Haiti plunged deeper into a constitutional crisis on Monday, with rival claims to the presidency, allegations of a coup attempt and police deployed to the Supreme Court.
“We are witnessing the making of a Somalia in the Americas,” said Ralph P. Chevry, a board member of the Haiti Center for Socio Economic Policy in Port-au-Prince.
On Monday, opponents seeking to end the rule of President Jovenel Moïse declared Supreme Court Judge Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis as interim president. The move came a day after Moïse said authorities had arrested 23 people linked to a failed coup to install a different Supreme Court judge, Yvcikel Dabresil. Dabresil was arrested early Sunday.
“The coup failed,” Foreign Minister Claude Joseph told The Washington Post on Monday. “To our brothers in the opposition, our message is: Be patient. Wait your turn and use legal means.”
The sides are embroiled in a long-running dispute over the length of Moïse’s term. The opposition says it ended Sunday. Moïse says he has another year.
Moïse, 52, was elected to a five-year term that was supposed to begin in 2016. His claim to more time is based on a year-long delay in his taking office amid disputed election results.
Moïse dissolved parliament in January 2020 and has been ruling by decree ever since. Opponents see a dictator in the making.
The crisis is an early foreign policy test for President Biden. Moïse was viewed favorably by the Trump administration, in part due to his willingness to stand with Washington against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
The State Department under Biden, the United Nations and the Organization of American States have backed Moïse’s view of his departure date. But a State Department spokesperson expressed caution on Monday: “We understand the Haitian National Police is investigating 23 individuals who were arrested over the weekend. The situation remains murky, and we await the results of the police investigation.”
The spokesperson added a call for legislative elections “as soon as technically feasible, followed by 2021 presidential elections.”
A group of U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, has joined the opposition in demanding Moïse step down. In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) and six colleagues called on the United States to “unambiguously reject any attempt by President Moïse to retain power.”
Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said the group was pushing for a “more aggressive message” in response to concerns of the Haitian diaspora in the United States. But he said he “understood” the new administration needed to maintain a working relationship with Moïse to mediate “free and fair elections.”
Haitians harbored doubts about the alleged coup. Andre Michel, spokesman for the opposition Democratic and Popular Sector, called it “a big joke.” He said the opposition would continue to press for Moïse to step down.
“In the coming hours and days, the mobilization will continue for the installation of the new president,” he said.
The government alleged a plot involving a senior judge and police officials. “They wanted to have the president killed, and then they would enter the palace with the Supreme Court judge, Yvickel Dabresil,” Joseph, the foreign minister, said. “It was a conspiracy.”
Joseph forwarded recordings to The Post that have circulated widely on Haitian social media. They are said to capture a coup plotter discussing plans with the head of palace security.
Armed Haitian police were patrolling the entrance of the Supreme Court on Monday. Joseph said they were there to “protect” justices from potential attacks.
Moïse addressed the nation from the Port-au-Prince airport on Sunday. “The dream of those people was an attempt on my life,” he said. He said he was not a “dictator,” but a democrat.
Civil society groups critical of Moïse have been calling for a transitional government in Haiti for months. Human rights activists and others say his government has ties to street gangs that have been terrorizing the nation. In June, witnesses in Port-au-Prince claimed to have seen gang members ride in the armored vehicles used by the national police and special security forces. Moïse’s government denies the charges and says it is fighting the gangs.
One faction of the divided opposition named Jean-Louis, 72, interim president. In a video address, the judge said he had “accepted the choice of the opposition and civil society to serve the country as interim president for the transition.” Moïse’s justice minister called the man a “usurper” who was violating the law.
Few nations are as vulnerable as Haiti. The country has suffered decades of misery, shedding the yoke of the Duvalier father-then-son dictatorships in the 1980s only to suffer the failure of repeated efforts to lift its population out of dehumanizing poverty.
The 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians and left 1.5 million homeless brought an avalanche of international organizations and promises, finally, of transformative aid. But many of the charities have since departed, the transformation unrealized, leaving a mix of resentment and hopelessness as the country has teetered on the verge of anarchy.
Andre Paultre in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.