PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti, beset by horrific gang violence, record hunger and another outbreak of cholera, has suffered a new blow: the end of democratically elected government.
That’s left the country of 11 million without a president — that office has been vacant since the assassination of Jovenel Moïse 18 months ago — or a parliament. The national government, such as it is, is run by Ariel Henry, an appointed prime minister who has yet to set a date for elections, who is accused by opponents of being a dictator — and might have been involved in Moïse’s killing.
“We made a huge step backward,” said Dunois Erick Cantave, a member of the Montana Accord, a powerful opposition group made up of civil society groups and political figures. “In Haiti today, democracy is an empty word.”
Democracy here has never been robust. The current constitution dates only to 1987, after the dictatorship of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier. Since then, the country has suffered four coups and an assassination. Moïse, in his last year, ruled by decree.
And it’s still reeling from the legacies of colonialism, foreign occupation and natural disasters, including the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 250,000 people.
But the departure of the people’s last elected representatives is a new low. The breakdown of constitutional order comes as the international community is mulling a controversial request by Henry for armed foreign intervention to restrain the gang violence that has killed thousands, displaced tens of thousands and hindered the delivery of critical humanitarian aid to some of the hemisphere’s poorest people.
The timing could not be worse.
Gangs control vast expanses of the Haitian capital, carrying out what aid groups say is an unprecedented number of kidnappings, brutalizing men and raping women and children. They are believed to have ties to members of Haiti’s political and business elite.
Suspected cases of cholera, which reemerged in October after nearly three years with no new cases, have jumped roughly 60 percent in the past month. Inflation is nearing 50 percent. The U.N. World Food Program said in October that a record 4.7 million people were facing “acute” levels of hunger.
They included 1.8 million experiencing “emergency” levels — facing very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality — and, for the first time in Haiti’s history, 19,000 suffering “catastrophic” levels: an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs, causing extremely critical acute malnutrition, starvation, destitution or death.
“You have a situation where there is no semblance of legitimacy anywhere,” said Robert Fatton, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. “I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the most — if not the most — severe crises that Haiti has faced since the fall of the [Duvalier] dictatorship in 1986.”
Henry, who assumed power after Moïse’s July 2021 assassination with the support of the international community, this month repeated his oft-made pledge to establish a “provisional electoral council” tasked with proposing a “reasonable timetable” for organizing elections.
But he did not lay out a time frame, and analysts say it would be virtually impossible to hold elections under current security conditions. He sought last month to advance a new political accord that he said would facilitate “an inclusive transition and transparent elections.” But it has not received wide backing.
“We are clear: The accord of Dec. 21 is not bringing us anywhere,” Cantave said. “It’s a maneuver of Ariel Henry to give the impression that he’s enlarging the consensus. It’s a stab in the water. … It’s a way for him to stay in power.”
Amid unrest that a regional leader likened to a “civil war,” Henry in October took the extraordinary step of requesting the deployment of a “specialized armed force” from abroad to restore order.
But the request has drawn mixed reactions in Haiti, which has suffered a history of destabilizing foreign interventions, including the U.N. peacekeeping mission in 2010 that introduced cholera to the country. Some fear an international force would prop up Henry’s government. Others see no other way out of the crisis.
The United States has voiced its support for a “rapid action force,” but it does not want to lead one, and has instead prevailed upon Canada to assume a leadership role. Canadian officials have said that any form of intervention must have political consensus in Haiti, which has proved elusive.
Canada in recent months has deployed several missions to Haiti to assess needs, provided armored vehicles to Haitian police and imposed sanctions on individuals it accuses of providing financial and operational support to gangs. They include former members of Henry’s cabinet, business executives, ex-prime ministers and former president Michel Martelly.
The United States has also provided equipment to the Haitian police, imposed its own sanctions on a smaller group of Haitian officials and levied visa restrictions on 32 Haitians and their immediate family members for alleged involvement in corruption.
“We’re leading the way on sanctions,” Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. this month, “and frankly, we’d like other governments to play a stronger role, including the United States.”
A State Department spokesperson said the United States has “different legal authorities and requirements” for sanctions than Canada.
“The United States does not preview sanctions actions,” the spokesperson said. “As we continue to closely monitor conditions on the ground in Haiti, we will take appropriate actions promoting accountability for malign actors who provide support to gangs, foment violence and undermine peace and stability.”
The agency said the departure of the Haitian senators “further underscores the need to reach a political accord to enable free and fair elections and restore democratic order in Haiti.”
Thousands of Haitians in recent months have fled for the neighboring Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and the United States, many undertaking perilous journeys on overcrowded, rickety boats. Few have found refuge; thousands have been sent back home.
The Biden administration has announced that up to 30,000 migrants from several countries, including Haiti, will be able to enter the United States on “parole” each month if they have financial sponsors. Most of those who attempt to enter the United States without authorization will be expelled to Mexico.
Georges Michel, a historian who participated in consultations on Haiti’s 1987 constitution, said he still has faith in the future of the country.
“All Haitian democrats must remain vigilant to protect the gains” afforded by the constitution, he said.
“We have 37 years of practice with public liberties, [and] two generations of Haitians do not know the dictatorship,” he said. “That’s important.”