By Fernanda Alvarez-
The word ‘coup’ is often associated with violent images of military tanks rolling into the core of political powers, casting a dark shadow over the light of democracy. Chile’s 1973 coup d’etat which deposed the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende is Latin America’s quintessential example, and in times of COVID-19, Myanmar’s already weak institutional democracy has recently been dealt another deadly blow.
However, coups are not always spearheaded by the power of the military’s bayonets. Instead, sometimes, they are quiet and carefully calculated, portrayed as a necessary manoeuvre to restore stability in the midst of seemingly unending crises and upheavals. This silent but deadly tale of democracy is currently being told in Haiti, and its cunning author is President Jovenel Moise.
Tip-Toeing into Authoritarianism
Mr Moise became Haiti’s president in 2017 and has led by presidential decree since last year (2020), after suspending two-thirds of the Senate, the entire lower Chamber of Deputies, and every mayor throughout the country. Shockingly so, this has meant that, at present, in Haiti, there are only 11 elected officials to represent 11 million Haitians. Essentially, this has created a political echo chamber in the halls of the executive power, reconfiguring the priorities of the government which evidently seem to be veered towards centralizing power.
The gross centralization of power entails that the Haitian government is largely unpreoccupied by the daily ailments of Haitians, who face a 60% unemployment rate, hunger, poverty, daily power cuts, and growing crime rates. In Haiti, the ‘stay-at-home’ order is not motivated by fears of the transmission of coronavirus, but rather, the fear that gangs will kidnap passer-byers. Mr Moise, in response to the rise in crime, blames an amorphous and elusive ‘oligarchy’ for instigating rampant insecurity. Whilst Mr Moise has also claimed that his administration has put in place an economic system “to stop the systemic pillaging that detriments [Haitians]”, his words hold little weight when compared to a report released by the Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes (CSCCA) which presented evidence Mr Moise embezzled millions of dollars from a road rehabilitation project funded by the program in 2016.
To make matters worse, Mr Moise’s rhetoric against gangs also seems hollow when considering the lack of prosecution against notable gang leaders such as Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer who now heads an alliance of gangs called G9, and who has been accused of being involved in a 2018 massacre in La Saine neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince. Recently, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Mr Moise’s close allies who provided political protection and weapons to gangs that targeted opposition areas.
At this point, gangs have become an untamable issue in Haiti– not only is impunity rampant because of the stifling of the judiciary, but gangs also control about a third of the Haitian territory. The fact they allegedly operate under the payrolls of the executive worryingly echoes the actions of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier whose totalitarian regime ruled Haiti from 1957- 1971. Duvalier is still known today for his dreaded opposition-silencing militia, the Tontons Macoute. If this is a case of history repeating itself, there is reason to worry– after all, Haiti’s modern history is plagued by stories of coups, weak institutions, and ephemeral spells of democratic rule.
Sound the Alarm
Since February 7 of this year (2021), Haiti has witnessed a series of social upheavals and protests led by Haitian civilians and human rights groups that decry and condemn Moise’s budding authoritarian tendencies, especially his desire to hold onto power longer than many believe to be democratic, and are calling for an end to his presidential mandate. According to Article 134-1 of the Constitution, presidential terms last 5 years and the countdown is triggered on the year the election took place, meaning that Moise’s term should have ended on February 7th. However, Moise staunchly maintains that his term did not start in 2016 after his election, but in 2017, when he officially became the de facto President of Haiti. Whatever democratic legitimacy Mr Moise has as a ruler stems from his 2016 electoral victory when only about 20% of the Haitian electorate headed to the polls and the process was engulfed by chaos that led to the appointment of interim President Michel Martelly before Moise himself was sworn in.
In a strongly institutionalized democracy with prominent checks and balances, a Constitutional Council or an impartial Supreme Court would be the unbiased judge that would eradicate any dubious readings of the constitution. However, in Haiti, that is not the case. The Supreme Court is far from immune to the overreaching of the executive power. In early February, Moise arbitrarily removed 3 Supreme Court judges, of which one –Yvickel Dieujuste Dabresil– was accused of staging a coup against the President himself. This lack of impartiality means there is no one voice whose judgement both the opposition and the executive will listen to, exacerbating the constitutional crisis further by triggering a vicious cycle in which Moise refuses to relinquish power and protests continue in Haiti’s streets.
When referring to the constitutional crisis, Mr Moise assures that “democracy works when we all agree to play by the rules of the game”. But in the eyes of most Haitians, he is looking to bend those rules in his favour- for example, he plans to hold a referendum to amend the Constitution this coming April. Amongst other things, the changes would mean that a President can now run for two consecutive terms in office and that the position of the Prime Minister is abolished and replaced instead by a Vice President. In essence, this would align with Latin America’s recurring trend of hyper-presidentialism which, through a growing centralization of power in the hands of the executive, is often cited as one of the roots of political instability in the region.
Mr Moise has portrayed the amendments to the 1987 Constitution as long-awaited, claiming they are at the heart of the instability that floods Haiti. His supporters echo similar interpretations, painting Mr Moise as a benevolent force that seeks to restore peace in the country. However, this is hard to believe when compared with manoeuvres that have catalyzed democratic erosion under his tenure.
Although supporters of Moise have pointed out that even if constitutional changes are made through the referendum, it is misguided to label Moise as dictatorial since he will not be able to benefit from the amendments made himself; the Constitution outlines that an amendment can only go into effect when the next President is installed. However, it is worth noting once more that deeply entrenched in recent Haitian historical memory is the dynastic and totalitarian rule of Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) and Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc). Even if Moise were not in power, the opposition is highly fractured and institutions are plagued by systemic weaknesses, thus paving the way for his ruling party – the PHTK– to grasp power with an iron fist even after presidential elections are held again later this year.
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now
So which one is it? A budding dictator mirroring the traits of the Duvalier bloodline? Or a benevolent ruler whose intentions have been wrongly misunderstood as dictatorial?
Peru’s fujimorazo offers some valuable answers as parallels can be drawn with Haiti’s situation. In 1992, President Fujimori dissolved Congress as well as the judiciary of Peru, thereby assuming full legislative and judicial powers. Although he originally justified this manoeuvre as a necessary evil, he then ordered the Peruvian Army to drive a tank to the steps of Congress to shut it down. Before we fall into the overarching and pervasive term of ‘coup’, what makes Peru’s auto-golpe or 'self-coup' unique is that it was orchestrated by an official that was democratically elected but eventually used that position to undermine the institutions that brought him to the presidential chair in the first place.
Just like in Peru, Mr Moise has justified his rule by decree and the constitutional amendment as necessary measures to resolve instability in the country. He was also democratically elected, although this claim could be disputed considering the irregularities surrounding the 2016 election. Most importantly, he has made sure to undermine the institutional checks and balances that would have otherwise directly questioned his political legitimacy.
Oftentimes, whether a coup is labelled as such depends on the eye of the beholder. Whilst the defendant might advocate that Moise’s measures have been justifiable given the situation and that he has no means of remaining in power after the necessary constitutional amendments are adopted and elections are held, this could potentially be quite a naive standpoint. No matter the good intentions of Moise, power corrupts– particularly when there are neither strong social nor institutional sources of opposition.
If all goes according to plan, elections will take place this year, abiding by new constitutional guidelines. Whilst Mr Moise has declared he will not be running for re-election, actions speak louder than words. So when eventually faced with the impending question of ‘should I stay or should I go now?’, there will be a strong temptation to bolt shut the doors of the National Palace in Port-au-Prince.
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