U.S.-Haiti policy: what you need to know

The United States is the oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere; Haiti is the second oldest. Recently – until Joseph R. Biden was inaugurated as President of the United States – both were experiencing political crises. Unlike in America where protesters attempted to block the transition of power, in Haiti, protests have called for President Jovenel Moïse to relinquish it.

In Haiti, the opposition argues that the President’s term ended February 7 of this year; it announced itsinterim leader February 9. President Moïse, however, asserts that his term ends February 7, 2022. Although first elected in 2015 – then again in 2016 to a five-year term – he did not formally take office until February 7, 2017. Some argue that the constitution isn’t clear on when his term started; the constitution states only that a president’s term, “begins and ends on the February 7 following elections”. The President, in any event, wants to hold a referendum on a new constitution on April 25. Notably, the draft of the new constitution does not mention whether presidents can serve two consecutive terms unlike the current one that states presidents may only serve two terms after a 5-year interval.

After refusing to step down on February 7, President Moïse announced that his security forces had thwarted a coup attempt, arresting 23 people including a top judge and an official from the national police.

If conditions were different in Haiti, this constitutional question may not have sparked such controversy. Some Haitians “say it [Haiti] is in the worst state they have seen”. That is telling in a country that, according to a U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, has “struggled to overcome its centuries long legacy of authoritarianism, disrespect for human rights, underdevelopment, and extreme poverty,” and in which “widespread corruption remains an impediment to changing that legacy.

President Moïse has ruled by decree since January 2020 after the country failed to hold legislative elections in October 2019. According to the National Democratic Institute (NDI), both President and Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September 19, 2021.

The President himself is under investigation for corrupt dealings when he was head of Agritrans – a company that had received a government loan to repair a road as part of Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program in 2014. In addition to non-functioning political institutions and charges of corruption, many of Moïse’s economic policies have been strongly contested.

The country has experienced cycles of protests, some violent, throughout his term.  Protests in 2017 ensued in response to his decision to “end oil subsidies”, which increased fuel prices by 20% – he later considered raising fuel prices to as high as 51% in 2018. In order to raise additional revenue for economic and health sector reforms, Moïse proposed tax-increases, setting off another round of protests. As the CRS report notes, there has also been concern of Moïse’s intentions after he “reinstituted the army,” which President Aristide had disbanded in 1995 after a coup had returned him to power. The uptick in gang violence and kidnappings, Haitians and Americans suspect, is “state-sanctioned”.

More broadly, discontent with the current leadership has come from a “beleaguered economy”. Two events have stifled economic development: the earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the latter of which set back recovery from the former and was preceded by “a two-year drought”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the economic situation. Toni Cela and Louis Herns Marcelin wrote in an OECD blog last May that remittances from abroad made up over one-third of GDP in 2019, up from one-quarter in 2015. Because of job losses and other restrictions abroad, remittances decreased 18% relative to the previous year. Cela and Marcelin also note that Haiti spends half the LAC (Latin America and the Caribbean) average as a percentage of GDP on social programs.

Last April, the IMF approved a $111.6 million disbursement and the World Bank approved a $20 million grant aimed to support “testing and improved treatment in Haiti”. On January 11, 2021, the U.S. “provided an additional $75 million in development assistance to Haiti,” according to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital – the U.S. government had previously provided $16 million in “Covid-19-related assistance”.

Messages from abroad

On February 11, days after President Moïse refused to step down, the U.N. commented on the humanitarian situation in Haiti stating that 40% of the Haitian population, or 4.4 million people, “will require humanitarian assistance,” a sharp increase from the 1.4 million people “reached with humanitarian assistance” in 2020.

The U.S., meanwhile, has commented only on the political situation in Haiti. A day after the U.N. message, U.S. Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price reiterated the U.S.’ position established a week prior that agreed with President Moïse that his term ends in 2022, though it urged the “political forces in Haiti” to restore the legislature and for President Moïse to exercise restraint in issuing decrees. Mr. Price also stated that the U.S. was working with the Organization of American States (OAS) and others regarding the situation in Haiti.

The Biden administration’s statements notwithstanding, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee along with other lawmakers had on February 6, written a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken stating, “we believe it is essential that the United States unambiguously reject any attempt by President Moïse to retain power in contravention of those [democracy and rule of law] principles,” and for the U.S. to, “take swift steps to condemn President Moïse’s undemocratic actions, and support the establishment of a transitional government”.

In December, the then Chairman-elect had expressed a similar sentiment in a statement in which he vowed to work with the Biden administration on a policy to address political and human rights issues in Haiti. He ended stating, “we will not forget our neighbors or our commitment to protecting their human rights”. It remains unclear what this policy would entail beyond current aid programs, which cover a wide range of sectors including economic, healthcare, government, and security.

In the neighborhood

“Due to its proximity to the United States and its chronically unstable political environment and fragile economy, Haiti has been an ongoing policy issue for the United States”. Although in decline since 2010, “it [Haiti] has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid in the region, after Colombia,” CRS wrote. In addition to the Trump administration’s seeking to further cut aid to Haiti, it had also attempted to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for just over 55,000 Haitians living in the U.S. at the time of the 2010 earthquake.

As previously noted, the U.S. has an interest in a politically stable and economically “self-reliant” Haiti. Indeed it has intervened directly several times in Haiti’s political affairs, most recently in 2004 when it deployed the Marines to “bring order and stability to Haiti” following President Aristide’s resignation. This eventually led to a UN peacekeeping operation that lasted 13 years.

A decade earlier in 1994, the U.S. had sent forces to Haiti in order to restore President Aristide to power in its “Operation Restore Democracy”. The U.S. Congressional Black Caucus had put pressure on the Clinton administration to intervene. It’s important to note that this intervention, “billed as a success,” occurred in the context of a major U.S. foreign policy failure in Somalia – and “humanitarian crises were ongoing in Bosnia and Rwanda,” TIME magazine added.

Biden’s Latin American and Caribbean policy

There are a lot of unknowns regarding the Biden administration’s policy in Haiti, though history shows that a more activist policy cannot be ruled out whether at the bi-lateral or multi-lateral level. The CRS report notes, “if President Moïse were to resign or be forced from office, the Haitian Constitution calls for the legislature to meet within 60 days to elect a new provisional president for the remainder of his term”. It is uncertain whether President Moïse will follow through on his promise to hold legislative elections this fall.

Looking more broadly at the Biden administration’s policy in the region, the U.S. will have an opportunity to articulate its vision or priorities for the region as it chairs the Summits of the Americas, the last at which regional leaders agreed to cooperate on addressing corruption in 2018. But, as Oliver Stuenkel points out in Foreign Affairs, the region itself is “highly polarized” and Biden and regional organization’s ability to build a coherent strategy may be limited. Mr. Stuenkel does suggest a number of ways the U.S. can support democracy and countries’ economic recovery for example by supporting the regional vaccine rollout and “civil society groups, judges and journalists”.

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