PORT-AU-PRINCE — With foreign powers weighing in, Haitian officials announced a new prime minister Monday, in an attempt to resolve a caustic leadership struggle in the wake of President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination.
Claude Joseph, the prime minister who took control of Haiti’s government immediately after the killing, is stepping down in favor of Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who had been appointed to the position by the president before he was killed, the elections minister said Monday.
Since the assassination on July 7, Haitian politicians have been at loggerheads, grappling for control of the government. And the scramble for power is being heavily influenced by foreign countries, including the United States, which has long held enormous sway in the country.
“Haiti has become a baseball being thrown between foreign diplomats,” said Joseph Lambert, president of Haiti’s Senate, adding that pressure from US diplomats was a major factor in the reshuffling of Haiti’s leadership.
As Senate president, Lambert said he had sought to lead the nation after the president’s death. But, he said, the US urged him to stand down.
“I received calls from certain American diplomats in Haiti,” he said. “Also I received calls from diplomats in the US State Department, who asked me to postpone so we had time to build a larger consensus.”
The switch in government announced Monday follows a period of intense uncertainty in the wake of the president’s assassination. But the political maneuvering by Haitian officials and international power brokers was met with anger by Haitian activists and democracy advocates, who said it did not consider what the people wanted.
“It’s as if they have replaced the Haitian people. It’s revolting,” said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of Seeing Eye To Eye, a civil society group that represents more than 1 million Haitians in the countryside, of the foreign powers. “We need the accompaniment of a lot of countries but we can’t accept they make decisions in our place.”
Joseph, the nation’s interim prime minister, had been scheduled to be replaced the week of the killing, but the newly appointed prime minister, Henry, had yet to be sworn in. Both declared themselves to be the legitimate prime ministers, creating a power vacuum that threatened to further destabilize a country that had already been gripped by months of street protests over Moïse’s rule.
At least one senator had called Joseph’s move to run the country and impose a state of siege after the assassination a form of a coup.
But on Monday, Mathias Pierre, the minister for elections, said in a text message that Joseph would step down in “favor of Ariel Henry.”
On Sunday night, Henry released a prerecorded speech addressing the Haitian people on social media channels.
He saluted the maturity of the Haitian people in the face of “what could be called a coup d’état,” and he asked the nation’s political actors to walk along the peaceful path that Haiti’s people have followed.
He said he would announce shortly who would be part of his Cabinet while gathering a “sufficient consensus” to lead an interim government until conditions were met for elections, stopping short of calling it a transition.
“I appeal to the altruism of the Haitian patriots to surpass themselves in order to face together the dangers which threaten us all and jeopardize the very existence of the nation,” he said.
The political standoff in the wake of the assassination was made all the more complicated by the fact that many of the nation’s democratic institutions had been hollowed out during Moïse’s time in office.
Only 10 sitting senators remained out of 30 because the terms of the other 20 had expired and elections were not held to replace them. The lower house is entirely vacant — its members' terms expired last year — leaving Moïse to govern by decree for more than a year before he was killed.
Beyond that, the head of Haiti’s highest court died of COVID-19 in June, depriving the country of yet another means of deciding who should govern next.
In the middle of the dispute, the remaining members of the nation’s Senate also weighed in, saying Lambert should lead Haiti, adding more confusion to the caustic dispute over who should govern.
The so-called Core Group of powerful foreign governments and international organizations that exercise great influence in Haiti — including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the European Union, the United States, France, Spain, Canada, Germany and Brazil — called Saturday for the formation of a “consensual and inclusive” government.
To this end, the group “strongly encourages the prime minister designate Ariel Henry to continue the mission entrusted to him to form such a government.”
Lambert, one of the 10 remaining elected officials in the country, has been among those aiming to fill the void left by Moïse’s killing. After eight of his fellow senators and several political parties declared that he should become provisional president, he announced a week ago that he was going to be sworn in by the Parliament.
Then, he promptly postponed.
Although he had explained in a tweet that the decision had been to allow all senators to be present for the nomination, on Sunday he said the real reason was pressure from US diplomats.
The risk of allowing decisions to be guided by foreign powers, he said, was further unrest.
“Ninety-five to ninety-seven percent of political parties will not accept this. And if they don’t accept this unilateral proposal, it’s certain there won’t be an election,” he said. “Even if there are elections, the results will be refuted, and Haiti will continue on this spiral of instability.”