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The Economist: Haiti’s crisis appears to be getting worse

The postponement of a referendum is bad news for President Jovenel Moïse


Blue, red and white signs emblazoned with “Nap vote!” (“We Vote!” in Creole) hang from posts and trees in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. But a referendum on the constitution, planned for June 27th, has been postponed amid rising covid-19 cases and international criticism of the process, particularly from the United States. It will possibly be held at the same time as elections planned for September. Many reckon that those polls, for a new president and lawmakers, could also be scrapped. It is yet another indicator that Haiti’s crisis is getting worse.

Jovenel Moïse, the president and a former plantation manager who calls himself “Banana Man”, has little legitimacy. His opponents say his term ended on February 7th this year, which marked five years since his predecessor stepped down. He says his term started a year later, when he took office. For the past 18 months he has ruled by decree. Today there are only 11 nationally-elected officials, including him. He has overseen six prime ministers in four years. Protests against his rule continue. Mr Moïse, who wanted the referendum to go ahead, partly in order to make a parliamentary system more presidential, looks increasingly embattled and authoritarian.

Unlike most politicians in Haiti, Mr Moïse comes from the countryside. His outsider status has made it hard for him to govern, as he has few allies in the political classes. Moreover, his incompetence means that since coming to power little has changed and the country is in a mess. Covid-19 is rampant, whatever the official numbers say. For the past two years the economy has shrunk, mostly because of increasing lawlessness.

Last year Mr Moïse, who also refers to himself as “Après Dieu” (i.e. second only to God), has widened the definition of “terrorism” to include acts of dissent. His response to the protests, which first broke out in 2017, has been heavy-handed. At first protesters were complaining about the cost of living, but a year later they started grousing about corruption. Many accuse Mr Moïse of being involved in a scandal in which millions of dollars were pilfered from PetroCaribe, an aid fund from Venezuela, a charge he denies. Some 71 protesters were massacred in one neighbourhood. The opposition and many ordinary Haitians blame the government, which denies involvement.

Many of Haiti’s problems predate Mr Moïse. Since the fall in 1986 of the dictatorship of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, political bigwigs have relied on armed groups to do their bidding. Today there is “a wholesale criminalisation of the political apparatus”, argues James Boyard, a researcher who is also a police officer. Gangs are affiliated not just with the government but with opposition groups and big business families. Partly as a result, they are far stronger than the police. In the run-up to elections violence rises, as gangs know they can charge politicians for access to neighbourhoods to hold meetings. Indeed in recent weeks there has been an uptick in fighting.

Because of this urban warfare at least 8,500 women and children were displaced from their homes in the first two weeks of June, according to unicef, the un’s children’s agency. Haitians used to know the danger zones; now they rely on WhatsApp to update them on the ever-shifting areas to avoid. Carlo Pierre, a 35-year-old soda-seller, had to leave his neighbourhood of Bel Air in April after gangs burned down his house. Despite its proximity to the National Palace, no police turned up, he says. Today the area in downtown Port-au-Prince around the palace bustles with street stalls, old yellow us school buses and motorcycle taxis. The nearby roads to Bel Air are barricaded off by stacks of tree branches put there by gangs.

Haiti is one of the most unequal countries in the world. “There is apartheid-like exclusion, that will remain even if you solve the political crisis,” says Monique Clesca, a former un official who is now part of a commission of civil-society groups trying to devise solutions to the country’s woes. Some 60% of the population live on less than $1.90 a day. Fejuthia Deville, a mother of two, says she has pleaded with relatives abroad to send her cash after her husband lost his job. But they are unwilling to help; they suspect that the situation will not improve and she will keep asking for more.

Change will be difficult. The opposition is divided between the protest movement—young professionals, for the most part—and traditional parties, almost all of which are tarnished in the eyes of the public. This adds to political instability. The country has seen dozens of presidents and transitional governments come and go. Some want another temporary government to oversee the end of Mr Moïse’s rule, arguing that this is the way to reduce polarisation. But the opposition is divided over who should be interim president.

Historically, the most common way for Haitians to prosper has been to move to the United States. There are now 1m of them there, forming a small but persistent lobby. President Joe Biden’s administration is urging Haiti to hold elections as soon as possible. It backs the idea that Mr Moïse’s term ends in 2022, but this month it came out against the constitutional referendum, thus weakening him. Few Haitians think their elections are fair. Turnout in 2016 was 21%; just 600,000 people, in a population of 11m, voted for Mr Moïse. A council set up by the government to organise September’s ballot is widely seen as partisan. It was appointed by decree, contrary to the law; the Supreme Court refused to swear in its members. This is why the constitutional referendum, which was set up through the same process, was postponed, too.

The United States could perhaps broker an accord between the government, the opposition and civil society. A consensus prime minister could be appointed to organise the elections, instead of the discredited election body. But whatever happens, many of the same problems will remain. “We need security and justice before we can go to elections,” says Pascale Solages, a member of We Will Not Sleep, a social movement. Both are in short supply.



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