The United States’s top diplomat has urged Haitian political leaders to work towards holding elections later this year, a demand top civil society activists in Haiti and other experts have pushed back against as “a mistake” amid deep political instability.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Haitian leaders “to bring the country together around a more inclusive, peaceful and secure vision and pave the road toward free and fair elections this year”.
The US and the United Nations have said legislative and presidential elections planned for September in the Caribbean nation should go ahead despite last week’s assassination of President Jovenel Moise.
But the killing has thrown the country, which already faced widespread political instability and surging gang violence, into further disarray – and leading civil society groups as well as rights activists say holding a vote may not be the best way out of the crisis.
The Haitian authorities have accused 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans of being part of a crew of mercenaries that opened fire on Moise and his wife, Martine Moise, in their home in Port-au-Prince in the early hours of July 7.
Seventeen Colombian suspects have been arrested and three have been killed, the authorities announced, after interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph ordered a 15-day “state of siege” across the country.
On Sunday, Haiti said it had arrested the alleged mastermind behind Moise’s assassination, a Haitian man living in the US state of Florida named Christian Emmanuel Sanon.
But the motive remains unclear, and questions continue to swirl around who was involved in the killing, as well as what comes next in Haiti’s fractured and largely defunct political system.
Moise had been governing by decree since last year, while opposition groups, civil society organisations and leading jurists said his presidential term had ended in February, spurring mass protests urging him to step down.
Many state institutions are not functioning, while the country’s constitution is unclear about who should lead the government. Joseph claimed authority but that has been challenged by two other senior politicians, Prime Minister-designate Ariel Henry and Senate President Joseph Lambert.
After Moise’s killing, Joseph called for the US and UN to send troops to Haiti to secure key infrastructure last week. US President Joe Biden’s administration so far has said it has no plans to do so, but it has not completely ruled it out.
The idea of sending US troops was rejected by Haitian journalist and activist Monique Clesca, who told Al Jazeera in an interview on Sunday that the history of such deployments in Haiti “is abysmal”.
“Any help we can get in terms of an investigation team is excellent,” she said, referring to the ongoing investigation into Moise’s killing. “But we certainly do not need a team of US boots on the ground and I’m very glad that they have said no, and I hope that they will continue to say no.”
US government officials travelled to Haiti on Sunday and later met all three top Haitian political leaders – Joseph, Henry and Lambert. Emily Horne, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, said the US delegation encouraged open and constructive dialogue to reach an agreement to enable Haiti to hold free and fair elections.
The US occupied Haiti from 1915, after the assassination of Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, until 1934. “It was an occupation that left Haiti worse off than it was before,” said Clesca, adding that UN missions to Haiti historically also have had a negative effect.
“We do not want that,” she said. “We must be clear on the way forward, and the way forward must be Haitians, civil society and politicians, coming together.”
Meanwhile, leading Haitian human rights advocate Pierre Esperance on July 9 urged Biden to take a different approach to the country than his predecessors.
“In the current state of insecurity in Haiti, the Biden administration must work to create the conditions in which we, the Haitian people – not the United States and the international community – can decide the future of our country, strengthen our democracy, and guarantee our basic human rights,” Esperance wrote in a column for website Just Security.
Esperance pointed to gang violence that surged under Moise’s presidency – and led to hundreds of killings, kidnappings and mass displacement – and described as “shameful” Washington’s continued push for elections in September against that backdrop.
That is “a path sure to result in sham outcomes and countless deaths of Haitian citizens”, he said.
“In such a violent, lawless environment where no credible state institutions function – a situation which Moise cultivated and which ultimately cost him his life – how could opposition candidates campaign safely? How could people turn up to vote and know they will get home alive? How could people trust in the results?”
Andre Michel, a Haitian lawyer and political opposition leader, also said on Friday night that “the solution to the political crisis must be Haitian and largely concerted between the political class, civil society, the Diaspora and grassroots groups”.
“Any other process is unhealthy and dead on arrival,” he tweeted.
The Biden administration’s push for elections has also drawn questions in the US.
“U.S. Haiti policy is at a crossroads,” Democratic Congressman Andy Levin tweeted on Monday. “Will we back an empty form of democracy, demanding elections ASAP even if they aren’t free/fair to focus on choosing among illegitimate pretenders to power? Or will we back Haitian civil society as they do the work to restore real democracy?”
Peter Mulrean, who served as US ambassador to Haiti from 2015 to 2017, also wrote in another Just Security column that forcing Haitian elections to take place this year “would be a mistake”.
“The degradation of Haiti’s democracy is now at a critical point, perhaps the point of no return. It is tempting to think that new elections will clarify the situation and restore stability, but experience teaches us just the opposite. What Haiti needs is to take stock of what is broken and fix it. That is what a broad coalition of opposition parties and civil society is calling for,” Mulrean said.