Democracy on the brink: why Haiti is without elected politicians

Haiti’s last elected senators officially resigned this week as the population tries to escape a humanitarian crisis and Canada is sending military support.
The developments have raised fears for the future of democracy in an impoverished, crime-ridden state that has not managed to hold a vote since 2016.
With not a single elected official on the national stage Tuesday and gangs engulfing the Caribbean nation, its future looked uncertain 18 months after its last president.

Canada sends support

On Wednesday, Canada delivered armored vehicles to help fight criminal gangs as Haiti faces a humanitarian crisis, Canada’s Foreign Ministry said.
Canadian military planes made the delivery to the Haitian National Police in the capital, Port-au-Prince, she added.

Since Mr Moise’s killing, Haitian gangs have taken control of much of the country, leading to routine gun battles with police.

A man speaks to reporters.

Haitian Senator Patrice Dumont speaks during a news conference marking the end of his term in office January 9, 2023 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Source: Getty / RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP

Canada and the United States provided tactical and armored vehicles and other supplies in October after Haiti urged the international community to send in a “specialized force.”

Ottawa has also imposed sanctions on Haitians accused of gang connections, including a former president, two ex-prime ministers and three high-profile entrepreneurs.
Canada will continue to provide support, but the crisis in Haiti must be resolved domestically, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended the North American Leaders’ Summit along with US President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“What is particularly important in this situation is that the Haitian people themselves are at the center of support, building stability and resolving the crisis in Haiti.”

Haitians flock to passports to enter the US

Meanwhile, Haitians seeking to escape poverty and despair are flocking to government offices hoping to secure a passport and perhaps their ticket to life in America under a new US immigration program.
At the main migration office in Port-au-Prince, the large crowds meant that security officers kept the metal gates closed and only let people in individually.

Under the new policy announced by Mr Biden, the United States will take in 30,000 people a month from Haiti and a handful of other troubled countries – Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – but on the condition that they stay away from the overcrowded US border with Mexico and arrive by plane.

Crowds to get into a guarded building.

Haitians wait outside an immigration office to apply for a passport in Port-au-Prince on January 10, 2023. Source: Getty / RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP

To qualify for this program, candidates must also have a sponsor in the United States who can demonstrate sufficient income to support them.

Anyone applying for a passport must buy a stamp, which costs the equivalent of about $50 (US$70) — a fortune in America’s poorest country.

However, the application process is slow and riddled with corruption, so people who want to get a passport faster often pay twice the standard fee to specialized agencies to reduce red tape.

“Hardly a democracy anymore”

Haiti’s waning democracy has been a gradual process: the legislature virtually ceased to function as early as January 2020, when all members of the lower house and two-thirds of the upper house of the National Assembly left their posts without successors.
“You can hardly call it a democracy anymore,” said attorney Samuel Madistin, “at a time when the state is losing control of most of its territory, 60 percent of it, to armed gangs.”
For Mr. Madistin, Haiti is “a state that practically no longer exists”.
The assassination of Mr. Moise by an armed commando squad in his private home in July 2021 only added to the deep political crisis the country was already in due to the paralysis of public institutions.

It is currently Prime Minister Ariel Henry who rules the country, but having been appointed rather than elected just 48 hours before the President’s assassination, his legitimacy is widely questioned.

Assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise with senior government officials in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 12, 2020.

The assassination of President Jovenel Moise has only deepened the deep political crisis. Source: EPA / EPO/JEAN MARC HERVE ABELARD

Claims of stalled elections, international failure

Mr Madistin believes that the Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK), the party once led by Mr Moise, deliberately delayed organizing elections in the country out of self-interest.
But he adds: “The failure is also that of the international community and the United Nations, whose mission was to stabilize the country politically.”
After 13 years of the UN mission MINUSTAH, which deployed up to 9,000 blue helmets and more than 4,000 international police officers from 2004 to 2017, the UN has reduced its presence in Haiti.
Today reduced to a political office with around 60 employees, the world organization has nevertheless retained its mandate to “exclusively political stability and good governance”.
The fact that no one is now able to effectively govern Haiti to pass laws does not particularly concern the country’s residents, who are more vulnerable to the twin threats of gang violence and extreme poverty.

“Citizens don’t really care about the problem of representation: their priority is security,” notes Gedeon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights (CARDH).

In 2022, the civil society organization recorded at least 857 kidnappings by armed gangs.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the country’s spiral into lawlessness isn’t always high on politicians’ agendas, either.

One of the senators whose term ended on Monday, Patrice Dumont, used his farewell press conference to outline his achievements in Parliament – and to denounce the waste of public money by his fellow MPs.

Parliament: “Peak of corruption”

This disinterest in politics has grown over the years as the list of scandals involving ministers, MPs or senators has grown – without Haiti’s judiciary intervening.
In the last polls that the country was able to conduct at the end of 2016, more than 20 percent of voters cast their votes.
“Parliament has become a stronghold of corruption: people vote for money, for positions of leadership,” said CARDH’s director.
“We had corrupt people in Parliament, drug dealers, people used to launder money,” Mr Jean added.
The last legislature had fallen into disrepute even before its members took office.
In January 2017, four days before he was sworn in as a senator, which would have granted him immunity, Guy Philippe, a former senior police officer and Moise ally, was arrested in Port-au-Prince.
Extradited to Florida the same day, he pleaded guilty and was later sentenced to nine years in prison for money laundering from the drug trade.
In November 2022, several businessmen and politicians, including outgoing Senate President Joseph Lambert, were sanctioned by the United States and Canada over allegations of links to drug trafficking and organized crime.

“We need to think about injecting some morality into political life and cleaning up the electoral system,” Mr Jean warned, “to prevent people from holding dirty money hostage in the next elections.”

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