Haiti’s Eroding Democracy
Haiti has a new president. But Jovenel Moïse's right-wing coalition is far from stable.
After more than a year of delays, Haiti finally elected a new president this past November. Jovenel Moïse — nicknamed the Banana Man — scored a first-round victory in a sprawling field of twenty-seven candidates, taking over 55 percent of the vote. The banana exporter, who has never held public office, was inaugurated on February 7.
The previous president, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, seemingly plucked Moïse out of nowhere last year, making him the new face of the Haitian Bald-Headed Party (PHTK). Moïse’s win is an extraordinary achievement for a political neophyte, but it has one glaring problem: only 20 percent of Haiti’s voters showed up on election day. Moïse became president with less than 10 percent of registered voters ― only about 600,000 votes — supporting him.
Haiti stands as a stark reminder of the fragility of electoral democracy amid rising inequality and exclusion. After the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, Haiti’s poor majority turned out en masse for general elections, but that cycle appears to be broken. Today, Haiti ranks among the lowest worldwide in terms of voter participation.
Why have Haitians lost faith in electoral democracy? Certainly, the impact of foreign intervention, the crushing constraints of neoliberalism, and the prioritization of economic stability over democracy all played a part. The disappointments and betrayals of left-leaning political leaders, put into office by Haiti’s once-powerful popular movements, only add to this sense of apathy.
Meanwhile, the ruling elite have allied with the last vestiges of Duvalierism to accomplish what they never before could: consolidation of power through elections. After two decades of failed runs and successful antidemocratic subversion, the dominant classes have finally retaken the political upper hand.
But how long can they hold on? The recent arrest and prompt extradition of senator-elect and former paramilitary coup leader Guy Philippe, indicted for drug trafficking and money laundering, has revealed the incoming administration’s darker side. Moïse openly campaigned with Philippe, and his party’s power stems from the electoral success of other unsavory characters.
Whether Moïse’s election presages the dawning of a stable neo-Duvalierist order or simply marks another cycle in Haiti’s political spiral remains to be seen. But Moïse’s rule is inherently precarious.
A few days after the November election, residents of Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil community took turns expressing their frustration with the country’s politicians. A young man explained, “I don’t care who wins, they are all the same.” An English teacher named Fritz interjected, “People ask, what’s the point? They see nobody has done anything to change our situation, so they lose faith in voting.” While Cité Soleil has long supported Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party, only about 10 percent of the neighborhood voted in November. This time, many of them chose Moïse.
“There are obvious weaknesses and limitations within Fanmi Lavalas,” Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told me after the election. “But much of that can be explained by the undermining and overthrowing of the Lavalas governments, which prevented them from demonstrating how democracy can work, and the killing, jailing, and exiling of important leaders.”
When Fanmi Lavalas emerged, it promised to restore Haitian democracy following the years of dictatorship. Its leader liberation theology priest Aristide, had openly opposed Duvalier and easily won Haiti’s first democratic elections in 1990. But just months into his term the old order ousted the popular president, who was forced into exile. Members of the military and the dictatorship created death squads to repress the population and stamp out the popular movement that threatened its rule, killing thousands. In 1995, Haiti disbanded its military, hoping to prevent further coups.
After returning under the protection of American troops in 1994, Aristide became president again in 2000. With no military structure, former soldiers instead allied with elites to lead a years-long destabilization effort.
Philippe — the now extradited senator-elect — played an important role in this campaign. His paramilitary force attacked government institutions and supporters throughout the country, contributing to Aristide’s second ouster in 2004. In both cases, it was later revealed that at least certain segments of the American government had supported the coups.
Meanwhile, international development banks and foreign governments were imposing neoliberal economic policies on Haiti. They privatized state-run enterprises, cutting off the government’s much-needed financing, and slashed tariffs, seriously harming Haiti’s national agricultural production. In 2010, former president Bill Clinton apologized for the impact of some of these policies, though little has been done to reverse the damage.
Fault lies with some of Haiti’s own leaders as well. René Préval, president under the Lavalas banner from 1995–2000, was reelected 2006. By then, however, he had built his own political movement and distanced himself from his former ally, who had become enmeshed in allegations of human rights abuses. Unwilling to cede power to a new generation of leaders, Aristide watched from exile in South Africa as the movement that had broken the shackles of Duvalierism splintered apart. In 2015, former Lavalas members were running under the banner of just about every major party ― even the PHTK.
Twenty years after Duvalier’s fall, living standards had declined, and people began to doubt that elections would produce social transformation. Only two million participated in the 2006 elections, compared to the almost three million who voted six years prior. The decline has only continued. Since then, the number of eligible voters has grown by 2.5 million, but barely more than a million turned out last year.
Haitians’ trust in politicians and their faith in democracy has evaporated as foreign donors have poured billions of dollars into “democracy promotion” programs and a UN military “stabilization” mission that arrived after the 2004 coup to enforce order. Donors fund elections; observers sanctify them; and Haitian elites reap the benefits.
Stability has been a buzzword in Haiti for years, justifying both international interventions and the Haitian elite’s decisions. But prioritizing economic stability over democracy hasn’t improved lives for the poor; rather, it’s ensured that the status quo continues. “[The elites] want stability for themselves, not to improve people’s lives,” Pierre Espérance, the leader of one of Haiti’s largest human rights organizations, told me.
Indeed, creating a stable environment for business doesn’t have anything to do with creating stability nationwide. A former US Ambassador to Haiti explained that, for the private sector, “prosperity works, chaos works, and disaster, ooh! They never get richer than during a disaster.”
Elections are held to create a veneer of democracy that masks the country’s inequality. The former ambassador said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that money runs Haiti” and now questions who really wants elections: the Haitian people or the international community. “Frankly, I’d say the international community does.”
These contradictions came to a head with the 2010 earthquake and the elections held later that same year.
After the quake, the Haitian government was barely functioning, bogged down trying to assist the millions of victims. The billions of dollars in international aid that poured into the country did not go to the struggling government. Instead, it was channeled to foreign NGOs and development agencies — most of which rely on the country’s elite to carry out their work. In a country often called the “republic of NGOs,” the government’s role in citizens’ lives eroded even further.
President René Préval, who was harshly criticized for the government’s ineffectiveness during the crisis, refused to cede greater control to international donors. When he rejected a Clinton-led reconstruction commission’s request to seize and allocate land, he isolated himself even further. This, he believes, led donors — and the United States specifically — to turn on his chosen successor in the 2010 elections.
That November, more than a million people remained displaced from the earthquake. The elections were, predictably, a complete failure. Turnout was depressed, the Lavalas party was excluded, and violence disrupted the process throughout the country.
In the aftermath, a majority of candidates called for a new vote. Behind the scenes, the Préval government, whose chosen successor Jude Célestin had advanced to the runoff in second place, agreed to a do-over. But, from the international community’s perspective, stability meant moving forward, no matter the resulting blow to democracy.
Préval asked, the Organization of American States (OAS), which had observed the elections, to analyze the results. Without any statistical analysis or recount, they determined that Célestin should be replaced by Martelly in the second round.
According to multiple sources, a small team from the American embassy had made the decision before the OAS experts ever set foot in the country. In the midst of historic upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, Hillary Clinton, then serving as secretary of state, took time to personally go to Haiti to make sure everything moved forward smoothly.
E-mails from Clinton’s private server, released thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests, show how the American government collaborated with the Haitian elite to place Martelly in the second round. Reginald Boulos, an influential businessman, wrote to Clinton’s top aide, Cheryl Mills: “On behalf of the Haitian private sector, I want to thank you for the commitment you have shown to Haiti.”
After the United States used the OAS to overturn the results of the 2010 elections, the perception that Haiti’s leaders were chosen by foreign embassies and their local allies was confirmed, rendering voting virtually meaningless. Meanwhile, international donors, having put Martelly in office, stood by the charismatic new president, who announced that Haiti was “open for business.”
The 2010 election would have another long-term consequence: the consolidation of a neo-Duvalierist political movement.
A month before this year’s election, a diplomatic source told me that “there are three kings in Haiti: Préval, Aristide, and the Duvalierists.” If the vast majority of the political class originates from the first two, the latter has empowered the PHTK. Indeed, Martelly has long-standing ties to the Duvalier dictatorship.
As the “bad boy” of Haitian konpa music, he played late-night shows for military friends through the late 1980s and early 1990s. He’s also admitted to belonging to Duvalier’s dreaded Tonton Macoute militia in his youth.
Martelly campaigned around “ousting the political class,” as former prime minister and the then-president’s cousin Jean-Max Bellerive told me in 2015. He explained, however, that Haitian politics have always depended on personal connections: “Inside, everything is possible.” Indeed, once Martelly became president, he repaid his sponsors, making Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s son his adviser. Other dictatorship-era officials spread throughout the administration. Martelly also put the restoration of the military at the heart of this new movement.
In January 2015, parliamentary terms lapsed, rendering the legislative branch dysfunctional and allowing Martelly to rule by decree. For four years, the Haitian government didn’t hold a single election; the constitution required three. Martelly single-handedly appointed mayors and other local officials.
According to Damian Merlo, an American political consultant who worked for Martelly’s campaign and stayed on after his victory, a “Duvalierist clique” tried to convince Martelly to continue to delay elections. But the plan to consolidate power unconstitutionally was prevented. The long-splintered opposition came together, taking to the streets and demanding elections. The old guard ― which had helped overthrow democratically elected governments twice in two decades ― would have to hold onto its power through the ballot box.
They overreached. Across the country, armed men disrupted the vote during the legislative elections. Even the electoral council, widely perceived to be under Martelly’s influence, acknowledged that the PHTK and its allies were largely responsible for this electoral intimidation.
These tactics paid off during the presidential elections a few months later as the vast majority of Haitians stayed home. With turnout depressed, those with the most money stood to benefit, as any advantage they had would be magnified.
At the time, Jovenel Moïse was relatively unknown. He had been a businessman in Haiti’s Nord-Est department and served as president of the local chamber of commerce. In 2014, the Martelly government invested millions in his company, Agritrans S.A., to develop an agricultural “free trade” zone. Despite his lack of political experience, the PHTK’s strategy launched him into the lead.
Pascale Roussy, a political analyst with the European Union election observation mission, explained that “whereas other parties are built from the bottom up, PHTK represents the oligarchy, the elite.” By keeping turnout low, they intensified local power brokers’ influence.
“It’s lord logic,” she continued. “They may not be part of PHTK, but the local leader wants to maintain control of his area for himself, not just for the party.” Roudy Choute, a PHTK representative, put it more succinctly, noting that elections in Haiti are a “science”: “We get local candidates, they bring their voters, and they’ll also vote for president.”
In 2015, this almost worked: Moïse officially received the most votes but failed to win outright. The next three candidates — all from the center-left — received 200,000 more votes combined then he did.
Tens of thousands took to the streets, alleging that Martelly had stacked the deck to ensure his party’s hold on power. They called for an investigation into electoral violence and fraud. The administration and its international allies adamantly forged ahead to a runoff based on the contested results, but they underestimated the united opposition’s power. As the movement grew, the second-round election was indefinitely postponed.
When Martelly’s term officially ended in February 2016, he reluctantly transferred power to former minister-turned-senator Jocelerme Privert. The interim president immediately called for a commission to investigate the elections, which revealed “massive fraud” and recommended that the results be thrown out.
The report represented a serious blow to foreign embassies used to getting their way. But investigating the election was the only way faith in Haiti’s democracy could be restored, Privert told me at the time. “[Elections] have one objective: to save the country, to spare the country from political catastrophe. . . . It is anarchy, or [a] future,” he said about the new electoral process.
The United States responded by withholding funding, but the Haitian government found the resources to fund the elections itself — a first in recent history and a major step toward sovereignty.
There’s a saying in Haiti that Haitians will come together to oust a president but not to elect one. Espérance, the human rights leader who led the 2015 antifraud movement, recognizes this as a main factor in the 2016 election outcome. “Political parties don’t want to work together. . . . There are too many, and they are very weak.”
The leading opposition candidates could not unite around a common platform, so they all stayed in the race, dividing the Left. Meanwhile, on the Right, key private-sector actors lined up behind Moïse. Thanks to a year-long election process, campaign funding soon dried up. In November, the still disenchanted majority stayed home again. In the end, the pro-democracy mobilizations had proved no more than a speed bump in the way of Haiti’s new political machine.
The losing parties contested the results, once again raising allegations of fraud, but most international observers praised November’s electoral process. Espérance, who led the largest domestic observer network, agreed that the elections were largely “acceptable.” He quickly added, however, “We can’t have free elections under the current electoral system.” And that makes Espérance pessimistic: “We have a newly elected president, but you can’t expect anything.” Since the election, he has received multiple death threats.
Granted, Haitian ownership of the electoral process had increased, and technical improvements were made. But November’s elections made it even more clear that a deeper threat had been simmering for some time: Haiti’s elections no longer serve as a means of representative democracy, but have become a theatrical performance to ensure international legitimacy and a steady flow of profit and power to the country’s corrupted elite and their local allies.
With Jovenel Moïse’s election, which came with a working majority in parliament, these criminal elements have consolidated their power and ensured the continuance, however fragile, of Martelly’s neo-Duvalierist legacy.
Martelly was a controversial provocateur notorious for bawdy stage performances, but Moïse has become, at least on the surface, a more polished figure. One diplomatic source said that when the candidate first came to his embassy in 2015, he was wearing a suit several sizes too big, awkwardly draped over his tall, lanky frame. By the 2016 election, Moïse regularly attended embassy parties, events, and even visited the US Congress, now sporting neatly tailored suits.
Moïse has pledged to revitalize the agricultural sector and to prioritize national production. These promises seem ironic, given that his firm must export at least 70 percent of its output to benefit from its special tax status. He has given his word that he’ll better manage the millions of dollars in foreign assistance and work to strengthen the government. He has also pledged to reinstate the military, raising fears of a new wave of political repression.
Although Guy Philippe, perhaps the best known Haitian leader linked to political violence, made a dramatic exit from the political sphere, others remain. Youri Latortue, who backed the 1991 coup as a lieutenant and then allied with Philippe during the 2004 coup, now serves as president of the Senate. A decade ago, a former US ambassador referred to him as the “poster-boy for political corruption in Haiti.” In 2015, the Miami Herald used a popular 2008 Martelly song, “Bandi Legal” or “Legal Bandits,” to refer to the incoming parliament.
Moïse himself was embroiled in controversy before ever taking office. An investigation launched in 2013 by Haiti’s anticorruption body revealed dozens of questionable bank transactions involving his businesses. A government prosecutor is currently reviewing the file to determine if money-laundering charges are warranted.
Will this strategy of elite alliances and local influence maintain right-wing rule in Haiti? Three decades of near-constant foreign intervention and the failures of Haiti’s traditional political class have weakened and divided the country’s once strong and united democracy movement. Elite control, at least in the short term, is now all but ensured.
But the foundation for this “stability” has been built with kindling. With so many excluded from their country’s politics, the viability of Haiti’s electoral democracy as a path toward constitutional order and stability has been diminished. More than two hundred years since Haitian independence, the struggle for freedom will find other expressions.