A showdown is brewing in Haiti. Ever since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July, it has been an open question who should lead the country next. Immediately after the killing, the country’s interim prime minister served as the de facto head of state. Then, less than two weeks later, the U.S. embassy anointed Ariel Henry, Moïse’s nominee for prime minister, by tweeting an extraordinary statement from a group of ambassadors asking him to form a government. Ever since then, Henry has had a tenuous hold on power, which is growing weaker by the day. Evidence has emerged that he was in communication with one of the key suspects behind Moïse’s assassination just hours after the attack, suggesting that he had a hand in a plot that brought him to power. This January, on a trip to Gonaïves in northern Haiti, Henry had to be exfiltrated from a shootout between his security guards and gunmen. Now, his authority is about to come under even greater pressure starting on February 7, the date that Moïse had claimed his term would end.

At the same time, a coalition of civil society groups is offering a plan for how to move the country forward. The effort began last March, when the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis was formed to lead the initiative. I serve as one of its 13 members. By August, the commission developed an agreement with groups across Haiti, including unions, professional associations, farmers’ alliances, human rights organizations, diaspora groups, and faith groups. Known as the Montana Accord (after the name of the hotel in Port-au-Prince where it was announced), the agreement is a blueprint for a two-year transitional government that will serve Haitians’ basic needs, bolster democratic institutions, reestablish legitimacy and trust, and organize free, fair, and participatory elections. In mid-January, the coalition grew bigger and now includes the modified Protocole d’Entente Nationale (PEN), a powerful alliance of seven political parties, including that of the president of the Senate. Together, we are working to establish a representative transitional government whose members are nominated by a broad base of Haitian society.

Henry has presented his own accord, which looks a lot like the status quo. It consolidates power in the hands of one person—the acting prime minister, Henry. It focuses on quick elections without sufficient reform to make them credible or ensure participation. Most of its supporters represent groups already aligned with Henry’s government and benefiting from and invested in the corruption of the ruling class. Henry, who has no mandate or constituency, has indicated that he rejects any attempt at installing an interim government and instead plans to introduce a new constitution—which is unconstitutional—and move the country directly toward elections. If he continues down this path, he will fail because he has no base of support among Haitians and remains in power only because the international community has continued to support him.

However appealing quick elections may appear to outside powers, it is clear they are not the answer to Haiti’s problems: in all likelihood, they will lead only to undemocratic outcomes and further instability. The Haitian Tèt Kale Party grips the levers of power so tightly that elections now could not be free or fair. Over his last year in office, Moïse dismantled the electoral commission and the Supreme Court of Haiti, which could be asked to decide important questions connected with the elections. Violence, meanwhile, is rampant, with gangs that have ties to politicians controlling about half of Haiti’s territory and undertaking kidnappings, rapes, arson, and massacres. Many Haitians don’t want to leave the house to go shopping or commute to work, let alone to vote. Until it is safe enough for people to vote freely and democratic institutions are strengthened, Haiti would only be going through the motions of democracy, rather than putting in place a government elected by the people. For now, then, what Haiti needs most is a transitional government that can improve security, address the country’s humanitarian needs, and lay the groundwork for something it has lacked for three decades: truly free and fair elections.

A LEADERLESS STATE

After Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010, Washington pressured the country to hold elections. Michel Martelly, one of Haiti’s best-known musicians, ran for president and came in third. After reviewing the results, the international community dismissed one of the leading candidates and picked Martelly for the runoff election, in which he was declared the winner. Once in power, he ruled through a tiny, corrupt circle and repeatedly failed to hold elections. In an effort to escape its history of dictatorships, the constitution that Haiti adopted in 1987 bars anyone from running for two consecutive terms as president, so Martelly couldn’t remain in office after his first term. He handpicked Moïse, a businessman who enjoyed close ties to Martelly’s associates (including figures involved in the drug trade) and who had once been indicted for money laundering, to replace him. The first round of voting in the 2015 presidential elections was marred by allegations of corruption and claims that the process was rigged in favor of Moïse, and the elections were thus postponed. When it came time for Martelly to leave office, there was still no one elected to take his place. Amid this crisis, Martelly reached a political agreement with the Parliament: he stepped down in February 2016, and the Parliament elected Senator Jocelerme Privert, its own president, to serve as temporary president of Haiti.

When the elections were finally held, later in 2016, Moïse won with only 600,000 votes in a country of nearly six million registered voters—certainly the lowest voter turnout in Haitian history and one of the lowest turnout rates recorded anywhere. There are many reasons so few Haitians participated, among them the sentiment that elections didn’t necessarily equal participatory democracy. There was also the view that no matter what Haitians wanted, the international community would pick the winner, just as it had seemed to do in 2011.

To say Moïse was unloved is an understatement. When he raised gas prices in July 2018, Haitians rioted. Young people turned out in massive numbers to protest his corrupt rule and his failure to meet Haitians’ basic needs. Lacking legitimacy, Moïse turned to extreme measures to stay in power, further empowering gangs and destroying democratic institutions. As he tried to overstay his term in February 2021, Moïse and his allies announced that there had been an attempted coup, which served as an excuse to round up those he perceived as threats to his power, including a Supreme Court judge. The court pushed back, so Moïse dismembered it—creating a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Many Haitians don’t want to leave the house to go shopping or commute to work, let alone to vote.

On July 5, Moïse tapped Henry, a neurosurgeon, to serve as the next prime minister. It was widely reported that Henry, a political operative who had switched party alliances numerous times, was the choice of Moïse’s mentor, Martelly. According to The New York Times, Moïse had been contemplating a break from his corrupt benefactors in the days and weeks before he was killed. He had compiled a list of politicians and businesspeople involved in the country’s drug trade and planned to give it to the U.S. government. But that list never saw the light of day. On July 7, a group of mercenaries—26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans—made their way into Moïse’s heavily guarded residence in Port-au-Prince and shot him dead. Although several people, all with some connection to the drug trade, have been arrested in Haiti and in the United States, it is still unknown exactly who hired the gunmen and why. Henry, who is supposed to be leading his government’s investigation into the murder, kept in contact with one of the prime suspects before and after Moïse was killed, The New York Times reported. Although he denies any connection to the murder, he has refused to answer a judge’s questions about his phone calls with the suspect and instead fired the judge.

In the months after the assassination, the chaos only grew. Shortly after Moïse’s death, a massive earthquake shook the southern peninsula of the country, leaving over 2,000 dead and thousands more injured and homeless. Armed gangs, who have taken over roughly half of Haitian territory, continue to terrorize the local population with abductions, rapes, arson, and murders. At the same time, a massive wave of Haitian refugees who had migrated to Brazil and Chile after the 2010 earthquake headed north for the United States in the fall of 2021, hoping they’d gain asylum. The Biden administration’s inhumane handling of the migrant crisis led to two high-profile resignations, including the U.S. special envoy for Haiti, Ambassador Daniel Foote. Today, it is no exaggeration to say that the world’s first Black-led republic faces one of the gravest crises in its 218-year history.

THE OLD RULES DON’T APPLY

With democratic governance sliding backward, Haitians must establish new rules of the game and, just as important, determine who gets to decide them. Elections rely on a kind of compact between citizens and states in which citizens agree to the state’s rules governing how they choose their leaders. Usually, these are spelled out in a country’s constitution, but the process outlined in Haiti’s current constitution offers no script for how to recover when there’s no legislature, no president, no legitimate prime minister, no legitimate Supreme Court, no legitimate electoral council—and an illegitimate head of state ruling by decree. The constitution didn’t anticipate this situation. With only ten democratically elected officials in the entire country and in the presence of a near-total constitutional void, someone needs to decide when and how elections will happen and who will oversee them. The process by which these decisions are made will determine whether the next elections will enjoy legitimacy—and whether the winners will govern with a mandate.

To escape its current morass, Haiti will need to establish an interim government. Only then can new leaders rebuild the institutions—and the independence and trust—needed to hold participatory elections. Absent clear constitutional guidance on how to restore institutions and democracy, the group I joined earlier this year, the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, improvised a different kind of compact to build legitimacy. It gathered a critical mass of citizens and organizations from civil society, political parties, religious organizations, professional associations, and other organizations in-country and in the Haitian diaspora, which collectively constituted a force strong enough to agree to rules governing how Haitians choose their leaders. This Haitian-bred and Haitian-led solution was reached after a broad and lengthy process of consultation and continuous dialogue over more than ten months. This consensus is what gives the Montana Accord its legitimacy.

The January consensus agreement with the political alliance known as PEN establishes the positions of a presidential council with five members and a prime minister who will lead a two-year transition guided by the 1987 constitution. The accord also envisions a pseudo-parliament that will function as a check and balance on the government. The accord now has more than 990 signatories, who are leaders of organizations that represent millions of Haitians. This is a historic moment: it has been decades since Haitians came together to identify their own solutions to their problems.

Haitians say they must decide their own fate. The United States and other countries must accept this. The path ahead should include American and foreign solidarity, but not foreign interference, political meddling, or an imposition of choices on the Haitian people. Successive U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have interfered in Haitian politics, supporting Haiti’s political elite and opting for stability no matter the price. U.S. President Joe Biden is now faced with the same choice of so many of his predecessors: whether to support the status quo in Haiti or risk taking the rocky path toward true democracy. His administration has said that the electoral process should be driven by conditions on the ground—as though American officials have had no hand in creating and maintaining those conditions. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said at a January meeting with the commission that the United States will not pick winners and losers because every time outsiders pick, “it’s a sad story.” Although this statement should be applauded, it does not acknowledge that continuing U.S. support for Henry is itself picking a winner. The United States and other countries have tolerated and perpetuated political dysfunction in Haiti. This is not only bad for Haiti, it is also counterproductive for the United States, as the collapse of Haitian democracy is pushing thousands of migrants to U.S. borders.

SAFETY FIRST

The end goal of an interim government would be to hold meaningful and participatory elections, and in order for that to occur, security must improve. The human toll of the current crisis has been astronomical. At least 950 people were kidnapped in 2021 for ransom. Some of them were killed; others were raped or tortured in captivity. Families have had to sell their possessions and borrow enormous sums to pay the ransoms demanded.

One of the first actions a transitional government should take is to depoliticize the 13,000-member Haitian National Police so the force can carry out its mission without a political agenda or hindrance from politicians. Police also need equipment appropriate for the threat they face, including armored vehicles and drones. While Haitian gangs have become increasingly well armed, the police have not benefited from essential upgrades in equipment and expertise. The United States can, with urgency, supply such equipment and technical law enforcement assistance during the transitional period.

A transitional government should also break the supply chain of arms and munitions to the gangs. Customs authorities will have to step up the control of entry points. Police will have to secure the roads leading to gang-controlled areas to cut off their supply lines. The kind of terror to which Haitians have been subjected over the Moïse years—notably, 13 massacres between 2017 and 2021, three of which human rights observers have characterized as crimes against humanity—has required an abundance of arms and munitions. Haiti does not produce either. Although the United Nations does not have an arms embargo on Haiti, the United States does, and it should immediately do its part by controlling shipments and punishing those who break the law. There is also an urgent need to vet Haitian policemen, as there is proof that the police force is infiltrated by gangs. Another measure that can also produce quick results is the creation of “green zones,” secure areas not under gang control that are protected by the police. Considering the rapid pace at which the gangs are claiming territory, such a measure should be applied immediately.

The United States and other countries have tolerated and perpetuated political dysfunction in Haiti.

An interim government will also need to address Haiti’s enormous humanitarian needs. Urban violence has forced thousands from their homes, as did the August earthquake. The UN has estimated that 4.6 million Haitians, about 40 percent of the population, suffer from food insecurity. These needs must be met rapidly, despite obstacles such as lack of access to areas blocked by gang activity and lack of donor financing. A growing concern is that the humanitarian crises are becoming a defining feature of the country, so the real response to such disasters should be the resolution of Haiti’s structural problems. In other words, Haiti’s long-term solution is to fast-track its development.

Foreign aid is desperately needed, but Haiti could also better provide for itself if it stopped the looting of state coffers. Economists have told me that revenues from customs at the ports are approximately $450 million per year and could be double that if corrupt officials did not siphon them off. A transition government should enforce existing laws and take control of customs and taxation so that the Haitian state generates the revenue it should. An interim government should also start to carry out fiscal reform and adopt policies that prioritize national production, particularly in the declining agriculture sector, over importation. It could also raise taxes on most imports: at three to six percent, Haiti’s import duties are among the lowest in the Caribbean. Bad political choices are destroying the country’s economy. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time to change Haiti’s economic governance model.

DON’T LET HISTORY REPEAT

In an October op-ed in The Washington Post, Henry proposed holding elections in the second half of 2022. That is too soon—but the point is less about when the elections are held and more about who holds them and how they are organized. Will they simply perpetuate the ruling elite? Will they inspire a large share of the population to vote? It is hard to imagine that the current government could hold elections that encourage broad participation and confidence in their result. Henry rose to power through a corrupt and predatory political system; he has nothing to gain from truly democratic elections.

Haiti cannot solve all of its problems in a two-year transition—but a legitimate transition government could use that time to kick-start the rebuilding of the country. It would send a strong signal that state institutions are working again. The ultimate objective would be peaceful, transparent, and free elections that at last allow Haitians to choose a government that works for them.

Many observers look at Haiti and see failure. It’s a testament to how much has gone wrong, both long ago and much more recently. But there is reason to hope that this enduring and complicated crisis and the current chaos can serve as a clarifying moment for Haiti’s long-delayed reckoning. Now, Haitians must intercept a rapacious regime that is unwilling to let go of power and build one that serves its people. To build real democracy, Haiti must take the counterintuitive position of holding off on elections until the moment is right.

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  • MONIQUE CLESCA is a journalist and former United Nations official based in Port-au-Prince and a member of the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis.
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