorities in the timeline for a way forward and the solution to Haiti’s crisis.

The U.N.’s representative in Port-au-Prince, Helen La Lime, believes a new constitution is the solution to Haiti’s problems. The U.S., on the other hand, contends publicly that elections are the way out and that separate legislative and presidential votes should be a priority. Restoring parliament would end Moïse’s rule by decree, and it would also make his plans for a new constitution by referendum difficult.

The head of the OAS initially aligned himself with the Trump administration’s calls for elections to be held as soon as “technically feasible,” but more recently has indicated that he supports Moïse’s proposed timeline.

Moïse is calling for a constitutional referendum in April and presidential and legislative elections in September.

If Biden is to come up with a different policy for Haiti, addressing the differences within the international community and the voting schedule will be one of the first issues he will face.

“The fundamental problem with those international actors now looking to help ‘resolve’ the situation is that each has their own agenda and their own interests in Haiti — and those aren’t necessarily the same as that of the Haitian people,” said Jake Johnston, a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research who has done extensive research on Haiti.

AFP_92P6C3jpg.JPG
Haitian police fired tear gas on hundreds of protesters who were marching against President Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince on February 10, and attacked journalists covering the demonstration, in the latest clashes to mark the country’s political crisis. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

The president’s opponents and some longtime Haiti observers argue that Moïse is violating the constitution in the process of trying to put in place a new one — a move that will compound existing problems. They are bothered, they say, by the international community’s apparent support for Moïse’s proposal and dismissive attitude toward Haitian civil society and their legal opinions.

“It’s very discouraging to hear the State Department’s statements and even that of La Lime from the United Nations,” said Bernard Gousse, a former justice minister who was in office during the U.S. backed 2004-2006 transitional government after president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster. “I didn’t know the State Department and U.N. were the constitutional court for Haiti.”

Gousse, who acknowledges there are problems with the constitution, said the Biden administration needs a fresh view of Haiti. It can start, he said, by making changes at its U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

“It needs to reach out to the other side of civil society; not only the opposition. I can understand that sometimes the opposition lacks some credibility, I can admit that,” Gousse said. “But civil society is not only those people who they see in the streets. You have people in universities, you have corporations, teachers associations, etcetera, who you can talk to and have a better picture of what is going on in Haiti.”

He said those voices can explain what he likened to, “the building, block by block, of a rampant dictatorship.”

A U.S. State Department Spokesperson said Saturday that they support U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison “and the outstanding work she has done carrying out U.S. policy on behalf of the American people.”

“She has engaged closely with Haitian government officials and a broad spectrum of political actors and civil society,” the spokesperson said.

Haitians call on Biden to act

The day that Moïse announced the arrests in the alleged coup, many in Haiti and in the diaspora kept a close eye on Washington’s response. Though the Haitian government said they had ample evidence, opposition and civil society groups were skeptical. Legal organizations claimed at least one arrest was illegal — a jailed Supreme Court judge, who has since been released but still faces charges.

A State Department spokesman said the “situation remains murky” and that officials would await the results of the police investigation. The official added that the lack of participation in opposition calls for mass protests in recent weeks indicates that Haitians are “tired of endless lockdowns and squabbling over power.”

HaitiProtest (4).JPG
A protester holds up a copy of the Haitian constitution during a protest to demand the resignation of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Haiti has lurched into a fresh political crisis amid allegations of a coup attempt and an escalating dispute over when the presidential term of Moïse should end. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

For some in Haiti and in the U.S., that response was consistent with the hands-off approach of U.S. policy to Haiti under the Trump administration that sidestepped tackling fundamental concerns.

“We want to give him time, but we don’t want him to go along with the same policy,” said Laurinus “Larry” Pierre, a Miami physician who was among only three non-elected Haitian Americans invited to attend the Little Haiti campaign event with the then-vice president and his wife.

In a letter addressed to Biden, Roger Biamby, a Haitian-American activist in Miami, said Haitians have been trapped in a dilemma that has only gotten worse as the country’s troubles with corruption, abuse of power, injustice, economic hardship and the proliferation of armed gangs mount.

“Haitian electors voted for the ticket Biden/Harris in the presidential elections to restore democracy in the United States,” Biamby wrote in the letter, which he shared with the Herald. “Now we need your help to restore democracy in Haiti by demanding Mr. Moïse to respect the Haitian constitution and relinquish the presidency immediately.”

Earlier this week, a Boca Raton resident started a change.org petition demanding the release of those arrested on Sunday in the alleged coup plot. Within days the petition had amassed its initial goal of 2,500 signatures, and currently has over 3,700 signatures.

The release of those arrested has become even more complicated with the shutdown of the judiciary.

Catherine Buteau, 33, whose parents and aunt were among those arrested, said her relatives are innocent and their arrest illegal. Her mother, Marie Antoinette Gautier, is a surgeon and former presidential candidate; her father, Louis Buteau, is a well-known agronomist; and her aunt, Marie Louise Gauthier, is a high-ranking member in the Haiti National Police. Buteau accused the government of creating a “false narrative” about her family.

“It’s been very stressful, very scary waking up to the news and not understanding what is happening and seeing the distressing pictures on social media,” she said.

Analysts: US-Haiti policy in need of a reset

The Haiti crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time for the administration. Biden currently doesn’t have an envoy for U.S. relations with Latin America at the State Department, and his point person, Juan Gonzalez at the National Security Council, is wrestling with migration issues at the U.S.-Mexico border. Other key appointments have also not yet been made.

Even after Biden names a point person on Latin America, it is unclear if Haiti will command the attention some want it to.

The new president has a slew of pressing domestic concerns, from the coronavirus pandemic to the economy, and a new wave of migrants trying to enter through the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to take higher priority. Meanwhile, Haiti’s security issues have grown more complex, which makes even the holding of elections questionable.

Unlike the chaotic 2015 presidential elections that eventually brought Moïse to power, there is no U.N. peacekeeping contingent on the ground to aid the Haiti National Police, which has been unable to quell the gang violence or arrest wanted gang members.

Robert Maguire, who once prepared former diplomats going into Haiti, said that not finding a quick resolution to Haiti’s crisis nonetheless carries potential consequences for the entire region. The political turmoil, rising crime and a deep economic contraction could eventually lead many more to flee.

AFP_92P6UMjpg (1).JPG
Demonstrators march in Port-au-Prince on February 10, 2021, to protest against the government of President Jovenel Moïse. Protesters hold a sign that say, “We will not return to dictatorship.” VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

For many Haiti observers, U.S. foreign policy has consistently missed the mark— resorting to either strong-arm tactics, common during the Obama administration, or to the Trump administration’s hands off response. Maguire and others say the Biden administration should chart a different path.

“The bottom line is that the U.S. has to find a way to try not to own and manipulate Haiti’s political process, but to support and respect what the majority of Haitians seem to want— honest, transparent leadership that seeks greater equality, inclusion and poverty alleviation in Haiti,” said the former director of the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Eddy Acevedo, a former senior U.S. Agency for International Development official, said the consequences of a long history of missteps by the U.S. and others is readily apparent today.

In 2015, as an aide to Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Acevedo warned the U.N. that a premature pullout of peacekeeping troops could be disastrous. The last U.N. peacekeeping mission ended in 2019, 15 years after arriving to help restore order, and left a mixed legacy.

“Haiti continues to be riddled with violence, corruption, lack of democratic governance, and election stalemate,” said Acevedo, currently a senior director at the McCain Institute. “We should immediately pull visas for anyone that is corrupt or undermining the democratic process, increase support to civil society and faith-based organizations, and support constitutional reform in a transparent and inclusive manner.”

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.