What is Happening in Haiti?
For the past month, Haiti has experienced a period of political unrest brought on by questions over whether or not the current president Jovenel Moïse should step down or if his term ends next year in February 2022. The political crisis stems from Haitians and their view that since Moïse’s term began in 2016, that his term was supposed to end on February 7th, 2021. However, since Moïse was technically elected in 2016, he was not placed into office until 2017 due to post-election chaos. This means that he only has served four out of the typical five terms.
Haitians have organized members of the political opposition, civil-society groups, the Superior Council of Haiti’s Judiciary, the Haitian Bar Federation, Haitian diaspora organizations, and a group of U.S. Democratic lawmakers and U.S. human-rights clinics. Within this coalition of people, they each believe that per the Haitian Constitution, Moïse’s term did indeed begin in 2016 when the previous president Michel Martelly stepped down on February 7th. However, because there was so much chaos as a result of the election he was not sworn in until February the following year. Opposition to this movement and supporters of Moïse claim that since he did not officially take office until 2017, he is able to remain in office until 2022.
This is an extremely contested event because while Haitains oppose Moïse and his dictator-like decrees and tendencies, Moïse has strong defense from the U.S. and other international support that urge him to remain in power until 2022. Therefore, I raise the question: Who is right in this situation? Haitians see themselves in the right and Moïse in the wrong, while those with more authority urge Moïse to remain in power.
First let’s take a step back and review the history of this presidency. Although Haiti is a hybrid regime, they do elect their presidents through popular vote. Therefore, Haitians did elect Moïse into power and he has ruled by decree since. Ruling by decree in the case of Haiti means that Moïse created two decrees that do not need to be passed through parliament:
- A new national intelligence agency that focuses on information gathering and repression of hostile acts that are seen as a threat to national security.
- An expansion on the definition of terrorism to include acts of robbery, extortion, arson, and the destruction of public goods and services.
Despite promises from the government that the decrees would increase national security, these decrees have received backlash as people believe it is a method of repression. Those who oppose Moïse have denounced his decrees and titled them tyrannical, destructive of liberties, dictatorial, and unconstitutional. In addition, they argue his extension of his term is illegal and he is carrying out his own coup to suppress opposition against him.
Is Haiti Backsliding into a Dictatorship?
When we look at backsliding, we typically think of it as a democracy eroding into something else. Since Haiti has never necessarily been a democracy, this makes it a difficult question to answer. If we are thinking of the case of Haiti in a broad and basic sense, the concept of backsliding as Nancy Bermeo denotes is “the state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy” (Bermeo 2016). Opponents of Moïse state that his decrees are pushing power through policies, claim he is changing the constitution to allow presidents serving two consecutive terms, and naming him as irresponsible and corrupt. In the realm of what Bermeo defines as “basic backsliding” these events occurring in Haiti under Moïse’s regime show that his changing and elimination of democratic ideals do fall under the definition of democratic erosion. In order to solidify the argument that Haiti is indeed backsliding, it is important to specify a specific instance of backsliding rather than a basic definition. Ellen Lust has defined democratic backsliding more specifically as “competitive elections” being “undermined” leading to citizens losing “their rights to mobilize or voice their demands, and governments become less accountable” (Lust 2015). While Moïse claims that the election was free and fair, even though it took almost a year to actually place him in office, he has continued to suppress and arrest Haitians who are protesting against his term limit, he is increasing his executive power, and is recasting the definition of terrorism to include protesting.
It is evident that something is not going right in Haiti, so using a more specific definition of democratic backsliding and applying it to Haiti’s situation shows that there is an increase in executive power over the people, and although Moïse states that he will step down and hold elections in the fall, it is unknown if he will keep that promise. For now, Haiti is held down by the word of a leader whose future ideas are kept secret and unknown. Is it a case of backsliding into a dictatorship? Possibly. From what I have gathered, I can say that I do believe that Haiti is creeping closer and closer to becoming a dictatorship if Moïse continues increasing his power.
However, when we look at the other side of the story and take Moïse’s perspective into consideration, he views himself as committed to democracy and as a devoted president who will organize local, municipal, legislative and presidential elections and in addition modernize the constitution. When looking at his response to the opposition, it is evident that Moïse is framing what he is doing being for the good of the people. However, opposition does believe it to be the opposite.
When taking both sides of the political unrest in Haiti into account, it is difficult to decipher who is right and who is wrong. It is difficult to decipher if this is backsliding or if it is just a president making changes that citizens dislike. The best way to determine the thoughts involving this situation, is by taking into account the reaction from outside actors.
As mentioned above, the U.S. has indicated that they support the president’s option to continue governing until 2021 as long as he sets up a fair and free election in 2021. If Moïse actually goes through with this promise, then possibly the answer to the question in the previous section could be that Haiti is not backsliding. However, if Moïse uses his time left in office to amend the constitution and add a clause that allows for consecutive term limits and he continues ruling by decree with continued opposition from Haitian, then we can come up with a more educated conclusion if Haiti is backsliding into a dictatorship. Main reactions to the situation have been a desire for calamity to return to the streets of Haiti and for political unrest to be minimized as long as Moïse remains fair and free in his time remaining in office.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding” Journal of Democracy Volume 27, Number 1 January 2016 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press.
Danticat, Edwidge. “Haitians Are at an Impasse Over the Country’s Future.” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/haitians-are-at-an-impasse-over-the-countrys-future (February 22, 2021).
“Dispute over Haiti Presidential Term Triggers Unrest.” 2021. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56069575 (February 22, 2021).
“Haiti’s Protests: Images Reflect Latest Power Struggle | Council on Foreign Relations.” https://www.cfr.org/article/haitis-protests-images-reflect-latest-power-struggle (March 5, 2021).
Lust, Ellen. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evalutating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding” Yale University. (June 11, 2015)
“What’s in Haiti’s New National Security Decrees: An Intelligence Agency and an Expanded Definition of Terrorism.” 2020. Center for Economic and Policy Research. https://cepr.net/whats-in-haitis-new-national-security-decrees-an-intelligence-agency-and-an-expanded-definition-of-terrorism/ (February 22, 2021).
“Why Haiti’s Power Struggle Raises Fear of Moise Dictatorship – Bloomberg.” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-12/why-haiti-power-struggle-raises-fear-of-dictatorship-quicktake (February 22, 2021).