“We want to be treated like a nation, not like a little sister or brother you tell what to do.”
The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse last week has left a dangerous power vacuum in the country.
Three men are currently vying for power: acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph; Prime Minister-designate Ariel Henry, who was set to take office the day Moïse was murdered but hadn’t yet been sworn in; and Senate President Joseph Lambert. And because of the political dysfunction stemming largely from Moïse’s dismantling of the country’s political institutions, it’s not clear who actually has the legitimate claim to power.
Joseph has assumed power and has requested US military intervention to help secure the country in order to prepare for new elections in September.
The Biden administration sent a delegation of US officials to Haiti on Sunday to help secure key infrastructure and aid in the investigation into Moïse’s assassination, but it has so far shown little appetite for sending US troops.
Yet it does support holding elections soon. On Monday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for elections to take place as scheduled in September. “We urge the country’s political 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,” Blinken told reporters.
But some Haitian civil society groups say this is the wrong approach. They argue there’s no way to hold free and fair elections in Haiti this year given the collapse of the country’s institutions. And they’d kindly like the US and the international community to stay out of it.
“The international community and the US should just let us figure out our problems and solutions,” Rosy Auguste Ducena, a lawyer and human rights defender with the Haiti-based National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, told me. “Some governments will be asking for elections in September, but today, the situation on the ground is more complex than that.”
Auguste Ducena and her colleagues are instead demanding that the country form a transitional government and chart a new course for the future of Haiti. They want to postpone elections — potentially for several years — to give the transitional government time to rebuild the country’s political institutions.
I called Auguste Ducena to find out more about what’s happening on the ground right now, why she thinks a transitional government is the right way to go, and what, if anything, she thinks the US and the international community should do to help bring stability to Haiti.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
What’s the latest on the ground? Who has power right now?
The situation is a little bit confusing since there’s a fight for power in Haiti. Before his assassination, Moïse changed his prime minister to Ariel Henry [but he wasn’t sworn in yet]. So we have two prime ministers, because Claude Joseph, who was still prime minister at the time of Moïse’s murder, thinks he should be in charge. Henry is also asking to be prime minister too. And there is another group that is asking for the president of the Haitian Senate to become president.
Who of those three would you say has a right to power?
This is also confusing, because in the years leading up to his assassination, Moïse destroyed all the state institutions, so we don’t know what to do. Since January 2020, there hasn’t been a Parliament, because Moïse did not recognize the elections at the time. An article in the constitution states that if there is an emergency, the prime minister can assume power for a temporary period of two or three months.
This is why our organization, the National Human Rights Defense Network, kept asking the executive branch to organize elections. We did not know that the president would be assassinated, but we have long felt that the political situation was not operating as it should. Unfortunately, this is what we have now. But I would also say that in reality, Joseph is the one who’s in charge because he’s the one who’s been making decisions for the state.
What, if anything, can the US and the rest of the international community do to respond to what’s happening in Haiti?
The international community has always been involved in every step of history in Haiti. Today, civil society is asking to have the opportunity to resolve the crisis within Haiti. We should not have any foreign intervention by the military or any other type of intervention, because at the end of the day, we haven’t had good results from intervention so far.
In general, the international community and the US should just let us figure out our problems and solutions. Some governments will be calling for elections in September, but today, the situation on the ground is more complex than that.
This is not only a question of who’s going to be in charge of the country. It’s about corruption. It’s about fixing key state institutions that are not working. This is about who we are as a people and as a nation. So we are asking for the respect of other countries. We want to be treated like a nation, not like a little sister or brother you tell what to do.
So what has Claude Joseph, the man in charge, said about civil society’s demands for a transitional government?
Nothing. I think Joseph feels comfortable since he can promise to hold elections in September, which is impossible. Now that the international community is with him, he feels comfortable.
What about security concerns? There have been reports about gang violence. How can you ensure that the gangs would even respect a transitional government?
There are a few points to make on the security situation. First, Jovenel Moïse and his staff created the problem that we have now because they decided to give guns and ammunition to the gangs to stay in power. We want any government responsible for providing weapons to the gangs to stop.
So today, what we also want is the reinforcement of the National Police and its institutions to fix the security problem. Secondly, from 2005 to 2007, we had the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), and we also had security problems, and they did not intervene [to help]. Finally, at the end of 2007, they intervened because we demanded that on the ground. So you actually can have foreign interventions in your country but still have security problems.
And thirdly, we know that we are a nation. We know that we are part of the world. And we cannot act alone. So we ask for respect and to be treated like a nation with its future in its hands. We might require counseling from other countries, but we don’t want other nations telling us precisely what to do.
You mentioned that reinforcing the National Police would be helpful. How will that happen? How would a transitional government prevent corruption among the police? Do you trust them?
On paper, we have well-structured police. We have special groups for intervention on the ground and community policing. We also have structures to investigate police agents to see if they are implicated in human rights violations. What we need today to do is to match the reality to what we have on the paper.
Another critical point is that our police lack the equipment necessary to do their jobs well. We’ll never know how well the Haitian police can respond until they get the materials they need to do police work. So firstly, we need to give the police the chance to show us if they can improve the security situation.
And then secondly, of course, we know that there is a lot of corruption — not only in the police but in the judiciary as well, everywhere in state institutions. So we will need to work on that, too. This is why I said this is not only a question of elections. This moment is a question of what kind of state Haiti will be in the future. Before even thinking about the election, we need to know what kind of institutions we have.
This sounds like it’s going to be a long process. So how would the transitional government be selected?
My organization doesn’t know exactly how it will be selected, but we would advise that it should be a very inclusive government built by corruption-free people. If there’s a plan and a schedule presented to Haiti’s people, we can work to figure out what’s going to be good for the country. If the international community says, “Let’s have an election as soon as possible,” at the end of the day we will still have the same problems that we had before.
So, today, the best thing is to maybe have a [transitional government] for more than two years, but be sure that we are working to fix the corruption problem, and issues with the judiciary system, because today the judiciary is not working at all.
If the international community doesn’t support a transitional government and elections do go forward, do you think there’s any hope for Haiti?
If we have elections in September, the situation will be worse. And, unfortunately, we will have people asking to leave the country again. Secondly, if we have elections, many political parties will decide not to be involved and not to participate. We should have fair and free elections for every political party to run. I think what the United States is afraid of is to have many more people asking for political asylum. But if we have an election in September, this is something that we should be fearful of.
Do you have any information on the latest in the investigation into the assassination of President Moïse? Do you think it’s necessary to find out first who’s responsible for his murder before a transitional government is possible?
Maybe we should have the transitional government come into power before closing the investigation, because our greater view is that those around him assassinated him. So, if they remain in power, they can hide evidence implicating them in Moïse’s assassination.
There should be a very intensive investigation, because this is a very extraordinary crime that happened. And today, we can see that we have information coming from everywhere, which is very confusing. And the main problem is that those who were around him are still in power.
I know you can’t say for sure, but I wonder why people close to him would want him dead?
We don’t actually know why. But why we think those who were around Moïse assassinated him is because he did not trust anyone. He was permanently secured. There were always lots of cars and people around him at the palace. And we also know that his house was also very secure. So it would not be easy for anybody to come and get inside and kill him and get away. So this is why we think that those around him have assassinated him.
Not even one week since the assassination of Moïse, there’s been so much information that’s come out. It seems like the police are doing a pretty good job so far — finding and arresting people, putting together the plot. How have they been able to do this work? Do you think the US officials coming on Sunday was helpful?
Those who are around him have power. They can manipulate the media and police information. They receive reports before anybody else. So they are still in control, and this is scary.
I think that immediately after the assassination of Moïse, those who were responsible for his security should have been interrogated. Since they were witnesses, they should give information about what happened. But they weren’t arrested, which means they had time to potentially manipulate their stories. This is scary because they can arrest people, can hold press conferences to harass those responsible for the assassinations.
And then, on the other hand, [we] have many different outside versions of what happened that are also surfacing. And this is a reason they should not be in power, because otherwise, maybe we won’t have a thorough investigation.
So this transitional government you envision, which would already be in charge of rebuilding and defining the future of Haiti, should also be in charge of investigating his assassination? Isn’t that a lot for one transitional government to do?
Yes, but maybe we should try it. Because in past years, we used to have electoral transitions only. And this is something that never worked because we always have crisis after political crisis after elections, with people saying that the process was not fair or free. So maybe we should try something else — and something from Haitians.
Will you support Vox’s explanatory journalism?
Millions turn to Vox to understand what’s happening in the news. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower through understanding. Financial contributions from our readers are a critical part of supporting our resource-intensive work and help us keep our journalism free for all. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.
Check your inbox for a welcome email.
“We want to be treated like a nation, not like a little sister or brother you tell what to do.”