Fears of Political Chaos in Haiti Grows

Two prime ministers, one interim and one newly appointed, each claim authority in Haiti, threatening the sense of legitimacy either would need to govern.

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Fears of political tumult grow in the wake of the assassination.

President Jovenel Moise, center, with his wife, Martine, and the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, at a ceremony in the Haitian capital,Port-au-Prince, in May.Credit…Joseph Odelyn/Associated Press

An already turbulent political landscape in Haiti threatened to descend into further turmoil on Thursday as a power struggle between two competing prime ministers stoked tensions after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise.

In the hours after the killing, the country’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, said he was in charge, taking command of the police and army in what he cast as an effort to ensure order and stability. Mr. Joseph declared a “state of siege” for 15 days, essentially putting the country under martial law, though constitutional experts were unsure whether he has the legal authority to do so.

It was not even clear whether he was really still prime minister.

Two days before his death, Mr. Moise appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon and politician, who was supposed to take up the role this week.

In an interview with The Nouvelliste, a newspaper, Mr. Henry said that Mr. Joseph was “no longer prime minister” and claimed the right to run the government.

“I am a prime minister with a decree that was passed in my favor,” Mr. Henry said, adding that he had been in the process of forming his government.

Mr. Henry said that he “did not want to add fuel to the fire,” but he criticized Mr. Joseph’s decision to impose a state of siege and called for dialogue to ensure a smooth political transition.

President Moise himself had faced questions about his legitimacy.

For more than year, he had been ruling by decree. Many, including prominent jurists, contended that his term ended in February. Haiti had been rocked by protests against his rule, and also suffered a surge in gang activity that undercut the legitimacy of the government.

Now, there is a new political struggle, and it threatens to undermine the legitimacy either man would need to effectively lead the police, the army and the country itself.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with Mr. Joseph on Wednesday, the State Department said, offering condolences and offering to assist the country “in support of the Haitian people and democratic governance, peace, and security.” Mr. Joseph, speaking at a news conference on Wednesday evening portrayed the conversation as lasting more than 30 minutes.

“We talked about security, elections and a political accord,” he said.

Adding to the challenges for a government in crisis, Haiti, a parliamentary democracy, has no functioning Parliament. There are currently only 10 sitting senators out of 30; the terms of the other 20 have expired. The entire lower house is no longer sitting, because the representatives terms expired last year. Long-planned elections were scheduled for later this year, but it was unclear when or whether they would take place.

The president of what remains of the Haitian Senate, Joseph Lambert, put out a news release on Thursday morning, saying that the Senate “reassures Haitians and the international community that everything will be managed by the national institutions, political forces and civil society to guarantee the continuity of the state and the republican order.”

A Haitian political analyst, Monique Clesca, said that Mr. Moise had avoided opportunities to hold national elections, and that when the terms of the country’s mayors expired in January, he had installed his own supporters in those positions.

“The objective was always to be the supreme ruler,” Ms. Clesca said. “Eventually to be able to control the whole political apparatus.”

Haiti has a long history of political instability. The country has been rocked by a series of coups in the 20th and 21st centuries, often backed by Western powers, and has been marked by frequent leadership crises that have driven Haitians into the streets in protest.

While the United States and other nations have long supplied Haiti with much-needed aid and financial assistance, including help in recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010, Western powers have also exerted an overwhelming influence over the country’s political destiny. The United States occupied the country from 1915 to 1934.

France has had a particularly long and difficult relationship with Haiti. More than two centuries ago, Haitians fought to throw off the yoke of colonial France and to bring an end to one of the world’s most brutal slave colonies.

Jacky Dahomay, a French philosopher who served on a French government-mandated commission on relations with Haiti, faulted France and other international actors for failing to help the country establish “truly democratic institutions.” In an interview, he said that only “the law of the strongest” was working in Haiti at the moment and called for the “an international intervention force to restore order.”

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