It was a tale of two gatherings. One took place in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, on February 14th, when thousands marched against dictatorship and against the Presidency of Jovenel Moïse. Moïse was elected in 2016, after a highly contested and drawn-out electoral process. A broad coalition of people—members of the political opposition, civil-society groups, the Superior Council of Haiti’s Judiciary, the Haitian Bar Federation, and Haitian diaspora organizations, as well as a group of U.S. Democratic lawmakers and U.S. human-rights clinics—contend that, per Haiti’s constitution, Moïse’s five-year term started on February 7th of that year, and therefore ended this past February 7th. (Others, including the Biden Administration and the United Nations, support Moïse’s claim that his term extends until February of 2022, because he didn’t officially take office until 2017.) The other gathering took place over several days in the northwestern coastal city of Port-de-Paix, where Moïse, vowing not to leave office until February, 2022, partied and basked in covid-era carnival festivities.
At the Port-au-Prince demonstrations, some protesters carried copies of the 1987 constitution or posters of the seventy-two-year-old Supreme Court judge Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, whom the opposition had named as the interim President of a transitional government. In response, Moïse fired and replaced Jean-Louis and two other Supreme Court judges, including Yvickel Dieujuste Dabrezil, whom Moïse and his government accused of plotting a coup and an assassination attempt against him. Dabrezil was arrested but eventually released; twenty-two others detained with him, including a police inspector, Marie Louise Gauthier, and her sister, Antoinette Gauthier, a former Presidential candidate, remain in custody. Demonstrations calling for Moïse’s departure have been taking place since the summer of 2018, echoing the similar outcry against Moïse’s mentor and predecessor, Michel Martelly, a konpa musician who goes by the stage name Sweet Micky. Both came to power in contested elections and both have been linked, by a 2017 Haitian Senate report, to the squandering and embezzlement of funds from Venezuela’s oil-purchasing program, Petrocaribe.
Moïse and Martelly were publicly reunited this week at the carnival celebrations in Port-de-Paix, Moïse in the role of king and Martelly as part kingmaker and part court jester. Martelly, who’s often described in the international press as a “carnival singer,” complimented and serenaded a dancing Moïse from a packed carnival float, peppering his effusive praise with off-color jokes. Moïse and Martelly could potentially indulge in another kind of dance, passing the Presidency back and forth between them: the current constitution prohibits consecutive terms but allows former Presidents to run again after their successor leaves office. “If there is continuity, I can come back,” Martelly told the writer Jon Lee Anderson, in a January 25, 2016, profile for this magazine. When Anderson asked Moïse if he and Martelly had a twenty-year plan in mind to trade places, Moïse said, “Yes. It’s a good plan. We need stability. We need it.”
Claiming that the current version of the constitution has made Haiti ungovernable, Moïse wants to reform the statutes through a referendum in April. His Provisional Electoral Committee has announced plans to hold legislative elections in September, followed by a Presidential vote in November, all of which seems infeasible, given the tenuous political situation in the country and the fact that many groups and political organizations no longer acknowledge Moïse as President.
Because Moïse held no legislative elections in 2019, parliament was dissolved in early 2020, and he has since been ruling by decree. He has established his own electoral council and constitution-drafting committee, and has reinstated the Haitian Army, whose leaders have been accused of massacres and other grave human-rights violations. He has also created a new National Intelligence Agency, whose agents are immune from prosecution, and he has designated some types of street protests as domestic terrorism. He’s proved less willing to intervene when state-connected gangs carry out kidnappings and massacres in poor neighborhoods; or when his detractors, including students and lawyers, are murdered; or when members of the press are attacked.
A draft of the new constitution has Moïse’s current term ending in 2022 and eliminates the prohibition against consecutive Presidential terms—a measure that is generally seen as a safeguard against a return to dictatorship, following the twenty-nine-year reign of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, from 1957 to 1986. The new constitution would add more powers to the Presidency; replace the Prime Minister, who’s currently considered the head of government, with a Vice-President; and replace the Senate and Chamber of Deputies with a single body. It would also allow for Moïse to remain in power another five years.
There is an element of Haitian carnival that has made its way into political speech: a lamayòt is a mysterious box whose contents are known only to its owner, and which others can see only after they have paid some kind of price. In politics, lamayòt can refer to, among other things, trickery, a sleight of hand, and broken promises. Haitians continue to pay exorbitantly for political lamayòts, just as they do for daily necessities, including food, fuel, schooling, and health care. In a song about this phenomenon, translated as “Mardi Gras Man” by the writer Mark Dow, the musician and erstwhile politician Manno Charlemagne wrote:
A common post-carnival saying is “Apre dans tanbou lou”—“After the dance, the drum is heavy.” This past Ash Wednesday, via the text chains and WhatsApp streams that so many of us with friends and family in Haiti rely on, we heard yet another tragic story of unfulfilled potential: a five-year-old girl, Olsmina Jean Méus, had been found dead, in a poor, gang-occupied neighborhood in the capital, with a rope around her neck. She’d been kidnapped eight days before, and the kidnappers had requested a forty-thousand-dollar ransom, which her mother, a peanut seller, was unable to pay. Olsmina Jean Méus deserved to have a future. Just as the country deserves a better one.