PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As the public appearances of President Jovenel Moïse fade with Haiti’s deepening political turmoil, dozens of people from political parties old and new are vying to become the country’s next leader as they seize on widespread discontent.
They range from a wealthy businessman with no political experience who owns a chain of grocery stores to veteran opposition leaders trying to gain a stronger foothold in Haiti’s politics.
Moïse still has more than two years left in his term after taking office in February 2017 and says he will not step down, but protesters seeking his resignation vow to continue with violent demonstrations that have shuttered businesses and kept 2 million children from going to school for nearly a month. Nearly 20 people have died and about 200 injured in protests fueled by anger over corruption, rising inflation and scarcity of basic goods including fuel.
“It’s a completely dysfunctional country,” said Benzico Pierre with the Center for the Promotion of Democracy and Participatory Education, a Haitian think tank. “There’s no trust in the institutions.”
It’s a concern that Carl Murat Cantave, president of Haiti’s Senate, acknowledged in a speech televised Tuesday as he warned that Haiti’s crisis is “rotting.”
He urged Moïse to launch a dialogue and said all options should be placed on the table.
“The country needs a genuine re-engineering so it can move forward because everyone is failing as a leader,” he said in Creole. “Only the people right now have legitimacy.”
Hours after Cantave’s speech, Moïse’s office issued a statement saying he has named seven people charged with leading discussions to find a solution to help end the crisis. Among them is former prime minister Evans Paul, who recently told The Associated Press that he believes Moïse has several options, including nominating an opposition-backed prime minister and shortening his mandate.
On Wednesday, opposition leaders rejected Moïse’s statement and said they are organizing another large protest for Friday.
In her first public comments on Haiti’s current situation, U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison told the AP that the country needs a functioning government that can address people’s pressing needs. She urged all elected leaders, including Haiti’s president, senators and deputies, to work together to identify and agree on a peaceful way forward.
“We’re urging the various stakeholders to enter into dialogue in good faith, a dialogue launched and led by Haitians,” she said.
Moïse also called for dialogue and unity nearly two weeks ago during a televised speech broadcast at 2 a.m., further angering Haitians. He hasn’t spoken in public yet and only briefly appeared in front of a business called Nick’s Exterminating last Thursday to shake hands with a handful of vendors in the capital of Port-au-Prince before his convoy sped away.
Opposition leaders have rejected any suggestion of dialogue, saying they want Moïse to step down immediately.
Among those leading the protests is an opposition coalition called the Democratic and Popular Sector, whose members include attorney André Michel, who was one of 70 candidates in the 2015 presidential election. On Wednesday, he told the AP that the commission Moïse just announced has no credibility.
“A head of state who respects himself and who respects his people does not create, in times of crisis, a commission of negotiation with his advisers and his spokesmen. This is not serious,” he said.
Michel is joined by several senators as part of the opposition coalition, including Sen. Youri Latortue, who has denied corruption allegations that the U.S. made against him more than a decade ago and who once led a party allied with Moïse’s Tet Kale faction.
“The president has shown he is incapable of governing,” Latortue told AP.
He noted that a company once owned by Moïse was named in a Senate investigation that found that huge sums of money from a Venezuelan subsidized oil program were misspent during Haiti’s previous government. Moïse has denied any wrongdoing. The investigation also named several former top government officials from the administration of President Michel Martelly, who preceded Moïse in office and is an ally.
Opposition leaders have created a nine-person commission they say would be responsible for overseeing an orderly transition of power and help choose Haiti’s next leader, noting that the constitution calls for the head of the Supreme Court, who was appointed by Moïse earlier this year, to take over if a president resigns.
Among those vying to become president is well-known Haitian businessman Reginald Boulos, a former doctor. He echoed Latortue’s expressions and urged Moïse to resign as well.
“There is no way the president can ever recover his credibility, his legitimacy,” Boulos told AP, adding that his goals if elected include the redistribution of wealth and a greater investment in agriculture.
As protesters continue to clash with police, set up barricades and march through parts of Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti, many Haitians say they are eager to welcome a new leader but they also warn that they will keep an eye on them.
“They don’t work for those who are weakest,” said protester and activist Claude Toussaint.
Many demonstrators, such as entrepreneur Pascéus Juvensky St. Fleur, say the protests are not only about replacing a president, but changing a system that they say marginalizes many in a country of nearly 11 million people where 60% makes less than $2 a day and 25% make less than $1 a day.
St. Fleur tapped on a worn copy of Haiti’s constitution as he said that Article 35 guarantees freedom to work and that only all Haitians together can bring about change.
“It’s not one person, it’s not one regime, it’s not a president, it’s not the opposition, it’s not the bourgeoisie, but it’s us who should do it,” he said. “We dream of, and we want, a better Haiti.”