The Biden administration’s response to Haiti’s spiraling political crisis may be motivated by wariness of entangling the U.S. in a neighbor’s affairs, or adding another challenge to the Administration’s extremely full plate. But Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse appears to be taking the response as a green light to continue his assault on democracy. The assault is making the crisis worse for Haitians and threatens to entangle the United States in a much more serious crisis.
In April 2019, I met in Haiti with the victims of the November 2018 La Saline massacre, an attack by gangs, police officers and government officials intended to punish the neighborhood for organizing anti-government protests. When I returned, I warned the Trump administration, which provided generous financial, diplomatic and political support to President Moïse, that unless there was accountability for the dozens of killings at La Saline, Haiti would descend into a spiral of chaos and violence.
Over the next two years, the Trump Administration continued to stand by President Moïse as he dismantled Haiti’s democracy and promoted the chaos and violence I had feared. With U.S backing, Moïse refused to negotiate in good faith with opponents. Terms expired for most legislators in January 2020, and all local officials in July, without elections for their replacements. Government-allied gangs created a formal alliance and systematically waged deadly attacks on opposition neighborhoods, often with police support. Police met peaceful protests with teargas, clubs and bullets. Dissidents and journalists were arrested and killed. President Moïse created an unconstitutional National Intelligence Agency to spy on opponents.
President Moïse now says he wants elections, but only after a constitutional referendum, which is scheduled for April. The referendum is Moïse’s most audacious and dangerous power grab yet. The changes he proposed to the Constitution would completely eliminate the Senate, replace the semi-independent Prime Minister with a Vice-President, and allow Moïse to hand-pick an electoral council that would run the next two Presidential elections.
This referendum is as unconstitutional in Haiti as it would be in the United States. Two years before the current Constitution’s adoption in 1987, the notorious dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, had engineered a similar referendum that proclaimed him President-for-Life. In response, the new Constitution explicitly prohibited referendums, and established an intentionally difficult procedure for amendments that requires super-majorities in the legislature, as the U.S. Constitution does. President Moïse’s referendum is subtler than Duvalier’s, but it is similarly autocratic.
Haiti’s crisis escalated on Feb. 7, the date that President Moïse’s term ended, according to a large swath of Haitian civil society, including the judicial oversight body, the bar association, church leaders and thousands of people on the streets. They are joined by several of my Democratic colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy. President Moïse, on the other hand, contends he has another year in office. On Feb. 5, the State Department announced that it agreed with him.
The Moïse Administration apparently took the announcement as assurance that the Trump Administration’s policy of near-unconditional support would continue under President Biden. Before sunrise on Feb. 7, police arrested – illegally – Supreme Court Justice Yvickel Dabresil and nineteen other suspected dissidents. Protests that day and the next were quickly snuffed out by police teargas, brutality and bullets.
On Feb. 8, Moïse fired Justice Dabresil and two Supreme Court colleagues. This move was just as illegal as it would be in the United States, and left the court short of a quorum required for rulings on constitutional issues.
The U.S. Embassy did express concern about the justices’ firings, but that mild reproach will have no effect. On Feb. 10, police and soldiers turned their guns and tear gas launchers towards journalists, injuring several. Judge Dabresil was jailed for five days, before being released after two courts ruled his arrest illegal.
All signs point to the Moïse Administration continuing to dismantle Haiti’s democracy. That will eventually present the U.S. with a refugee crisis and an expensive tab for helping to put the country back together.
The Biden Administration can take several practical, low-cost steps to help resolve Haiti’s crisis without risking entanglement. It can start by acknowledging the broad consensus in Haiti – reflected on Capitol Hill – that President Moïse’s term has ended, which will force Moïse to negotiate in good faith with his opponents.
Second, the U.S. can declare that it will provide no support for the unconstitutional referendum, either directly or through other organizations such as the United Nations or the Organization of American States.
Finally, the U.S. can comply with the Leahy Law’s prohibition on U.S. financial support for security forces involved in human rights violations and apply Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on any Moïse Administration official engaged in human rights abuse or corruption.
Maxine Waters is the U.S. Representative for California’s 43rd congressional district.