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Haiti endures an ‘assault on democracy’ as Moise clings to power

Watch more of our interview with Haitian Ambassador Bocchit Edmond:

Haiti, the Caribbean nation with a long history of struggles, now faces a new level of insecurity as gang activity and kidnappings skyrocket. Critics, including clergy members and civil rights activists in the country, argue that much of the violence is tied to President Jovenel Moïse illegally attacking democratic institutions like the judicial and legislative branches and his allowance of gang leaders to operate seemingly without consequence. In an interview with PBS NewsHour, Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., Bocchit Edmond defended the president’s actions and argued that in his view, most of the country is “quite safe.”

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now Haiti in crisis.

    Political upheaval in the island nation prompted the Biden administration to allow Haitians in the U.S. to renew their protected immigration status. It reverses the Trump administration's efforts to end those protections.

    But, as Yamiche Alcindor reports, anxiety about the future remains.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For months, the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, have been filled with protests. People gather often to demand that President Jovenel Moise step down. They say he is increasingly acting like a dictator.

  • These men chant:

    "Moise is a thief."

    His critics say he took office under bad circumstances, but made them much, much worse.

  • Man (through translator):

    Jovenel doesn't have any respect for the constitution. You are a thief Jovenel Moise. You don't have respect for the constitution.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Gangs have become more powerful. Kidnappings have skyrocketed and become more brazen, like this one caught on a church livestream.

    Civilian deaths are on the rise. People all over the island nation are terrified. They say, even for a country that has long struggled, these past few months have felt like a new rock bottom.

    Even a notorious gang leader, Jimmy Cherizier, known as Barbecue, walks the streets freely, in his neighborhood, hailed as a hero. Critics argue President Moise is turning a blind eye to gangs, at best, and, at worst, colluding with them.

  • Pierre Esperance (through translator):

    He destroyed the police. He is working with the gangs. So, the insecurity of the people of Haiti, as it is today, it is an insecurity driven by the state.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Pierre Esperance is the executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network. He says the fear sweeping through Haiti today is unlike anything he has experienced.

  • Pierre Esperance (through translator):

    What we are living through in Haiti, we have never experienced it before. Even when there was political instability, it was never like this.

  • Emmanuela Douyon:

    Gang members develop strong ties with officials. And you cannot even attack those gangs, because, if they get in prison, they will be released because of strong connection they have to power.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Emmanuela Douyon is a leader of the youth protest group Nou Pap Domi, which means We Will Not Sleep. The group wants a transitional government to replace Moise and organize the next elections.

  • Emmanuela Douyon:

    We're not going to have zero corruption, like, tomorrow, but at least we can make sure that those who are involved in corruption really pay for what they are doing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Moise was elected in 2016, but didn't take office until the following year. He says his five-year term expires in 2022. Others, including civil leaders and clergy members, say he should have stepped down in February, based on the Haitian constitution.

  • Man (through translator):

    We are here to tell the president that he has to admit that he cannot continue to run the country and that his mandate is finished.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Earlier this year, Moise dissolved Parliament, saying most lawmakers' terms had ended. But he rejects the idea that he is on the same electoral timetable as Parliament.

    Moise also forced three Supreme Court judges into early retirement, an act criticized intentionally as illegal. The president claimed that the judges were becoming too political. One of them was seen as a potential opposition candidate to replace him.

    Meanwhile, Moise also wants to change the constitution by referendum, a move even members of his own party reject. The changes would give the president more power. The new constitution would abolish the prime minister role, seen as a check on presidential power. It would also temporarily protect the sitting president from impeachment or prosecution. And it would shrink the legislature.

    Moise insists he will not run for a second term next year.

  • Catherine Buteau:

    There is, in my opinion, an assault on democracy right now in Haiti.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Haitian native Catherine Buteau says her family members were victims of Moise's power grab. She says her parents, a surgeon and a career bureaucrat, are politically outspoken, but not formally part of the opposition.

    But in the middle of the night on February 7, presidential palace guards dragged them from their beds. Along with Catherine's aunt and 14 others, they were accused of plotting a coup.

  • Catherine Buteau:

    They genuinely thought that they were going to die that day.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    When the "NewsHour" spoke to Buteau, her parents had been in prison for six weeks.

  • Catherine Buteau:

    My parents, who — whose only crime, I guess, is to just be concerned citizens, are in prison. And people who have conducted massacres, who have conducted killings are freely — are sort of living freely in Haiti, with no arrest, nothing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Buteau's relatives were released on March 26. But she said their arrest was a sign of Moise's growing authoritarianism.

  • Catherine Buteau:

    The fact that this happens only sort of reflects the sort of dictatorship that is growing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Moise's opponents say his actions recall the repression of Haiti's past. The nation was ruled by Francois Duvalier, known as Papa Doc," and then his son Jean-Claude, or Baby Doc, for almost 30 years.

    It was a period of human rights abuses and corruption. Esperance says the situation under Moise is actually worse.

  • Pierre Esperance (through translator):

    What's different is the fact that, under Jovenel's regime, he has destroyed all of the institutions.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The U.S. says it believes the peaceful transfer of power helps strengthen democratic institutions and has sided with Moise. But Moise's opponents say Biden is breaking campaign promises he made to Haitian Americans when he was courting their votes last year.

  • President Joseph Biden:

    There's clearly no quit in the Haitian community. There is none. And I promise you, there will be no quit on my part as your president.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    These protesters were calling for closer alignment with Russia, brandishing the Russian flag. One was questioned about Biden's promises.

  • Man (through translator):

    What promise? I'm going to tell you something. As long as the American government has gone up, made changes, gone down, they have always made Haiti dozens of promises, yet none have ever been executed.

  • Pierre Esperance (through translator):

    The people of Haiti and the Haitian community in the United States are very disappointed by the Biden administration's politics.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's an opinion shared by younger Haitians like Emmanuela Douyon.

  • Emmanuela Douyon:

    We are afraid that the same thing that happened under the Duvalier might happen now, that the U.S. will close their eyes and let Jovenel Moise do whatever he wants, and, years later, they will recognize that they could have acted better in the — in Haiti, but it will be too late.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For the Haitian government's perspective, I spoke with Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. Bocchit Edmond.

    What do you say to critics who say that the insecurity in Haiti is a direct failure of the Haitian government?

  • Bocchit Edmond:

    I don't think so. It's not a direct failure of our (INAUDIBLE). Those are results of many years of bad governance. And, unfortunately, the Moise administration now today has inherited that. But he has to deal with it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And you said that President Moise inherited this insecurity.

    But when I talk to people they say never in their lives has the situation in Haiti been this bad. You have gangs controlling large swathes of the country. What do you make of critics who say this government is allowing gangs to act with impunity and maybe even aligning with some gangs?

  • Bocchit Edmond:

    Yes, but that would be an opinion, because everybody knows, in Haiti, the gangs are — most of them, they have patrons. They have people behind them. It's not government issues. It's also a private sector effect, because some private sector members, they do have control some gangs as well.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But the biggest criticism, I think, of President Moise is that he's leading Haiti toward a dictatorship, that he's acting like a strongman.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What do you make of critics who say that?

  • Bocchit Edmond:

    There is no dictatorship in Haiti. And those people don't really know what dictatorship means, and they are not under a dictatorship, because, when there was dictatorship in Haiti, even the fact to question or to mention dictatorship would have been a violation.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Moise, he declared that the mandates of the lower houses and senators had ended, but that his term would go five years day to day.

    I wonder why — some critics would say he's counting his dates differently than those in Parliament.

  • Bocchit Edmond:

    Let me clarify that for you.

    President Moise did not dissolve Parliament, like some people are saying, are appealing. But the Parliament terms expired. It is clearly said in the constitution president is elected in Haiti for five years. And five years started February the 7th, 2017.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Talk to me about February — the arrests on February 7. There are people who say those people are political prisoners. I know that they're also accused, of course, of planning a coup d'etat.

    What do you make of people who say they're political prisoners?

  • Bocchit Edmond:

    The first thing I would tell them, they are not political prisoners. They're not. The second thing is, those people, they were involved in a plot.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Why do you think that elections are possible, especially with all this insecurity?

    There are people who say gangs controlling large swathes of the country are going to make it impossible for the government or candidates to campaign.

  • Bocchit Edmond:

    We cannot put the country on a hold, saying that the conditions are not met, we cannot have elections, and while the government has a responsibility to hold those elections and to make sure elected officials are being replaced by elected officials, because we need to stop this cycle of transition.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Do you think it will hurt the democracy of Haiti if, after the elections, a large number of people, including civil society, don't see the elections as credible?

  • Bocchit Edmond:

    Listen, this is what we — unfortunately, we have seen for the last 25 years, since we have been — even more that, since we started to enter in a democratic process.

    Elections in Haiti are always contested. We — you're always going to have people who get 1 percent of the vote, and they say that they stole their votes.

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