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US fears Feb. 7 could bring new political upheaval in Haiti – with huge ramifications

Michael Wilner and Jacqueline Charles, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration and the U.S. intelligence community are increasingly concerned that Haiti is approaching a dangerous flashpoint in February, when they believe that the term of assassinated President Jovenel Moïse will officially end, deepening the country’s political crisis during a simmering power struggle in Port-au-Prince.

In the days following Moïse’s assassination in July, his choice for the country’s next prime minister, Ariel Henry, took over running the country in his place. But international powers believe the slain president’s term formally ends on Feb. 7 — a date that could provide Henry’s adversaries with a pretext to challenge his fragile authority.

U.S. officials fear that gangs increasingly coalescing power since Moïse’s death, destabilizing the country with fuel and hostage crises last fall, could align with different factions in the event of a challenge to Henry, raising the specter of political violence.

“How the government of Haiti moves forward after February 7, the official end of assassinated President Jovenel Moïse’s term, will be an important inflection point for Ariel Henry’s government and its ability to bring some measure of political stability to Haiti,” a U.S. intelligence official told McClatchy.

It is the latest chapter in a long-running state of emergency in Haiti that has repeatedly demanded the attention of the Biden administration.

The country is already near total security and economic collapse, having in the past year endured Moïse’s assassination, a deadly earthquake, the gang-aggravated fuel crisis, a migration surge to the U.S. southern border and a mass kidnapping of American missionaries. All of this occurred on top of the pervasive governmental corruption that discourages any new investment.

Washington’s handling of these crises has left the Biden administration open to criticism. At home, some members of Congress want to see U.S. support for a regime change in Haiti, while Haitian-American voters and immigration advocates on the other hand accuse the United States of not doing enough to help the Caribbean nation.

In Haiti, some accuse the United States and other international actors of being too involved in the country’s domestic affairs. Others are seeking support and security assistance for a pathway to elections and a return to constitutional order.

Any unraveling of Haiti will have huge ramifications not just for the United States — located just 900 miles away from Hispaniola — but for the region as well. Since mid-September, more than 17,000 Haitians have been deported back home from from the United States and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the International Organization for Migration, which receives returnees.

While most of the U.S. deportees are Haitians who had lived in South America and then illegally crossed the southern border with Mexico, South Florida is now starting to see its share of new refugees, deepening fears that the more unstable Haiti becomes the deeper its migration problem will become.

After more than a two-year hiatus, 63 Haitian migrants arrived in the Upper Florida Keys in November aboard a rickety wooden sailboat after more than three weeks at sea. They were followed by 52 migrants who landed in almost the same spot on Christmas Eve. On Monday, the largest group arrived. U.S. Coast Guard counted 176 Haitian migrants aboard a 60-foot wooden vessel near the shores of the exclusive gated community of Ocean Reef in north Key Largo.

Fragility of Henry’s authority

Henry is already facing questions about his connection to a main suspect, Joseph Félix Badio, in Moïse’s killing after police cited two phone calls between him and Badio in the hours after the slaying. In a Jan. 6 report by the National Human Rights Defense Network, a local Port-au-Prince human rights group, the group accuses Henry of speaking by telephone with Badio, a former ministry of justice consultant and employee in the anti-corruption unit who maintained close ties with Haitian politicians.

A fugitive, Badio is accused of renting an apartment across from Moïse’s house to keep a close eye on him and of being responsible for receiving real-time information about the president’s actions on the night he was killed.

In a press statement after the accusations involving his phone logs first surfaced, the prime minister’s office said Henry had “received countless calls, of all kinds” the night of the slaying and it was difficult to say all “who called him, or even the nature of the conversations.”

Such accusations could further weaken Henry’s ability to govern amid challenges to his legitimacy to run the country. A large swath of Haitian society, including constitutional experts, has long contended that Moïse’s mandate ended last February under the country’s constitution and how it calculates presidential terms.

A senior State Department official would not comment on Henry’s alleged connection with the murder suspect, only calling on Haitian authorities to conduct a “thorough, transparent, comprehensive investigation,” and noting that U.S. law enforcement would probe any suspect or person of interest within its jurisdiction.

 

But the official said the prime minister’s term was not constitutionally tied to the president’s and argued that Feb. 7 should not serve as a basis for Henry’s political adversaries to undermine his authority.

“We’re already at a point of great uncertainty, from the beginning of Prime Minister Henry’s tenure,” the senior diplomat official said. “The challenge in Haiti is that there continues to be significant political divisions. There continues to be a lack of consensus around a way forward.”

On Thursday, political leaders and members of the Haitian diaspora and others began meeting at Southern University Law Center in Louisiana for a six-day Haiti Unity Summit. The goal is to come out with an agreement to help competing blocs in Haiti arrive at a solution to get the country to elections and some measure of stability.

At home, a coalition of civil society organizations recently signed a political pact with a powerful group of current and former lawmakers to put in place a two-year transition. They have been championing an agreement known as the Montana Accord.

The transition, under the newly reached consensus, would be led by five presidents, appointed by three different structures in the country, an appointed prime minister to run the daily affairs, and a ministerial cabinet coming from signatories of the accord.

The new structure was announced Monday after Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols and U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Kenneth Merten, meeting with members of the Montana group earlier in the day, asked them to have “serious discussions” with Henry and other key players to find a solution leading to free and fair elections in Haiti.

The senior State Department official would not say how long Washington plans to wait for the parties to come to a political consensus on how to govern Haiti, in lieu of an elected president or parliament. But concerns remain with some of the key players vying to lead.

“We need to give them the space to reach an agreement,” the diplomat said. “There are actors in Haiti that come from all different stripes, and some of them come with concerning baggage. They are significant political players.”

But in the meantime, ahead of Feb. 7, the Biden administration plans to send Secretary of State Antony Blinken to a Jan. 21 ministerial-level meeting hosted by Canada focusing on security assistance to Haiti. Haitians have said without a plan to address the insecurity, they do not see how any elections can take place.

“The goal is for the participants to identify specific areas where they can support the Haitian people, particularly in the area of security but also in economic development, in areas of electoral preparations farther down the line when that becomes more viable,” the diplomat said. “There’s a broad range of things that countries will be bringing to the table. And I hope that there will be a robust list of assistance that will come out of the meeting.”

“Dealing with the gang problem in Haiti, particularly in the area around Port-au-Prince, is a crucial component to the international community’s response for security assistance,” the official noted, citing threats of gang violence targeting Haiti’s political leadership.

One concession that Henry has made is allowing the remaining tier of the Senate to remain in office until 2023, despite pressure by supporters to dismiss them in the same manner that Moïse had done two years earlier when he declared that the terms of 20 of 30 senators had expired. The decision, along with the dismissal of the Lower Chamber of Deputies, rendered the parliament non-functional and allowed Moïse to begin ruling by decree.

Henry, who has been building his own political allies through a Sept. 11 accord and recently managed to raise the price of fuel without social unrest, has said he wants to implement a constitution change and hold elections this year so that a new president and parliament can take over starting in 2023.

But with the country’s ongoing security problems, police inability to control the gangs and the challenges to his power, many are doubtful that Haiti will see free and fair elections before 2023.

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©2022 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Visit at mcclatchydc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.