Haiti Descends Into Chaos Amid Mounting Fears of Dictatorship

Police are upping their use of violence against civilians, and targeting journalists and protesters reacting to the news that President Jovenel Moïse plans to stay in power another year.
February 16, 2021, 5:09pm
People stage a demonstration in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti on February 14, 2021​demanding that President Jovenel Moïse​ resign
People stage a demonstration in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti on February 14, 2021demanding that President Jovenel Moïse resign. Photo by Sabin Johnson, Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Violent altercations between police and civilians in Haiti over the past week mirror the political warfare at play between Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and opposition leaders. 

Several people have died at the hands of the police and dozens sustained injuries during protests, according to videos taken by photojournalists and protesters at the scene. Two journalists were shot while photographing anti-government protests last week, and one remains in the hospital in critical condition. 

The disturbances are the latest in civil uprisings against the president that have been simmering for over two years, but came to a breaking point last week when President Moïse arrested members of the political opposition, claiming an “attempted coup.” Many Haitians believe the incident was actually a kidnapping of prominent opposition figures. 

Opposition leaders and Haitian legal scholars believe Moïse’s term should have ended on February 7, according to the beleaguered country’s constitution. But the president insists he will stay in office for another year.

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The United Nations condemned the use of force against journalists, saying, “In view of the documented allegations, the United Nations is concerned that law enforcement officers have committed acts against certain media actors in the performance of their professional duties. These acts have the effect of limiting the right to freedom of expression and access to information.”

“During the protest on Wednesday, I was hiding behind an electric pole to take a picture of what was happening when police fired several tear gas canisters in my direction at the same time and one hit me in my right leg,” Chery Dieu-Nalio, a photojournalist for the Associated Press told VICE World News.. A colleague helped him stem the bleeding and took him to hospital, he said. 

Judges have also faced police violence. On February 10, a squad of police officers and a judge stood outside the gated home of a former mayor of the capital Port Au Prince, Ralph Youri Chevry. The police officers intended to search the property, but the judge reminded them of the need for a formal search order. The officers threatened to kill him if he would not give them legal permission to enter the home.   

“We denounce this act and we will not accept it. Whatever the rank of a police officer, he remains an auxiliary of justice, so he works on behalf of the judge,” said Magistrate Jean Wilner Morin, president of the National Association of Haitian Magistrates in a press conference. 

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Haiti’s opposition party and supporters insist that President Moïse’s term ended on February 7, according to the constitution. Moïse insists he will remain in power for another year, bolstered by apparent support from the United States Department of State. Moïse has only served four years of a five year term, but was elected five years ago. He spent a year as president-elect, due to disputes over the validity of the elections. Since January 2020, Moïse has governed by decree after failing to hold parliamentary elections. United States Department of State spokesman Ned Price relayed the United States’ support of Moïse’s interpretation of the constitution in a press conference. 

At 2 a.m on February 7, Haitian police arrested twenty-three members of the opposition who Moïse claimed were conspiring to overthrow his government and assassinate him. Since then, Moïse appears to have sustained his efforts to incarcerate or hamstring his political opponents: he fired three justices in Haiti’s highest court, used a column of heavily armed police officers to block the entrance to the courthouse, filed an order preventing the leader of the opposition from leaving the country, and issued a warrant for the arrest of former mayor Chevry on murder charges. He also accused magnates in the electricity industry of plotting to kill him and install an oligarchy.  

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In a statement outlining these events, the National Human Rights Defense Network wrote, “The facts clearly demonstrate that de facto President Jovenel Moïse and his team have established a state of siege in the country… In addition to the palpable terror that characterizes the current situation, they attack with virulence the power of the Haitian judiciary that they want to muzzle.”

Several thousand people marched through Port Au Prince on Sunday, February 14, demanding a new government in a protest that briefly became violent, with vehicles set on fire to which police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. One person died. Protesters shouted phrases criticizing the United States and the Organization of American States for their support of Moïse remaining in office another year and their disregard for the Haitian constitution. 

While protests gridlocked the capital this weekend, President Moïse was out of town watching a very different kind of parade - the annual carnival celebration in the city of Port-de-Paix on the northern coast, where over a thousand police officers were stationed to ensure his safety. 

Though Moïse published a statement indicating he would not remain president after February 7, 2022, some suspect he will push a redrafting of the constitution this spring to elongate his term. Others say one year is too long to wait for a change. 

“Assuming Moise remains in office, it seems reasonable to expect that another year in power will yield more of the same. In other words, more government failures to protect and support the people of Haiti, more violence and a further deteriorating economic situation for Haiti's poor, more corruption, and more government repression against voices objecting to such failures,” said Alexandra Filippova, senior staff attorney for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. 

In an interview with a local radio station, Jean Baptiste Joseph, a commander in the Haitian military, said he was “ready to do anything” to ensure Moïse remains in power.