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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

US stood by Haitian leader as democracy unraveled and unrest grew

After members of Congress warned that Moïse’s “anti-democratic abuses” reminded them of the run-up to the dictatorship that terrorized Haiti in decades past, the Biden administration publicly threw its weight behind Moïse’s claim on power.

By: New York Times |
Updated: July 18, 2021 1:18:30 pm
US HaitiFormer President Donald Trump welcomed former Haitian President Jovenel Moise to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Washington. (New York Times)

As protesters hurled rocks outside Haiti’s national palace and set fires on the streets to demand President Jovenel Moïse’s resignation, President Donald Trump invited him to Mar-a-Lago in 2019, posing cheerfully with him in one of the club’s ornate entryways.

After members of Congress warned that Moïse’s “anti-democratic abuses” reminded them of the run-up to the dictatorship that terrorized Haiti in decades past, the Biden administration publicly threw its weight behind Moïse’s claim on power.

And when American officials urged the Biden administration to change course, alarmed that Haiti’s democratic institutions were being stripped away, they say their pleas went unheeded — and sometimes never earned a response at all.

Through Moïse’s time in office, the United States backed his increasingly autocratic rule, viewing it as the easiest way of maintaining stability in a troubled country that barely figured into the priorities of successive administrations in Washington, current and former officials say.

Even as Haiti spiraled into violence and political upheaval, they say, few in the Trump administration took seriously Moïse’s repeated warnings that he faced plots against his life. And as warnings of his authoritarianism intensified, the Biden administration kept up its public support for Moïse’s claim to power, even after Haiti’s Parliament emptied out in the absence of elections and Moïse ruled by decree.

When Moïse was assassinated this month, it left a gaping leadership void that set off a scramble for power with the few elected officials remaining. The United States, which has held enormous sway in Haiti since invading the country more than 100 years ago, was suddenly urged to send in troops and help fix the mess.

Haitian President Jovenel Moise’s assassination has set off a scramble for power between the few remaining elected officials. (The New York Times)

But in interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials, a common refrain emerged: Washington bore part of the blame, after brushing off or paying little attention to clear warnings that Haiti was lurching toward mayhem, and possibly making things worse by publicly supporting Moïse.

“It was predictable that something would happen,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “The message that we send by standing alongside these people is that we think they are legitimate representatives of the Haitian people. They’re not.”

Critics say the U.S.’ approach to Moïse followed a playbook the United States has used around the world for decades, often with major consequences for democracy and human rights: reflexively siding with or tolerating leaders accused of authoritarian rule because they advance U.S. interests or because officials fear instability in their absence.

Moïse’s grip on power tightened notably under Trump, who spoke admiringly of a range of foreign autocrats. Trump was also bent on keeping Haitian migrants out of the United States (they “all have AIDS,” American officials recounted him saying). To the extent that Trump officials focused on Haitian politics at all, officials say, it was mainly to enlist the country in Trump’s campaign to oust his nemesis in the region: Venezuela’s leader, Nicolás Maduro.

The Biden administration arrived in January consumed by the pandemic and a surge of migrants at the border with Mexico, leaving little bandwidth for the tumult convulsing Haiti, officials say. It publicly continued the Trump administration policy that Moïse was the legitimate leader, infuriating some members of Congress with a stance that one senior Biden official now calls a mistake.

“Moïse is pursuing an increasingly authoritarian course of action,” Rep. Gregory Meeks, now the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a joint statement with two other Democrats in late December, warning of a repeat of the “anti-democratic abuses the Haitian people have endured” in the past.

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

In a February letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, they and other lawmakers called on the United States to “unambiguously reject” the push by Moïse, who had already ruled by decree for a year, to stay in power. They urged the Biden administration to push for “a legitimate transitional government” to help Haitians determine their own future and emerge from “a cascade of economic, public health, and political crises.”

But Biden’s top adviser on Latin America, Juan Gonzalez, said that at the time that the administration did not want to appear to be dictating how the turmoil should be resolved.

“Tipping our finger on the scale in that way could send a country that was already in a very unstable situation into crisis,” Gonzalez said.

Past U.S. political and military interventions into Haiti have done little to solve the country’s problems and have sometimes created or aggravated them. “The solution to Haiti’s problems are not in Washington; they are in Port-au-Prince,” Haiti’s capital, Gonzalez said, so the Biden administration called for elections to take place before Moïse left office.

“The calculus we made was the best decision, was to focus on elections to try to use that as a way to push for greater freedom,” he added.

In reality, critics say, the Biden administration was already tipping the scales by publicly supporting Moïse’s contention that he had another year in office, enabling him to preside over the drafting of a new Constitution that could significantly enhance the president’s powers.

Moïse was certainly not the first leader accused of autocracy to enjoy Washington’s backing; he was not even the first in Haiti. Two generations of brutal Haitian dictators from the Duvalier family were among a long list of strongmen around the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere who received resolute U.S. support, particularly as allies against communism.

By 2019, nationwide protests grew violent in Haiti as demonstrators demanding Moïse’s ouster clashed with the police, burned cars and marched on the national palace. Gang activity became increasingly brazen, and kidnappings spiked to an average of four a week.

Trump and his aides showed few public signs of concern. In early 2019, Trump hosted Moïse at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, as part of a meeting with Caribbean leaders who had lined up against Maduro of Venezuela.

By the next year, Moïse’s anti-democratic practices grew serious enough to command the attention of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who publicly warned Moïse against delaying parliamentary elections.

But beyond a few statements, the Trump administration did little to force the issue, officials said.

“No one did anything to address the underlying weaknesses, institutionally and democratically,” over the past several years, said Peter Mulrean, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Haiti from 2017-19. “And so we shouldn’t really be surprised that the lid blew off again.”

After Biden’s election, lawmakers and officials in Washington took up the issue with new urgency. Moïse, who came to office after a vote marred by low turnout and allegations of fraud, had been ruling by decree for a year because the terms of nearly all members of Parliament had expired and elections to replace them were never held.

Moïse won a five-year term in 2016 but did not take office until 2017 amid the allegations of fraud, so he argued that he should stay until 2022. Democracy advocates in Haiti and abroad cried foul, but on Feb. 5, the Biden administration weighed in, supporting Moïse’s claim to power for another year. And it was not alone: International bodies like the Organization of American States took the same position.

Blinken later criticized Moïse’s rule by decree and called for “genuinely free and fair elections this year.” But the Biden administration never withdrew its public position upholding Moïse’s claim to remain in office, a decision that Rep. Andy Levin, a co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus, blamed for helping him retain his grip on the country and continue its anti-democratic slide.

“It’s a tragedy that he was able to stay there,” Levin said.

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