Political Crisis in Haiti Poses Challenge for Biden’s Democracy Push

The State Department sides with President Jovenel Moïse on when his term should end.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy., and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Protesters walk past a burning barricade as opponents of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse demonstrate on Jan. 15 in Port-au-Prince to demand his departure from power.
Protesters walk past a burning barricade as opponents of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse demonstrate on Jan. 15 in Port-au-Prince to demand his departure from power. Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP via Getty Images

A political crisis in Haiti has turned into an early foreign-policy test for the Biden administration as the U.S. State Department appeared to back President Jovenel Moïse’s move to remain in power for another year despite calls from human rights organizations for him to step down.

Moïse has ruled by decree for over a year now after dissolving the country’s parliament. He was elected to a five-year term in 2016 but didn’t take office until the following year. He says the clock on his term began only in 2017 and that he’s therefore entitled to serve until February 2022. The moved sparked anti-government protests led by opposition groups. 

The Biden administration, following the position taken by the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), is supporting Moïse’s position. 

He was sworn into office on February 7, 2017 for a five-year term, which is therefore scheduled to end on February 7, 2022,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement. “In accordance with the OAS position on the need to proceed with the democratic transfer of executive power, a new elected president should succeed President Moise when his term ends on February 7, 2022.”

“The United States is following the situation in Haiti with concern and calls on all political actors to address their differences [through] peaceful means,” the spokesperson said. “The remarkable lack of popular response to calls for mass protests in recent weeks indicates that Haitian people are tired of endless lockdowns and squabbling over power.”

But some of the Biden administration’s most important allies on Capitol Hill have pushed back. They argue that Moïse’s crackdown on mass protests that resulted in the arrest of 23 people on Sunday, including a Haitian Supreme Court judge and senior police officer, is only the latest reason to be concerned.

“Moïse is pursuing an increasingly authoritarian course of action, issuing a series of recent decrees that include creating an extra-constitutional domestic ‘intelligence’ force,” Rep. Gregory Meeks, now the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a joint statement in late December with fellow Democratic Reps. Albio Sires and Andy Levin. 

“His latest actions are reminiscent of past anti-democratic abuses the Haitian people have endured, including the run-up to the Duvalier dictatorship,” the lawmakers said, referring to François Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971. 

“We will not stand idly by while Haiti devolves into chaos.”

On Saturday, Meeks and a bipartisan group of members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to “unambiguously reject” any attempt by Moïse to remain in power.

Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, dismissed the criticism, telling Foreign Policy that the arrests followed an attempted coup and a foiled assassination plot against Moïse. “We understand and we believe that what President Moïse is doing is not illegal—he’s just finishing his term in office. He was elected for five years, and we just want them to count those five years when he started, was sworn into office,” he said. 

The crisis in Haiti poses an early challenge to one of President Joe Biden’s key foreign-policy goals: to promote democracy worldwide. Biden has vowed to convene a global democracy summit in his first year in office to stem the rise of authoritarian populist movements around the world. 

We want to leave room for hope that this approach that the new administration has articulated for its foreign policy will translate to policy towards Haiti that really prioritizes human rights and rule of law,” said Franciscka Lucien, the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocacy group.

The crisis over Moïse’s term in office threatens to further destabilize Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, as it grapples with increased levels of gang violence and a wave of kidnappings that has forced schools to close. 

“The U.S. has a habit of supporting unpopular Haitian leaders,” said Nicole Phillips, the legal director for the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an immigration advocacy organization. “The [Haitian] opposition is not just facing a rogue, quasi-dictator president. They’re facing the entire U.S. State Department, and that makes it a David and Goliath [situation], which is unfair for the Haitian people.”

Edmond, the Haitian ambassador, said the critics in the U.S. Congress are “misinformed” about the situation in Haiti. 

“The choice is clear here: working with the current president, legitimate president, to hold elections to put parliament in place or working with illegitimate authorities who didn’t go through elections,” he said.

Haitian legal scholars have mostly sided with rights groups on the issue, interpreting the country’s constitution to argue that Moïse’s term ended Sunday—including the country’s Superior Council of the Judiciary, which has the de facto final say on legal disputes. 

The breadth of commentators … who [represent] some of the organizations best positioned to comment on Haiti’s laws … is quite enormous,” said Alexandra Filippova, a senior staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

“For the U.S. government to make its own interpretation of the Haitian Constitution, not being Haitian legal experts themselves, really is undermining Haitian sovereignty and the ability of the Haitian legal system to interpret their own constitution and to control their own government and politics,” said Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance. 

The crisis came to a head over the weekend, but human rights activists have increasingly been sounding the alarm over the president’s actions and over a surge of kidnappings in opposition strongholds—which has prompted accusations that the government may have aligned itself with criminal gangs. 

“Thinking about whether President Moïse’s mandate expired on Feb. 7 of this year or on Feb. 7 of next year misses the point about the depth of the democratic crisis at issue here and just how long those roots are,” Filippova said.

Georges Fauriol, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described the State Department’s support for Moïse’s position as “surprising,” given the long roots of the crisis, and attributed it to the recent change in administration.

“I think it’s an indication of a poor handoff rather than a clear-cut policy statement,” he said. Other scholars noted that the United States has historically prized stability in its approach to Haiti, which is still recovering after being hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Tag: Haiti