PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Claude Joseph, who has nominally led Haiti as acting prime minister since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, has agreed to step down and hand over power to challenger Ariel Henry, who has been backed by the international community.
Civil society leaders, meanwhile, decried what they say has been U.S. and other foreign interference in propping up an interim leader whom none of them support. Critics say both men were too closely associated with Moïse, who they say was linked to violent street gangs and growing more authoritarian.
“We wish that our international friends would listen to what a large group of the society is saying,” said Monique Clesca, a Haitian pro-democracy advocate and former U.N. official. “Because nobody can decide for us who should be our leader.”
Joseph, Haiti’s foreign minister, was serving as acting prime minister when Moïse was killed in his home. Moïse had appointed Henry, a 71-year-old neurosurgeon, prime minister two days before his death, but Henry had not been sworn in at the time of Moïse’s assassination. Joseph continued to claim he was acting prime minister.
On Monday, Joseph said that he had been meeting privately with Henry over the past week to resolve the leadership dispute, and that he had agreed Sunday to step down “for the good of the nation.”
“Everyone who knows me knows that I am not interested in this battle, or in any kind of power grab,” Joseph told The Washington Post in his first interview about his decision. “The president was a friend to me. I am just interested in seeing justice for him.”
He said that he expected power to be transferred during a ceremony on Tuesday and that he expected to remain foreign minister.
“I’m doing this to honor the last wish of the president,” Joseph said.
Late Sunday, Henry released a recorded address in which he reiterated his claim to the prime minister’s job.
“I give the reassurance that light will be shed and those who carried out [the assassination] and its intellectual authors will be brought to justice,” he said. “I compliment the Haitian people on their political maturity in the face of what we can call a ‘coup d’etat.’ ”
Foreign governments and international bodies initially recognized Joseph’s claim as interim prime minister. But on Saturday, an informal bloc of foreign ambassadors and envoys known as the “Core Group” — including the United States — appeared to change course, emphasizing the need for a “consensual and inclusive government” put together by “designated Prime Minister Ariel Henry.”
U.S. officials said they hadn’t confirmed the transition from Joseph to Henry.
“We have been encouraging for several days now Haitian political actors to work together and find a political way forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “We welcome reports that Haitian political actors are working together to determine a path forward.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the decision of who should lead Haiti rests with the Haitian people, but the United States is committed to “doing all we can to support the formation of a unity government that is inclusive and that puts Haiti down a more united path.”
Civil society leaders in recent days have sharply criticized the international community for backing Henry and have insisted on a new interim government decoupled from Haiti’s jostling political parties. Many had been calling for Moïse to step down; they said they would not recognize anyone as interim leader whom the slain president had named.
“We are indifferent to this news. Ariel Henry was designated prime minister by Jovenel Moïse,” said Samuel Madistin, a lawyer and chairman of the board of directors of Fondation Je Klere, a human rights group based in Port-au-Prince. “We don’t have the sense or the conviction that this will change the failed policies of Jovenel Moïse that brought the country to the failure that we all are witnessing.”
“The same regime is continuing with another face and another name,” Clesca said. “This doesn’t change anything in the work that we are conducting; that doesn’t change anything in the reality. It is an imposture with the Core Group and the Americans.”
Members of the Senate, which lacks a legal quorum because of a lapsed election schedule, had voted earlier to make the body’s president, Joseph Lambert, Haiti’s acting president. The international community has largely ignored that attempt.
In an interview Monday, Lambert said the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince asked him on Saturday to stand down from a planned swearing-in ceremony until there was more political “clarity” in the country, but he still considered himself the president of Haiti.
He said he was open to discussing a deal in which Henry would serve as prime minister, but he was concerned that the politicians Henry appeared to be gathering for his interim government were “partisans” who had favored Moïse.
“The best thing would be to find a national consensus,” he said.
Patrice Dumont, a senator who did not support Lambert as president, said the political maneuvering is “carried out outside the Haitian people and far from their interests.”
“The conditions for Ariel Henry’s accession to the prime minister’s office are in total disharmony with the imperatives of our structural flaws and the dangerousness of the economy,” he said.
Henry appeared to nod to the need to win over civil society groups.
“During the last days, I met with compatriots and diverse actors of the national life politics of course but also from the civil society and the private sector,” he said in his statement Sunday. “I intend to continue and deepen these discussions, because it is the only way to assemble the Haitian family, to bypass our divergences and antagonism and to witness a different future.”
In a July 10 interview with The Post, Henry — who does not hail from Moïse’s party and was brought in just before his killing in an attempt to build a broader coalition — described Joseph as his foreign minister. He also said Joseph was in open “rebellion” against him.
Henry suggested that Joseph was seeking to stage a “coup” against Henry’s claim to interim leadership and warned that he would use unspecified “leverage” to gain control of Haiti. He also criticized Joseph’s call for foreign troops — made on the day of the assassination in letters to the United States and the United Nations — as premature.
Joseph would not say whether any pressure had been exerted on him.
“I am willing to do the transfer of power as quickly as possible,” he said.
Widlore Merancourt in Haiti and John Hudson and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.