MIAMI — If Haitian President Jovenel Moise thought his good relations with Washington would allow him to achieve what all Haitian presidents have wanted — to delay elections and change the country’s constitution to his liking — the Trump administration begs to differ.
Moise, in a surprise announcement last Friday, told Haitians that elections would take place only after they have had a chance to vote on a new constitution through a referendum. He did not say when such a vote would happen, or more importantly, who would draft this new constitution.
But a U.S. State Department spokesperson said the U.S. is expecting elections in Haiti no later than January to renew the entire Lower Chamber of Deputies, two-thirds of the 30-member Senate and all local offices, including mayors. The dismissal of Parliament in early January 2020 has left Moise ruling by decree, and the end of mayoral terms this past July means that he’s now one of just 11 elected officials in the country of 11 million residents. The other elected officials are the remaining 10 senators who are in effect powerless and can’t even garner a quorum to assemble.
“We want to see Haitians afforded the right to elect their representatives and have been very clear and consistent on that point,” a spokesperson with the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs told the Miami Herald. “We want to see Haitians afforded the right to elect their representatives … . In a democracy, the people’s interests are represented by their elected representatives, yet today in Haiti, the legislative branch of government is not working.”
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “Haiti’s legislative elections are now overdue.” While the U.S. wanted them to be held as soon as “technically feasible,” Pompeo pointed out that the Organization of American States wants them to be held by the end of January 2021.
“We support the OAS’ assessment that elections can and should happen by no later than January 2021,” the spokesperson said.
Technically, there are serious doubts that such a deadline can be met. The representatives of other foreign governments in Port-au-Prince have said a number of technical, political and security conditions in Haiti must be met before balloting can take place. This includes voters being assured they can cast their votes without being pressured by illegal armed groups; the completion of the electoral list, and the distribution of new national identification cards that double as electoral cards.
Of approximately 6.8 million Haitians of voting age, just over 2 million have received the controversial new ID card, according to Office of National Identification spokesman Wandi Charles. Several satellite offices have been vandalized and burned, including the call center and the largest card distribution office.
“At the political level, there must also be the broadest possible consensus,” said one foreign diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
During his Friday address, Moise, refusing to name names, said he’s been in talks with members of the divided opposition. Leading opposition figures, however, have said no such talks are taking place, even amid talk that some people are in talks with the president, who may be seeking to shore up his rule by making changes in his administration. Opponents are continuing to demand Moise’s resignation, while pushing for a transition government in lieu of elections to replace him.
Elections are never easy in Haiti.
If presidents in Haiti are not trying to delay the vote, they are being accused of trying to stack the deck in their favor, while opposition parties also seek their own advantage by boycotting talks and refusing to register with the Provisional Electoral Council. Meanwhile, the holding of legislative elections has often been the death knell of elected presidents following accusations of electoral fraud.
With political infighting often snarling the process, the U.S. and other major supporters usually respond with stepped-up diplomatic missions, visa cancellations and threats to withhold funding for needed projects.
So far, there has been none of that since Moise’s announcement, as Haiti’s major international supporters disagree over whether conditions in the country would permit free and fair elections.
Whether trying to take advantage of the division or factoring in the United States’ own Nov. 3 election, Moise may have overplayed his hand.
His push for a new constitution has received harsh criticism from legal scholars and opposition figures who accuse him of making an illegal move. They argue that any referendum would be “a sham” because it is forbidden by the current amended constitution, which was first passed in 1987 after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship.
“It will take us straight to dictatorship and to the African pattern in which the local leaders hold a referendum when they want a prohibited third term, as in Guinea or Rwanda,” said Georges Michel, who was involved in the creation of the 1987 constitution, which Moise has described as “an act of corruption.”
A historian, Michel said the reason for the prohibition against change by referendum goes back to the 1930s, when another Haitian president, Sténio Vincent, replaced the democratic constitution of 1932 by another one via a sham referendum.
“In 1935, Vincent gave himself a five-year extension to his term that was due to expire on May 15, 1936. He left on May 15, 1941 instead,” Michel said. “Jovenel wants us to go 85 years backwards.”
The State Department spokesman said the issue of constitutional reform is up to the Haitian people. Still, there doesn’t appear to be much support for Moise’s proposal.
“Any change to the constitution should be made in accord with Haiti’s own laws and constitutional processes and in full accord with internationally recognized democratic standards,” the spokesperson said.
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