How Domestic Elites and Foreign Meddling Undermine Haitian Democracy

To understand the rise and fall of Jovenel Moïse, we must understand the forces that propped him up.

Sophonie Milande Joseph and François Pierre-Louis

A soldier patrols the area near the police station of Petion Ville where people protest after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise on July 08, 2021 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Richard Pierrin/Getty Images

Yes, President Jovenel Moïse should have stepped down from the presidential office. Yes, he was never democratically elected. But this is also a story of a Black man from rural Haiti being used by multiple interests within and outside of his country, from the Haitian private sector to the U.S. government. Without a real effort to build a truly inclusive democratic society, future public servants from similar backgrounds as Moïse will continue to be appointed as puppet leaders susceptible to the manipulation of entities that want to maintain the status quo. Democratic institutions are vital for strengthening Haiti’s ability to respond to crises, like the devastating earthquake that struck last weekend.

For homeland and Haitians abroad, Moïse’s assassination was not only shocking, but also woke one aspect of Haitian politics that some people may have forgotten. Since Haiti gained its independence in 1804, it has been ruled primarily by Black leaders. Although the country has a sizable lighter-skin, mulatto population primarily of French and African descent, the only times they controlled the presidency was right after the assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s first ruler, and during the U.S. occupation, which favored them over the Black numerical majority. Even though the mulattoes were unable to control the presidency, they historically controlled the country’s economy. As a result, it is understood in Haitian society that traditional political power resides with the Black majority while the economy is controlled by the historic mercantile elites. 

Today, contemporary mercantile elites of any race, color or ethnicity (mulatto, Syrio-Arab, Black, etc.), political elites, and diaspora elites, exert undue influence on Haiti’s political economy. As does the United States, through aid it provides to the Haitian government and private sector investments. The historical arrangement is so ingrained that Haitian intellectuals and politicians coined the term la politique de doublure.’ This means placing a leader in an important public position while someone else manipulates the levers of power. Moïse was the latest tragic case of la politique de doublure’ that ended horribly.

Undemocratically anointed

Moïse was an unlikely national leader since he had held no previous public service or elected roles. However, coming from rural Haiti and being perceived as a successful Black, businessman created an appealing narrative that a majority of poor Haitians identified with. In 2015, as then-President Michel Martelly’s term was about to end, he reluctantly called for general elections. Although there were many speculations as to whom Martelly would select to secede him among the several prominent members of the Haitian Tet Kale (Bald Head) party that he controlled, everyone was surprised that he decided to back up the candidacy of an unknown regional businessman named Moïse. 

Moïse, who was the president of the local chamber of commerce in the Northwest Department, was primarily selling purified water and car parts in the provincial capital of Port-de-Paix. A year before he was anointed by Martelly, he suddenly began to promote agriculture by acquiring more than 2,000 acres of public land in the northeast of Haiti to raise bananas for export. His agribusiness became an overnight sensation. Martelly and other members of the Tet Kale Party promoted Moïse’s agribusiness by publicly visiting the sites and declaring Moïse a genius for promoting agriculture in the country and providing food to the population. Moïse’s nickname became Neg Bannan n la’ (the Banana Man). He did not do a lot of exports, and only one token harvest was ever sent to Europe. In fact, Moïse’s banana fields remained fallow during his four-year tenure in the presidential office. Later it came to light that the farmland was too close to the seashore; consequently, the salinization made it unfit to raise crops like bananas. Haiti’s business sector and the Martelly political machine falsely promoted his business acumen. Many people were baffled by his decision to support a candidate who had no prior experience in politics or public administration for the nation’s most important office. 

The elections were contested from the beginning and full of mishaps. More than 54 candidates decided to run for the office, but Moïse did not make the 51% threshold that would have guaranteed him a win in the first round. Moreover, several other candidates claimed that the vote was rigged in Moïse’s favor. Therefore, they decided to challenge the results of the first round and called for the boycott of the second round. As a result, Martelly failed to install a new president when his term expired in 2016. To avoid a presidential vacancy, the newly elected members of Parliament, representatives of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and a group of foreign states called the Group of Friends of Haiti, which includes France and the United States, worked out a deal in which Jocelerme Privert was chosen as the provisional president to investigate the accusations and to continue the electoral process when Martelly left office on February 7, 2016. Although Privert was initially appointed interim president for a four-month term, it took him 12 months to organize and implement elections. 

While the candidates were in full campaigning mode, Hurricane Matthew devastated the country’s southern peninsula in October 2016. It is estimated that more than 500 Haitian lives were lost and the hurricane caused $2.8 billion of damages. In observance of the significant loss of life, the candidates agreed to impose a moratorium on campaigning. The interim government became more focused on providing relief to the destitute population in the southern peninsula. While most of the well-known candidates agreed to stop their campaigning and struggled to provide basic humanitarian aid to their partisans in that region, Moïse commandeered a boat full of construction materials, food supplies and other emergency kits and personally went campaigning with these supplies in the south. A powerful businessman from the South lent him the boat, while all the major businesses in the capital provided the supplies. This publicity stunt, aimed at winning the electorates’ support, raised his profile and confirmed that he was the favorite of the elite and the only political candidate who could solve Haiti’s problems.

When the interim government called the second round of voting to complete the electoral process, most prominent candidates boycotted the elections. The private sector’s support of Moïse and the U.S. backing of the election despite objections by the opposition parties clearly demonstrated that they wanted Moïse to be elected. Since very few people went to the polls, Moïse was declared the winner with only 600,000 votes in a country of 11.4 million people. 

The undemocratic process was not only supported by domestic forces: External forces, including the United States, played a fundamental role. The Friends of Haiti openly supported Moïse over other candidates. And after Moise won his presidential election with about 5% of the voting population, the Friends of Haiti did not encourage him to have midterm elections to renew critical institutions (parliament members, mayors). 

But these entities had been eroding Haitian sovereignty long before that election. Instead of Haitian civic groups being invited to be a part of the discourse around rebuilding post-earthquake, they were excluded. By denying them a role in reconstruction and the electoral process, the Friends of Haiti, in particular the United States, created a total vacuum for the current situation to occur. They also meddled in previous elections, when in 2011 they forced President René Préval to withdraw his candidate in favor of Martelly. The Friends of Haiti continued to meddle with the country’s judicial branch and police force (institutions which were to keep the president accountable through checks and balances of the executive branch’s power) were effectively disbanded.

The making of a tyrant

Even though several political parties contested Moïse’s win, they nonetheless gave him the benefit of the doubt after he took office and were open to collaborating with his administration. A few months after he assumed power, Moïse used populist language to attract the population’s support by exposing the corruption of the country’s judicial system and vowing to replace corrupt judges with competent and honest individuals. Many people believed that rhetoric and thought that he was on the right track. Yet, while his rhetoric was being applauded and taken in by the people, he moved to fire the director of the anti-corruption agency that had released a report in which Moïse was accused of money laundering and misusing funds from the PetroCaribe program. This was a program that was established between President René Préval and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in May 2006 to provide subsidized oil from Venezuela and use the profit from sales toward development projects in Haiti.

Moïse was not the only president who was accused of misusing the PetroCaribe funds. President Martelly, who picked him as his successor, was cited in a report too, along with several members of his cabinet. When the country’s main audit agency released the report, the Senate moved to let the Courts charge those who were accused in the report. Since President Moïse was a protégé of Martelly, he used his presidential authority to suppress the report and prevent the Courts from following up on the charges that were leveled against him and his political allies. 

As he began to encounter protests and criticism from the opposition, Moïse became more dictatorial. Although his party held most seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, he failed to call midterm elections to renew parliament and local elected official’s terms. When Parliament’s term expired, Moïse ordered the police to occupy the building to prevent the members from convening. While this conflict was intensifying between him and Parliament, gang warfare erupted in the capital and people who lived in some lower-income neighborhoods were attacked, and several massacres took place in Cité Soleil, Lasaline and Bel Air. These neighborhoods were seen as places that were against Moïse’s agenda. Although the politique de doublure’ is primarily implemented from internal forces, the so-called Friends of Haiti helped Moïse become a dictator by never acknowledging the demands of the opposition parties who criticized him. 

While Moïse was unpopular, and there were daily protests to remove him from office, the private sector fully supported him. All of Haiti’s chambers of commerce — which are dominated by the economic elite, who greatly benefitted from generous tax exemptions on imports as well as from paying their fair tax rates due to favoritism and kickbacks — refused to release any statement questioning his authoritarian measures. While he had shortened the term of parliamentary members by forcing them to leave office before they were constitutionally obligated to leave, Moïse decided to extend his own term by one extra year on the basis that he took office a year later than expected. 

His decision violated the country’s constitution, which stipulated that the President’s term expires every five years of the calendar year, regardless of when he assumed power. Previous presidents abided by this constitutional limit, whereas he refused to do so. His decision to extend his term was met with widespread protests and anger. However, since the Haitian private sector, the United States, the Organization of American States and the United Nations supported him, he felt secure to continue taking other decisions that irritated the population, such as writing a new constitution, creating a new intelligence service, and arbitrarily calling for general elections for September 2021

By the time he was assassinated, Moïse had made too many enemies for him to maintain power. Reports about his assassination seem to indicate that it was an insider job. None of the security personnel, who were ostensibly in Moïse’s house to provide the first family with protection, fired a single shot against the attackers. It took more than two hours for the Chief of Police to report his assassination and, so far, there has not been any conclusive report from investigators about the culprit(s), nor the motives of his killing. Although this was a tremendous shock to every Haitian and a serious breach of the office of the Presidency, finding the criminals behind this assassination might be as elusive as the killings of other prominent journalists, lawyers and everyday folks in Haiti. 

Moïse’s final chapter is a cautionary tale to lower and middle-class Haitians, especially visibly Black Haitians, aspiring to future public service. Political and economic elites within and outside the country used his rags-to-riches storyline to get him into power, then tried to control him. When he tried to wield power for his own benefit, by challenging the old guard that had facilitated his successful election in the first place, he was subjected to a brutal fate. We can’t understand Moïse’s rise and fall without examining the economic and political forces behind the curtain. The transnational ramifications of la politique doublure’ also spurs class, ethnic and colorism divisions in the diaspora between those who came to the United States with socio-economic capital versus those who are still struggling to obtain upward mobility in the United States. 

For homeland and Haitians abroad, to end the cycle of violence and instability, it is imperative that stakeholders engage in a meaningful dialogue with each other and also include civil society organizations, all the political parties and religious organizations. It is also imperative for the international community, primarily the United States, to stop meddling in Haiti’s internal affairs and let Haitians decide their own fate.

Sophonie Milande Joseph, MUP PhD is a visual artist and the Community Planner & Advocacy Coordinator within the Equitable Neighborhoods practice area at TakeRoot Justice, a community lawyering non-profit in New York City. Her current planning practice centers land use, healthy homes and public housing advocacy. Her research interests include environmental justice, transnational planning, and intersectional feminism. She uses conceptual photography and documentary filmmaking as methodological tools to conduct visual sociology. She currently serves on the board of BlackSpace, a Black urbanist collective of artists, planners, designers and architects that strive for environments that recognize, affirm, and amplify Black agency, discourse and thought. She is co-author of Haitian Women’s Experiences of Recovery from Hurricane Matthew” (2017), and the lead author of Trust and Hometown Associations in Haitian Post-Earthquake Reconstruction (2018). Her writing has appeared in International Migration and Zoning for the 21st Century. She is an Adjunct Associate Professor within the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture in Brooklyn, NY. 

François Pierre-Louis PhD is professor of political science at Queens College, CUNY. His research interests include immigration, transnationalism, and Haitian and Caribbean politics. He served in the private cabinet of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and on the senior staff of Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis in 2007 – 2008. He is the author of Haitians in New York City: Transnationalism and Hometown Association (2006), co-editor of Migrant Crossroads: Globalization, Incorporation and Placemaking in Queens New York (Temple University 2021). His articles have appeared in US Catholics, Wadabagei, the Journal of Haitian Studies, Education and Urban Society, The Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, Latin America Perspectives, and the Journal of Black Studies. He served as a senior advisor for the Haiti-CUNY Program to the Chancellor of the City University of New York from 2011 to 2015.

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