Haiti is undergoing a deep political and institutional crisis, sparked by the refusal of US-backed president Jovenel Moïse to step down despite an official ruling that his mandate ended on February 7, 2021. Protests which have been going on since early January have intensified and have been met by brutal repression by security forces as well as the militarization of the capital Port-au-Prince and other cities.
On February 8, Haitian opposition political parties and social organizations declared that the term of president Jovenel Moïse had ended on February 7, and appointed Supreme Court Judge Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis as the interim president of the Caribbean country. 72-year-old Jean-Louis has been a member of the Court of Cassation since 2011. His transitional government will administer the country for the next two years and organize elections for the next government.
In a brief address to the nation, broadcasted on his social media accounts, Jean-Louis accepted the presidency. “I accept the choice of the opposition and the civil society to be able to serve my country as provisional president of the transitional government,” said Jean-Louis.
With official acceptance by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis to serve as transitional president to oversee next elections, we now have a parallel govt in #Haiti. Biden administration has not responded after early support 4 @moisejovenel's move to stay in office. pic.twitter.com/dgDLP5fpI5
— HaitiInfoProj (@HaitiInfoProj) February 8, 2021
However, Jovenel Moïse, who has the support of the country’s Armed Forces, the United States, the European Union (EU) and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), on February 7, refused to step down and insisted on staying in power until February 7, 2022. “I have 364 days left in power. There will be no transition,” said Moïse during an address.
Additionally, Moïse has sought to paint opposition protests as a “coup attempt” and claimed there was a plot to assassinate him. In this regard, his administration arrested 23 people, including Supreme Court judge, Yviquel Dabrésil, and senior police official, Marie Louise Gauthier.
After Jean-Louis’s appointment, on February 8, Haitian Justice Minister Rockefeller Vincent, accused him of violating the laws and warned that he could suffer the same fate as his colleague Dabrésil. Soon after Vincent’s threats, Moïse issued a decree dismissing three Supreme Court judges: Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, Yviquel Dabrésil and Wendelle Coq Thélot.
Various social and political organizations condemned Moïse’s actions and deemed them as acts of political persecution. Lawyer André Michel, leader of the opposition Democratic and Popular Sector party, denounced the illegal arrests as “a true systematic repression,” and said that “democracy is threatened and the rule of law is in danger” in the country. Michel called on the citizens to continue demonstrating against Moïse until he and his far-right Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) leave office.
On Sunday February 7, 2021 at approximately 2:30 AM, my mother, Marie Antoinette Gautier (a surgeon), my dad, Louis Buteau (an agronomist), my aunt, Marie Louise Gautier, (a high ranking member of the Haitian National police) were amongst a string of citizens
— Béré Buteau (@berenice_buteau) February 8, 2021
In response to the wave of repression, on February 8, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters hit the streets in the capital, defying the government’s ban on political meetings and demonstrations. The police used huge amounts of tear gas to disperse the protesters and even fired live bullets against them. According to reports, police officials attacked journalists who were documenting the anti-government protests and two journalists were shot by the members of Haitian armed forces (FAd’H). One of them is in critical condition.
— HaitiInfoProj (@HaitiInfoProj) February 9, 2021
What is behind this institutional crisis?
According to broad sectors of the Haitian opposition, Jovenel Moïse’s term in office ended on February 7, 2021 while he maintains that he has another year of his mandate. Moïse has claimed that he assumed power on February 7, 2017 to serve a five-year term, so he must remain in power for another year. On February 7, he reiterated that the Constitution establishes a 60-month term for heads of state, and that an interim government had ruled for a year after he was elected in the October 2015 elections, which were annulled due to allegations of fraud and were repeated in November 2016.
Meanwhile, opposition parties have argued that Moïse’s term ended on February 7, 2021 according to the article 134-2 of the Constitution, which provides for an early start of a new presidential term if there were irregularities in the election process, as there were in October 2015 and November 2016. They have rejected Moïse’s decision to hold presidential and legislative elections on September 19 as part of an attempt to extend his term of office until 2022. They have also condemned the regime’s decision to hold a referendum, on April 25, to replace the current constitution, which is the main achievement of the democratic movement of 1986, with a new one that provides for the return to a presidential regime. This has brought thousands of citizens, students, workers, members of various social movements and opposition political parties onto the streets across the country since January 10.
The position of the opposition has received institutional recognition and support. On February 7, Haiti’s Superior Council of the Judiciary (CSPJ) also announced the official end of Moïse’s presidential term, expressing concerns about “the serious threats resulting from the lack of a political agreement” in the face of the presidential mandate’s expiration. Last week, on February 1, the Federation of Haitian Lawyers issued a resolution, which was signed by around 20 lawyers, informing that Moïse’s mandate ends on February 7 and not in 2022, as alleged by the president.
Furthermore, the existence of democracy itself under the rule of Moïse is in question. Since January 2020, Moïse has been ruling by a presidential decree, as the country’s parliament, the National Assembly, has not been functioning. The mandates of all the deputies and two thirds of the senators expired without the occurrence of legislative elections, which were scheduled for October 2019, but were postponed because of a wave of protests sparked by a fuel shortage crisis. The country, with 11 million people, has only 11 elected officials in office.
Since July 2018, the people of Haiti have been mobilizing against Moïse’s regime and calling for his resignation. His neoliberal policies have plunged the country into an unprecedented social, political and economic crisis. Now, after his refusal to comply with the Constitution, and with the dismissal of three of the six supreme court judges, the country is also facing constitutional and judicial crisis.