Fritz Alphonse Jean, a U.S.-educated economist who once headed Haiti’s central bank, was installed Friday as the country’s new prime minister to help lead a caretaker government and complete suspended elections that have left Haiti without an elected president or full parliament.
In his acceptance speech, Jean acknowledged that his task is huge: He must not only create the conditions necessary for Haiti to hold free, fair, and transparent presidential and partial legislative elections by April 24, but simultaneously re-establish macro-economic stability.
“I am aware of the task ... that you have entrusted to me to win the trust of all stakeholders in this crisis,” Jean said.
Jean was tapped for the No. 2 job in the government by provisional President Jocelerme Privert. Privert spent two weeks in consultations with political and civic leaders to find a consensus prime minister as part of the Feb. 5 accord outlining the steps for a 120-day provisional government.
More technocrat than politician, Jean’s designation has stirred controversy, raising questions about how long before he and the consensus government he must now form can get to work.
While technically prime minister under Haiti’s amended 1987 constitution, Jean must still go before parliament to get a vote of confidence on his political program. Parliamentarians can reject the program, therefore holding up Jean’s ability to legitimately function. Some lawmakers close to former President Michel Martelly have argued that Jean is neither the consensus prime minister that the accord demanded, nor apolitical, and has roots in the same Fanmi Lavalas Party as Privert.
On Friday, outgoing Prime Minister Evans Paul also logged his objections. Surrounded by members of his soon-to-be-axed Cabinet, Paul accused Privert of violating the terms of the accord. He announced a boycott of the ceremony saying, “We are not going to help lead the country into chaos.”
Paul has been in a hostile public campaign against Privert, 62, ever since the interim president told reporters last week that Haiti was in dire financial straights.
Paul disputed the claims, while pointing out that the former Haitian Senate head, who was elected provisional president on Feb. 14 in a joint session of parliament, is the main beneficiary of the accord, which he helped negotiate. The same criticism, however, was made of Paul when he was tapped by Martelly in December 2014 to lead a consensus government after a presidential commission he sat on called for the removal of Martelly’s friend and business partner, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, to stave off a worsening political crisis.
Privert called on Haitians to set aside personal interests and work to help Haiti get out of the current crisis.
“We are all Haitians,” he said. “Let’s stop wasting time.”
Governor of the Banque de la République d’Haïti (BRH) from 1998 to 2001, Jean was the choice of human-rights organizations. Some interpret his selection as a sign that Privert views the provisional government’s role as broader than merely organizing elections. Privert also believes it should prevent a total collapse of the Haitian economy.
Since October, Haiti’s domestic currency has dropped in value by 17.75 percent and a factory worker today earns less today —$3.87 a day — after a hike in the minimum wage than before.
“The country’s finances are in an alarming and catastrophic situation,” Privert said last week during his first news conference.
A week before Privert took office, Martelly had stepped down from the presidency without an elected successor because of the disputed elections.
Privert has said that he intends “to do everything in my power, everything that depends on me, everything that depends on my ability, to meet the deadline and act in strict compliance with the deadline.” While trying to find a prime minister, he has also asked various sectors to designate individuals to fill six vacant seats on the Provisional Electoral Council.
Among the names that have been sent in is that of Jacques Bernard. A U.S. Agency for International Development employee, Bernard was designated by business leaders. He is considered a leading expert on Haiti’s electoral system. He served as executive director of the electoral council in 2006 but fled the country after citing fears for his life. He was tapped again in the 2010 elections to help verify the vote. Bernard’s name was proposed last year, but U.S. officials opposed his appointment.
A fiscal expert and former director of the Haitian revenue service (DGI), Privert has announced sweeping changes to reduce government spending. The new government, he has said, will have no more than 15 ministers. He also has not ruled out a financial audit to look into allegations of mismanagement and corruption by the Martelly administration.
He also asked Paul to suspend all appointments to public institutions, including foreign embassies and consulates, where dozens of nominations were made on the eve of Martelly’s departure. Firing back in the news media, Paul this week said the appointments were requested by legislators. He and Finance Minister Wilson Laleau also disputed Privert’s bleak view of the country’s finances, saying there is no reason for alarm.
Sources close to the president said that while organizing elections remains a top priority of the administration, so too is taking control of the country’s finances. In recent days, the palace has raised questions about a number of disbursements, including the granting of a $20 million line of credit by Laleau to an Israeli firm to control the country’s border with the Dominican Republic. Laleau defended his decision Thursday morning during an interview on Magik 9, saying the contract existed before the change of administrations.
In a communique, the palace has also demanded the return of all state-owned vehicles from former employees of the Martelly administration.
A vocal critic of the Martelly government’s unbridled spending, Jean was born in Cap-Haïtien and calls the town of Sainte-Suzanne in the northeast, home. A proponent of development of Haiti’s neglected northern region, he serves as president of the chamber of commerce of the Northeast Department.
Between 2007 and 2010, Jean was president of YMCA-Haiti. He’s a founding member of the Haitian Stock Exchange and an advocate of tourism promotion. He studied economics and mathematics at Fordham University and the New School for Social Research in New York before pursuing his professional career in Haiti.
In 1996, Jean was named vice governor of the central bank. Two years later, he was appointed governor. During his tenure, he signed the contract that led to the construction of the bank’s gleaming building in downtown Port-au-Prince. The move put him in conflict with then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and forced his 2001 departure from the bank.