Politics

Haitian commission sends message to Canada, U.S. — stop meddling in our government

A broad-based commission of civil society in Haiti has set up the most serious attempt in years to reverse Haiti's decline and hold genuine elections. But ambassadors for the U.S., Canada and France continue to exercise substantial power in Haiti and have stuck by the unpopular and unelected PHTk government of Ariel Henry.

Some Haitians say de facto control by foreign ambassadors, local allies brought hunger and gang rule

Students run past a burning barricade set up by protesters demanding the release of kidnapped people in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Nov. 25. The country is experiencing a rise in gang-related kidnappings, many demanding ransom, with the U.S. State Department issuing a warning in August about the risk of kidnapping in the Caribbean country. (Odelyn Joseph/The Associated Press)

In his letter of resignation, U.S. President Joe Biden's special envoy for Haiti Daniel Foote apologized to "the people of Haiti, mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances."

"What our Haitian friends really want, and need," he wrote, "is the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering and favored candidates."

Foote made it clear that a clutch of foreign diplomats known as the "Core Group" had chosen current Prime Minister (and acting president) Ariel Henry, after wearying of Claude Joseph, the first person they had backed to succeed murdered President Jovenel Moise.

"The hubris that makes us believe we should pick the winner — again — is impressive," he wrote. 

"Daniel Foote is saying something that we all knew for ages and we've been talking about for many years — that elections in Haiti are not real," said Haitian-born sociologist Frederic Boisrond of McGill University.

"Over the past years what we've seen is Canada, the U.S. and France really taking control of the country, of the political agenda in the country."

Core Group calls the shots

The July 7 murder of Haiti's president in his own bedroom — without a shot fired by the bodyguards tasked with protecting him — revealed the rot at the heart of Haitian political life.

But it was the casual shuffling out of Joseph and his replacement by Ariel Henry two weeks later — anticipated in a two-paragraph statement from a group of ambassadors — that revealed Haiti's subjugation to foreign dictates.

Haitian President Moise Jovenel speaks during a press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Dec. 11, 2017. (Ludovic Marin/Reuters)

Until that point, Joseph appeared to have the upper hand in the power struggle within Moise's Parti Haitien Tet Kale (PHTk) or "Bald-headed" party. On July 17, the Core Group statement "strongly encouraged" Henry "to form a government." Joseph threw in the towel 48 hours later.

The American, Canadian and French ambassadors form the top table of the Core Group, with representatives of the UN, EU, Brazil, Germany, Spain and the Organization of American States (OAS) in support.

"A tweet put Ariel Henry in power," said Haitian activist Monique Clesca.

Haiti's Prime Minister Ariel Henry speaks at a ceremony to appoint members of his cabinet, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Odelyn Joseph/The Associated Press)

Clesca is a member of a 13-person Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis that has been holding hearings in Haiti since the beginning of this year.

The commission includes representatives of Haiti's political parties, farmers' groups, the business community, labour unions, churches, voodoo leaders and women's groups, along with three representatives of the Haitian diaspora — one each for Canada, the U.S. and France. It also includes a handful of respected independent voices, including Clesca, who recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times calling for an end to foreign domination of Haiti.

The crisis of everything

The "crisis" that the commission seeks to resolve is not just the fallout of the Moise assassination. It's "a governance crisis, a humanitarian crisis, a security crisis, a social crisis," said Clesca — all of it linked to the breakdown of Haitian democracy caused by successive governments that failed to hold fair elections but continued to enjoy the backing of foreign embassies.

"What we are saying, and what people in the streets have been saying for over three years, is that Haiti is a sovereign country," said Clesca. "We may have weak institutions. We may have differences with our neighbours. But we are a sovereign country and we are the ones who must decide on our present and our future.

"And what we want is for the Core Group not to meddle in our affairs."

Gang-leader Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, seen here with members of his G9 gang alliance, began his career as a police officer before becoming the most feared enforcer of PHTk rule. He has since turned against Prime Minister Ariel Henry and declared himself leader of a "revolution." (The Associated Press/The Canadian Press)

The embassies, said Clesca, "push a supposed stability that is filled with corruption and impunity. We are where we are because of the support of the Core Group, led by the United States, and Canada also plays a prominent role."

Even the stability that the Core Group claims to support has evaporated as gangs take over entire neighborhoods, said Clesca.

Far from fighting the gangs, the Haitian government is accused by many of arming and empowering them.

Before turning their guns on their former masters, the gangs were involved in numerous massacres in poor areas that were seen as resisting PHTk rule, or where people had taken to the streets to protest the PetroCaribe corruption scandal.

"The gangs are a true creation of the PHTk regime, and they've lost control of them," said Boisrond. "The PHTk regime financed and organized gangs to protect their power, and they've lost control of those people, and that's why we have this situation in Haiti."

Haiti a democracy in name only

Haiti is not being governed constitutionally right now. The last election was over five years ago and the mandates of almost every elected official in the country have expired.

For over a decade now, elections in Haiti have frequently been postponed or cancelled, and popular parties and candidates have been banned from running. Fraud has been widespread and blatant, while public participation in elections has been pitifully low. 

"(Former president) Michel Martelly never organized one election in five years. He was supported by the Core Group," said Clesca. "Jovenal Moise never organized one election in nearly five years, but the Core Group supported him. When he fell into becoming a dictator, the Core Group supported him. We say the Core Group has no credibility to be telling us what to do."

In a country where few trust the current government to run free and fair elections, the commission Clesca belongs to is proposing a way out — one that it admits is not covered by the 1987 constitution.

It wants to convince Haitians to entrust its members with the power to nominate a transitional government that would aim to bring true democracy to Haiti over the next two years.

In August, it persuaded many civil society actors and opposition parties to throw their support behind the Montana Accord (named for the Port-au-Prince hotel where it was signed, not the Rocky Mountain state).

Canada 'open' to more dialogue

Canada has continued to support the PHTk government. This week, however, Canada's new ambassador to Haiti, Sebastien Carrière, is set to meet with Clesca, while officials in Ottawa say they are listening to the views of Haitians. 

"We encourage the government to maintain an inclusive political dialogue with all stakeholders, including civil society, in order to reach an agreement acceptable to all. This agreement should ensure stability in the country and lay the necessary foundations for free and credible elections," Global Affairs' Grantly Franklin told CBC News.

"Canada works closely with Haitian civil society, and civil society organizations have contributed to the success of many Canadian projects in Haiti. We remain open to opportunities to deepen this relationship."

The statement did not mention either the commission or the Montana Accord by name.

Boisrond said he is skeptical that the Core Group that so casually pulled the rug from under Claude Joseph will pressure Ariel Henry to give way to a transitional government. "I wouldn't put my hand in the fire for a statement like that," he said. "It's the same kind of thing we've been hearing year after year."

Canadian delegate sees hope

Roger Petit-Frere, who sits on the commission's provisional transition council as the representative of the Haitian diaspora in Canada, is more optimistic. He notes that former U.S. envoy Foote did speak frequently of the Montana Accord.

"I'm pleased that the new Canadian ambassador in Haiti has said he's in favour of a Haitian solution to the crisis. And the most plausible Haitian solution, the best-prepared, the one that has the support of almost everyone, is the Montana Accord," he told CBC News.

But for the Montana Accord to work, Ariel Henry has to agree to surrender power.

Pedestrians walk past a burning barricade set up to protest kidnappings in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Odelyn Joseph/The Associated Press)

"Right now, I'm not ready to say that Ariel Henry is willing to go," said Petit-Frere. "The channels of communication remain open with him and there are more meetings planned between the monitoring committee of the Montana Accord and the prime minister.

"The Montana Accord is open to everyone."

Back in Haiti, Clesca echoed the hope that things might be changing. "Canada has been a good friend of Haiti, so we don't know why Canada has sort of lost its way, and we hope it will find its way with the new ambassador who's coming," she said.

Gang warfare

Boisrond agreed the accord is the most serious attempt in years to unite Haitian society behind a demand for real political change — but pointed out that it has no mechanism to force such a change.

"The first obstacle they're going to face is the people who are actually in power," he said. "I don't believe that people who have power are ready to step down and let other people take power."

Boisrond also said he believes a transition period of two years is too short to restore peace and order to Haiti. 

"You can't get a democracy going if you don't get the economy going, and that's the biggest challenge the commission has to face right now," he said.

One-third of all Haitians live in a state of severe food insecurity. Only education and economic opportunities will keep young Haitians from joining the gangs, Boisrond said, but the gangs have created a climate where parents fear to send their children to school and businesses fear to open.

"That's the Catch-22 we have in Haiti right now. Where do we start? What's the first thing to be doing?" he said.

"Is it to stop gangs? Or to create conditions so people, instead of joining gangs, can find a job and get some perspective on life?"

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis has 52 members. In fact, there are only 13 full members of the commission, who in turn appoint 52 members to a provisional transition council.
    Dec 08, 2021 9:31 AM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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