A powerful Haitian opposition group is demanding the United States withdraw its support for the government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry in Haiti, saying the administration’s legitimacy is tarnished by delayed elections and Henry’s potential connection to the assassination of the country’s president.
The opposition group, called the Montana Accord, has called for the United States to act by Monday, the date on which President Jovenel Moïse had vowed to step down, before he was gunned down in his home last year. The government will be rendered unconstitutional by Monday, according to the Montana Accord and independent experts.
The showdown has left the Biden administration in an increasingly uncomfortable position. Afraid that Haiti may slip further into chaos, the United States for now is supporting the status quo: a ruling party that has governed for about a decade and seen the power of gangs explode across the country and corruption run rampant.
“When we look at the history of Haiti, it is replete with the international community reaching into Haitian politics and picking winners and losers,” said Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, in January. “Our goal in terms of the US government is to avoid that.”
As doubts mount that the Henry administration can hold elections this year, anti-government demonstrations have erupted throughout Port-au-Prince, the capital, and local gangs have used the moment of rising uncertainty to expand their territory.
Adding to the instability, gangs stormed the airport road Friday, shutting down businesses and putting Haiti’s police force on high alert in anticipation of more violence Monday.
The Montana Accord has called for the formation of a transitional government, with its leader, Fritz Alphonse Jean, at the helm to restore security before ultimately holding elections. By continuing to support the current government, the group says, the United States is essentially choosing a side.
“Insecurity is rampant; fear of kidnapping and rape are the everyday situation of the average Haitian,” Jean said in an interview Friday. “This is a state of disarray, and the Henry government is just sitting there unable to address those challenges.”
Analysts acknowledge that a transitional government led by the Montana Accord would also be unconstitutional. But they say it would have more legitimacy than the Henry government because the group — made up of civil society organizations and powerful political figures — represents a wider array of the population than the current government, which was voted in with an abysmally low turnout.
“What’s the most constitutional government you can have at the moment? The short answer is zero,” said Alexandra Filippova, a senior staff attorney at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a think tank focused on improving the justice system.
“So the next best question is, what moves you closer to a legitimate constitutional government? We see that the Montana group is a flawed process, but is the best way forward to creating a path for a legitimate government.”
Senior American officials have urged the Montana Accord to work with Henry’s government to chart a path forward and acknowledge that the group is an important partner in achieving a broadly representative political system to help steer the country toward elections.
Henry has said the next government must be formed through elections, not a transitional government.
The Montana Accord contends, however, that Henry has not created a feasible blueprint to improve security and to hold free and fair elections safely amid widespread gang violence, surging corruption, and a disillusioned Haitian population.
Adding to the distrust, Henry may also be implicated in Moïse’s killing, opposition members say.
In September, Haiti’s top prosecutor claimed the prime minister was in touch with the chief suspect in Moïse’s death in the days before and hours after the assassination. The prosecutor asked the justice minister to charge Henry formally in the assassination. Henry swiftly fired both officials.
Phone records obtained by The New York Times and an exclusive interview with another suspect in the assassination also bolster those accusations. Henry has denied the allegations.
“The whole system is not trustworthy,” said Monique Clesca, a member of the Montana Accord. “There is no way you can go to elections with Ariel Henry; nobody trusts him after this assassination.”
So far, American officials have dismissed the accusations against the prime minister while urging the government and the Montana Accord to achieve a consensus. Henry, a senior American official said in an interview this month, is viewed as a caretaker and does not have the United States’ unconditional support.
Average Haitians are skeptical that either the government or the opposition can improve their lives.
“There’s nothing to expect from the decision-makers; they always look out for themselves,” said Vanessa Jacques, 29, an unemployed mother.
Jacques described a feeling of insecurity so deep that it has paralyzed her life, preventing her from attending university or running errands.
“Living in Haiti, you have to look out for yourself, or no one else will,” she said.
Recent presidential elections in Haiti have been plagued with problems and unrepresentative of the population. Moïse was elected in 2016 with only 600,000 votes, of a population of nearly 6 million eligible voters. His predecessor, Michel Martelly, was elected in a controversial election in which the United States was accused of intervening on his behalf.
Still, many Haitian leaders see elections as the only path forward.
“Elections are a must,” said Edmond Bocchit, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States. “Now it’s a matter of when and how are we going to get together to get it done.”
Although some business leaders in Haiti say Henry has questions to answer regarding Moïse’s assassination, they add that he has been able to keep the situation from unraveling and also achieved an important goal: raising fuel prices. Fuel subsidies have nearly bankrupted the state, and the previous government was unable to remove them without setting off riots.
“The country has to keep moving,” said Wilhelm Lemke, president of the Haitian Manufacturers Association. “And they’ve kept it from unraveling,” he said, but Henry needs to reach out to the opposition to form a more representative government. He stressed that Henry had to sit down with the opposition to reach a broader political accord.
But “the prime minister should address the inferences that he may be part of the assassination and all that. By not addressing it, you’re bringing water to your detractors,” he said. “And you’re diluting your moral authority.”