Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters

Haiti’s Protests: Images Reflect Latest Power Struggle

Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters

Protests have escalated across Haiti this year amid a dispute over whether President Jovenel Moise is governing beyond his term limit. Public discontent is a regular feature of life in the Caribbean’s poorest country. In the latter half of 2020, it saw an average of eighty-four demonstrations each month, according to the United Nations. The current protests, many in the capital of Port-au-Prince, signal a deeper and potentially more dangerous political crisis, experts say.

Haitians protesters hold up signs denouncing kidnappings committed by gangs and the inclinations for a new dictatorship that the government wants to set up.
Haitians in Port-au-Prince on February 28 warn against a return of dictatorship and denounce a recent surge in kidnappings. Reginald Louissaint Jr./AFP/Getty Images
A crowd of protesters march through the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Mass protests on February 28 were the largest this year demanding President Jovenel Moise’s departure. Reginald Louissaint Jr./AFP/Getty Images
Barricades burn in Haiti in protest against President Jovenel Moise
Police confront anti-government protesters on February 14. Authorities have cracked down on demonstrators in recent weeks. Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters
A car burns as demonstrators march in Port-au-Prince
Fires and roadblocks are common forms of protest in Haiti, but Moise declared them acts of terrorism late last year. Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images

Opposition groups say Moise’s five-year term ended on February 7, and some want Joseph Mecene Jean-Louis, a former Supreme Court judge, to serve as interim president until new elections are held. But Moise argues that his term lasts until next year because an interim government ruled Haiti for a year before he was named the winner in a chaotic, fourteen-month presidential election cycle. Moise has further roiled the opposition by announcing the arrests of twenty-three people who allegedly plotted to assassinate him, as well as by forcibly retiring three Supreme Court judges, including Jean-Louis.

A demonstrator wearing a Spiderman mask holds photos of Supreme Court Judge Joseph Mecene Jean-Louis, as he takes part in a protest against Haiti's President Jovenel Moise
A demonstrator holds photos of former Supreme Court Judge Joseph Mecene Jean-Louis, whom some want to lead a transitional government. Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters
A female member of one of the opposition political parties speaks through a megaphone during a demonstration in Port-au-Prince.
Opposition groups have held street rallies, such as this one on February 14, though there are rifts within the movement. Members of the political establishment and people outside of the political elite want Moise to step down, but are at odds about the path forward. Reginald Louissaint Jr./AFP/Getty Images
Journalists and protesters holding signs take part in a demonstration in Port-au-Prince
More than two hundred journalists and other protesters denounced police brutality at this January 28 demonstration. At least several reporters have been killed or injured in encounters with law enforcement this year. Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images

The standoff marks another cycle of political instability in Haiti that, combined with natural disasters and other woes, has long hamstrung its development. Sixty percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day, and fuel shortages are common. Kidnappings, including by state-linked gangs, surged by 200 percent between 2019 and 2020, prompting many schools to close. Murders are also on the rise. Since 2015, more than three hundred thousand people, about 2.7 percent of Haiti’s population, have left the country. The United States has the largest Haitian migrant population of any country, though there are also sizable Haitian communities in Canada, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and France. The Dominican Republic has announced plans to build a fence along its border with Haiti to curb illegal immigration and trade.

A man carrying a child walks past burning barricades as opponents of Haitian President Jovenel Moise demonstrate
The protests picked up on January 15, when this man was photographed carrying a child past burning barricades. Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images
The leader of the "Pitit Desalin" party, Moise Jean Charles, rides a horse as Haitian protesters march through the streets
Opposition leader and former Senator Moise Jean Charles rides a horse though the capital. Reginald Louissaint Jr./AFP/Getty Images

Many in Haiti fear the country is sliding back toward dictatorship, recalling memories of repression under the Duvalier dynasty, which lasted until 1986. Moise rules without a parliament—he dissolved it early last year after most lawmakers’ terms ran out in the absence of elections—and he aims to amend the constitution. A draft of the new constitution increases executive power, though it maintains the current limit of two presidential terms. Moise also recast the definition of terrorism to include some forms of protest, and the United Nations says security forces have violated demonstrators’ human rights during his presidency. For his part, Moise says Haiti’s government structure and current constitution have stymied progress on addressing the country’s entrenched problems.

A protesters holds up a sign against President Moise of Haiti.
Many have decried Moise as a dictator, stirring memories of past regimes that perpetrated grave human rights violations. Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images
Haitian protesters hold up pictures of US President Joe Biden, and congresswoman Yvette D. Clark, reminding them to support Haiti and to establish democracy
Protesters hold pictures of U.S. President Joe Biden, whose administration backs Moise, and of U.S. Representative Yvette Clark (D-NY), who has called for the United States to support a transitional government in Haiti. Reginald Louissaint Jr./AFP/Getty Images
 A protester on a motorcycle wearing a wig and smoking a pipe rides through the streets of Port-au-Prince.
A man rides a motorcycle in Port-au-Prince on February 14. Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images

Whether Haiti’s fractured opposition could do better than Moise’s poor track record is unclear. Some observers say foreign powers should step in and help install a transitional government until new elections can be held. However, international forces that have intervened in Haiti in the past, including the United States, support Moise’s claim to another year in office. Moise’s government has pledged to hold presidential, legislative, and local elections this fall. UN special envoy Helen Meagher La Lime has said she sees a democratic opening through prompt and fair elections as Haiti’s only possible escape from this crisis.