Haitian Democracy

Pooja Bhatia

Update: Marie Antoinette Gauthier and Louis Buteau were among 15 prisoners released on 26 March, after an appeals court ruled their arrests illegal. Two supposed coup-plotters remain in prison, reportedly because of a clerical error.

No leader is universally scorned, but Jovenel Moïse comes close. Turnout was 18 per cent in the elections that made him president of Haiti in 2016. Since then there have been government-linked massacres, including one that killed at least seventy people, a spike in kidnappings, an uptick in murders, rampant inflation, blatant corruption and pervasive fear. For almost all Haitians life has got much worse. Moïse has ruled by decree since January 2020, when most parliamentarians’ terms expired. He has replaced all the country’s mayors with people who report only to him. He would like to cement his authoritarian grip by forcing constitutional reform with a referendum in June.

As a general rule, life in Haiti is safer and calmer than the headlines in rich countries allow, but for almost three years, Haitians have been warning relatives and friends abroad not to visit. They have orchestrated strikes and mass protests, most of them peaceful, to demand Moïse’s resignation or at least to hold his regime to account. Others have fled, often to the United States, which has made it gratuitously clear they are not welcome: in its first two months, the Biden administration has sent some twenty deportation flights to Haiti. Some Haitians hoped that Moïse would step down at the end of his term on 7 February. Instead, before dawn that day, officers raided the homes of some twenty people, including the chief justice of the supreme court, Yvickel Dabresil, and locked them up on accusations of plotting a coup. Moïse announced the arrests on the airport tarmac, then flew off with his wife to the seaside town of Jacmel to celebrate carnival.

Moïse says he is entitled to another year in office. Legal experts agree that his interpretation of the law requires twisting it beyond recognition, but there’s an old Haitian saying that the constitution is paper and guns are steel, and Moïse has the backing he needs from the OAS and the USA. At a press conference on 5 February, the State Department took Moïse’s side in the end-of-term argument. Perhaps this was mere expediency from the White House – Haiti is a small country and the Biden administration has inherited a myriad messes – but Moïse saw a green light. The arrests took place 36 hours later.

Dabresil was released on 11 February after Moïse sacked him from the supreme court along with two of his colleagues. The other supposed conspirators are still in prison. Among the detainees are Marie Antoinette Gauthier, a 66-year-old surgeon, and her 71-year-old husband, Louis Buteau, an agronomist. Though critical of the regime, it seems unlikely they were planning to overthrow it or stockpiling the weapons the government claims it found in their house. They were taken in their pyjamas, defenceless and in shock, according to their eldest daughter, Catherine Buteau, a 33-year-old Haitian citizen who lives in Montréal. ‘If they were plotting a coup,’ she notes, ‘they would not have been sleeping.’

The detainees have not been officially charged with anything. But official charges and the other trappings of due process are not the point. The purpose of the arrests is to show anyone who might speak up what could happen to them or their family. It’s a useful, brutal trick, and a terrible touchstone of national memory. When I lived in Port-au-Prince from 2007 to 2011, I came to know a handful of people who had been political prisoners in the 1970s and 1980s. Some had spoken out against Duvalierism, but others, such as Claude Rosier, who spent eleven years in jail, never learned how they’d offended the regime.

Moïse is also pushing his limits with Haiti’s overweening neighbour to the north. Haitian politics can’t escape the shadow of the United States. Rosier and others were released during the Carter administration, but within a month of Reagan’s election in 1980, Jean-Claude Duvalier went on another round-up spree. Under the first President Bush, the CIA sabotaged Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Clinton reinstalled Aristide with twenty thousand marines, and the second President Bush removed him again.

Rosier gave a me a copy of his memoir, Le Triangle de la Mort, in 2011, a few months before he died:

The error of all dictators and would-be dictators, despite the lessons of many centuries of history, is the stubborn belief that a state of violence is the best way to subdue the people. If this were so, Nero, Hitler, Mussolini, Duvalier, Prosper Avril, Cédras and all the others would never have known political failure. The people, even those who are considered ‘backward’, can withstand the violence of others for a while, but they always end up revolting and tearing the machine to pieces.

The sentiment relies on an ideal of sovereignty that Haiti hasn’t had for many years, if ever. I am sure Rosier knew this. He was among a dozen or so former political prisoners who filed human rights suits against Jean-Claude Duvalier. Their claims got nowhere, not least because the United States urged Haitians to move on.

That’s the American way in Haiti. The US exercises influence without acknowledging it; subverts genuine democrats and then claims they lacked popular support; props up autocrats and ignores both the letter and the spirit of the law in the name of stability and ‘what’s best for Haitians’; preaches self-reliance while flooding Haitian markets with rice grown in Arkansas; evangelises human rights while denying asylum-seekers a chance to show credible fear; propounds elections instead of democracy.

American ignorance and blitheness was on full display this month during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. When one of the Haitian witnesses, Guerline Jozef, urged legislators to examine the root causes of Haiti’s predicament, going back to the indemnity Haiti was forced to pay in 1825 to compensate France for its slaves,Congressman Brian Mast (R-FL) cut her off. He mansplained:

Haitians individually within Haiti [need to] look in the mirror and say: ‘We can’t rely on America, we can’t rely on France, we can’t rely on others. We’re hopeful for their assistance. But we have to look in the mirror and say, how do we do this?’ And that’s what I hope we can really really get to the root of, is … what is it that they can look in the mirror and do to correct what is missing there?

A few minutes later, the Haitian activist Emmanuela Douyon tried to set Mast straight. ‘Haiti is not waiting for the US, France or any other country in the international community,’ she said:

We’ve already decided what we want to do. What we’re asking is for the international community to listen and respect our choice. We have a president whose term ended last February. He has benefited from the support of the OAS [and] the US State Department, despite the fact that most of Haitian civil society acknowledges that his term has ended, according to the constitution … This is what we’re facing now. And this is a perfect example of how when we don’t listen to Haitians, we can’t blame them later for the outcome. We want to end with all this corruption and impunity, we want to end with the old practices. [But] so many people do not want to give us a chance to decide for ourselves.