President Jovenel Moise of Haiti was assassinated on 7 July. It was the most recent in a series of crises that have shaken Haiti since the fall of the Duvalier autocracy in 1986.
This article was originally published on 29 July 2021.
Assassinations of presidents are extremely rare in modern Haitian history. The last occurred in 1915 and precipitated the American occupation lasting from 1915 to 1934. Moise’s killing is the morbid symptom of a simmering institutional decay rooted in persisting patterns of inequalities accentuated by severe poverty.
While the end of the Duvalier dictatorship generated great hopes for economic development and the instauration of democracy, the past three decades have instead been marred by unending instability. All the elections held since Duvalier’s departure occurred in a climate of popular protests, violent political clashes, and contested results that have eroded the legitimacy of the political system. Fraudulent elections have been the norm rather than the exception. They have led to coup d’états, repression, and multiple foreign interventions.
The Roots of the Haitian Crisis
An understanding of Haitian politics requires considering the opportunistic convergence of interests cementing Haiti’s political class and traditional economic elite with the major Western powers led by the United States. This convergence dates to Haiti’s independence in 1804 and subordinate integration into the world system. It has contributed to the increasing saliency of “belly politics” whereby those seeking public office, electorally or otherwise, do so to acquire the illicit spoils of power. Politics becomes a business of wealth accumulation that saps any collective sense of civic obligation. For the past 40 years, the neoliberal economic programs promoted by international financial institutions have compounded these problems and resulted in the failure of the “reconstruction” that followed the 2010 earthquake.
Fears of corruption and a blind commitment to the market, free trade, and privatisations have led international donors to marginalise the state and favour a type of NGO development. These international agencies have also neglected food production and promoted export-oriented strategies based on low-paid labor. This has contributed to the devastation of local agriculture and fueled a rural exodus and urban overpopulation. The Haitian state has become a shadow state incapable of providing security and basic public services for the population.
This situation demonstrates that neither the governing class, nor the economic elite, have a national project. They have accepted a pattern of dependence on external forces, securing their own continued political survival and material well-being to the detriment of rest of the population. Without a radically different development strategy, Haiti will remain an outer periphery.
Jovenel Moise and Predatory Rule
An outer periphery is dominated by a “predatory democracy,” a regime with a simulacrum of democracy that poorly conceals authoritarian abuses, the gangsterisation of society, and systemic corruption. Behind the mask of predatory democracy is a zero-sum criminal game of power played out by a privileged minority competing for political supremacy. At the highest level, elected magistrates obey opaque private forces; ballots are held periodically under a veil of fraud and foreign interference, while public officials proclaim their allegiance to the constitution that they continuously violate.
Since his death, Moise’s supporters’ have attempted to transform him into a defender of the marginalised majority and a reformer attacking “oligarchs” and corruption. In fact, Moise did little to change this system. He was hand-picked by his right-wing predecessor, Michel Martelly, and elected in November 2016. While he received 55 percent of the vote, the election was marred by allegations of fraud, and only 21 percent of those eligible cast their ballots. His popularity was limited when he took office in February 2017. Haiti’s opposition and civil society continuously challenged his legitimacy as president and called for his resignation when an investigation of the Superior Court of Auditors accused him of embezzling funds from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe assistance program.
In 2019, grassroots organisations, the youth, professionals, students, and workers launched Operation Payi Lock, a series of massive popular protests that shut the capital down in a failed effort to force Moise to resign. Soon afterwards, Moise began to rule by decree, dismissing parliament as elections scheduled for October 2019 were canceled. In addition, he refused to leave office in February 2021, ignoring the mandate of the Superior Council of the Judiciary. He decided to extend his term by one year, arguing that he was not actually sworn in as president until 2017. Critics viewed this decision and Moise’s move to hold a referendum to change the constitution as unlawful and dangerously authoritarian. The referendum was supposed to have taken place this coming September along with general elections. While the proposed referendum and elections have received international support, Haiti’s opposition and civil society have consistently refused to participate in what they describe as an illegal masquerade.
Moise’s assassination has put everything on hold. He left a void of authority, an inoperative constitution, and a broken-down judiciary. Haiti had no president, a thoroughly dysfunctional judicial system, and two de facto prime ministers. Initially supported by the international community, the “incumbent” Claude Joseph was abruptly rebuked in favor of Ariel Henry, whom the president had “designated” prime minister just days before his death. On 20 July with American support, Henry became prime minister and pledged to make his government more inclusive. He also promised to reestablish state authority over large territories controlled by gangs, and to organise elections in 120 days. In addition, he has committed to continuing the investigation into the mysterious circumstances of Moise’s assassination.
The Future of Haiti’s Governance
Henry’s task is monumental, and he is likely to fail. Haiti’s opposition and civil society view his government as illegitimate and an unwelcome imposition of the international community on the country. They seek a transitional government of national unity to “restore stability, basic security, and democracy” before plunging into elections as requested by the United Nations and the US. Haiti’s political opposition and civil society reject this plunge because under current conditions of logistical unpreparedness, extreme polarisation, and insecurity, it can only lead to an illegitimate outcome. While a transitional government could provide the ideal framework for delivering a Haitian solution to the country’s problems, its creation requires that Haiti’s political class and civil society reach a compromise and overcome the opposition of the international community.
Haiti’s immediate future seems bleak, but it is not predetermined. Genuine change is conceivable because the severity of the crisis may prompt Haitians to find ways to elaborate a more democratic system. To do so they will need to design agricultural strategies that favor food production and meet the basic needs of the population. They will also have to reduce class inequalities, otherwise extreme social polarisation will continue to open the doors to political instability and gang violence. Ultimately, only a strong state freed from foreign interference can achieve these goals. The current constellation of forces makes this prospect unlikely, but unless such an alternative crystalises, Haiti may again suffer the presence of foreign troops on its soil. The history of such external military interventions shows that they exacerbate Haiti’s problems and leave a trail of sorrows. Haitians want the space to forge their future, and while they welcome the international community’s solidarity, they reject its meddling and interventions.
Robert Fatton is the Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and the recipient of the 2011 Award for Excellence of the Haitian Studies Association for his “commitment and contribution to the emerging field of Haitian Studies for close to a quarter of a century.” His most recent book is The Guise of Exceptionalism: Unmasking the National Narratives of Haiti and the United States (Rutgers University Press, 2021).
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.