The transition in Haiti: Where to now that February 7th has come and gone

February 7th was the day a new government should have been inaugurated in Haiti. The day came and went without a new president, or a new agreement on a process to elect one. It also passed without any significant protests or conflict. Given the security situation, that last bit is not really surprising. 

If the day proceeded without much drama in the streets, it did culminate a week of interesting developments. There was little change in US policy toward Haiti, though Ambassador Brian Nichols had to explain US policy under critical questioning from Congress. There was more movement in Haiti as the civil society driven Montana Accord process took another step forward. On February 7th and 8th there were two important articles about the assassination of Jovenal Moïse which, in different ways, should each put more pressure on the Biden administration and Ambassador Brian Nichols to re-think the United States’ current stance in backing Ariel Henry. I summarize both briefly, with links to the full reports.

US Policy in Haiti

We can start with the non-movement in US policy. Ambassador Brian Nichols, the new(ish) US State Department Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, appeared before Congress on Thursday, February 3, along with others, to discuss the Biden administration’s priorities for the region. Nichols was questioned about US policy toward Haiti, with the most from the House Haiti Caucus co-founder, Andy Levin (D-MI). 

Nichols explained why the US continues to work with interim prime minister Ariel Henry, all the while reiterating the mantra that the US is not taking a side, but rather encouraging dialog among different sectors of Haitian society. Levin once again took the administration to task for working with Henry, who Levin notes has been implicated in the assassination of Jovenal Moïse following the disclosure of communications between Henry and people who are prime sustpects in the murder investigation (more on this below).  

Levin has been vocal for some time in his criticism of the White House for sidelining the Commission in Search of a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. The Commission’s work, which goes back almost a year, led to a road map for a transition laid out in the “Montana Accords,” signed in late July. The Commission and the Accords have been endorsed by hundreds of organizations and leaders around the country (over 900 as of January), and Levin has argued the Commission’s work offers the best, most “credible” path forward. 

Nichols noted that he had met with the members of the Commission and sees them as playing an important role, along with others, in “forging a democratic future” in Haiti. Nevertheless, Henry remains the official representative of the state of Haiti as far as the United States is concerned, and the person with whom Nichols will work.

What all this means is that for now US policy remains unchanged: All roads to a transition must flow through Henry as long as the United States insists on Henry’s central role. The United States, we must remember, alongside other members of the so-called Core Group invited Ariel Henry to form a new government, setting aside then acting Prime MInister Claude Joseph, in the days after Moïse’s assassination. The US State Department’s projection of itself as being a neutral facilitator is thus a bit hard to swallow.

A “looming showdown”

Monica Clesca in Foreign Policy last week that there is a looming showdown in Haiti over the question of elections. On one-side is Henry, backed by the United States, who is promising a process guaranteed to keep the current power-brokers in the PHTK in office. On the other, is the Commission in Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, which has invited the government to participate in the transition process it has negotiated with members of civil society, the “Montana Accord.”

The transition process envisioned in the Montana Accord is underway, if not recognized as official. The National Transition Council, which was elected in January under provisions of the Montana Accord, held further for a transitional executive authority this past weekend. Fritz Alphonse Jean won the election to be head of a transitional presidential council - which will eventually consist of five people, including a seat for someone from the current government if they agree to participate, and Steven Benoit as transitional prime minister. 

Anyone can see that Henry’s circle of support is shrinking while the work of the Commission continues to bring in more people. In January the Commission negotiated a consensus agreement with a coalition of political parties, the PEN, that further strengthens its position on the question of transition. Nevertheless, with US backing, Henry continues to hold an effective veto over any other transition process - which seems to mean sidelining the Montana Accord and the work of the National Transition Council. 

One ray of hope last week, the Epsicopal Council of Haiti’s Catholic Church issued a calling all sides to come together. It is hard to know how much this will influence Henry to come to the table, but it was a welcomed message for civil society organizations. The Episcopal Council had been publicly critical of Moïse’s decision to extend his mandate last year. The Council also called out the government for fomenting insecurity and declared a national strike of Catholic institutions last spring following the kidnapping of a priest and several women religious - a strike joined by private sector entities. Given how vocal the Episcopal Council was last year, its silence in recent months has been curious. The latest statement seems a good sign.

Ariel Henry and the investigation into the assassination of Moïse

On Monday, February 7, the Center for Economic and Policy Research published Jake Johnston’s investigative report into the assassination of Jovenal Moïse. Titled “,” Jake’s report is an absolute must read for anyone who cares about Haiti and is trying to understand what is happening with the murder investigation.

The report starts with the “coup attempt” that ended with a dozen people arrested and lying on a street in Petit Bois on February 7, 2021. As Jake demonstrates, this earlier plot is an important contextual precursor to the assassination, and involves some of the same people.

February 7, 2021 was the day that many legal scholars, activists, and certainly the political opposition, argued Moïse should have stepped down. That morning, however, the news was about a foiled coup attempt. Moïse gave a press statement at the airport about the coup plot, before getting on a plane to fly to Jacmel for the launch of carnival. Moïse lauded the head of the Presidential Security Unit, Dimitri Herard, for disrupting the plot and making the arrests. Herard had actually been in discussions with the folk at Petit Bois for weeks.

Seven months later, Herard was implicated in Moïse’s assassination. Also behind the scenes of the Petit Bois plot was Joseph Felix Badio, the man thought to be one of the main coordinators of Moïse’s assassination, and currently wanted in Haiti. Henry’s relationship with Badio, and the disclosure that Henry spoke with Badio twice in the early morning hours following Moïse’s murder, has many people looking at Ariel Henry as a suspect himself.

In “” Jake brilliantly peels away the layers of this story, moving between the Petit Bois plot and Moïse’s murder in Petionville, with stops in Ecuador, Colombia and Miami. There are some new disclosures, alongside an excellent summation of what has been publicly known. 

The story ends with more questions - we may never know who the intellectual authors of this crime are. But Jake makes clear that the ambiguity is foundational to the ongoing political crisis. Jake closes with this: “The one thing that could resolve it is the truth, an investigation in Haiti that goes beyond the surface and probes the political and economic elite, as well as the role of foreign governments. It is likely to be messy, but only by addressing the long legacy of impunity and international interference will Haiti finally be able to move forward.” 

The day after CEPR released Jake’s article, CNN released its own detailing Henry’s connection to Badio and also documented the various ways Henry has blocked the investigation into the murder of Moïse. 

Of course, the discussion comes full circle, back to the United States:

when asked by CNN why the US continues to support a prime minister that investigators have clearly implicated in the presidential assassination, a US State Department spokesperson conspicuously made no mention of backing Henry, and referred CNN to the US Department of Justice and to the government of Haiti.

CNN also asked why the US government has stayed so quiet on the claims against Henry.

"The United States has vocally and repeatedly supported a thorough, independent investigation into President Moïse's assassination consistent with both Haitian law and international rule of law standards," said the spokesperson. "We want to see those who planned, funded, and carried out the assassination of President Moïse held accountable. The Haitian people need to see a transparent process and resolution to this investigation to demonstrate that perpetrators of such heinous crimes cannot escape justice."

And yet, the United States continues to back one of the key people implicated in the investigation, making that “transparent” process difficult to achieve.

And a poll….

In survey announced last week, 79% of Haitians said they have no interest in political issues, and 95% said they have no, or little confidence in parliament, political parties, or local authorities; 80% expressed serious distrust of non-governmental organizations. 

Finally, another 82.4% said they were looking for the first opportunity to leave.