Haiti’s new government pushes back on U.S. priorities - including Venezuela

Haiti's President Jovenel Moise, right, talks with Chile's President Michelle Bachelet as she leaves the National Palace after their meeting in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Monday, March 27, 2017.
Haiti's President Jovenel Moise, right, talks with Chile's President Michelle Bachelet as she leaves the National Palace after their meeting in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Monday, March 27, 2017. AP

In the nearly two months since Haiti President Jovenel Moïse took office, ​his administration has made several high-profile moves demonstrating a new willingness by the impoverished Caribbean country to buck the desires of the international community, including the United States and its allies.

Jovenel Moïse became Haiti's 58th president on Tuesday, February 7, 2017 during a brief ceremony at the Haitian parliament.

First, Haiti’s government refused to renew the mandate of the United Nations’ independent expert on human rights. Then, it appointed the president of a political party tied to accused drug trafficker Guy Philippe as head of public security in Haiti.

And this week, Haiti’s ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Jean-Victor Harvel Jean-Baptiste, accused hemispheric diplomats of orchestrating a “cosmetically disguised” coup in Venezuela by trying to suspend the country from the OAS, a claim that ran counter to the message the U.S. was trying to send.

Combined, the actions could strain Haiti’s relationship with the U.S. and others in the region. “The U.S. is still the hegemonic power and going against its policies can have a cost,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “It seems to me that...the Moïse government risks alienating the United States.”

A Haiti presidential spokesman did not respond to the Miami Herald’s request for comment.

The United States has long had a big stake in Haiti. The U.S. Agency for International Development is Haiti’s largest donor since the country’s 2010 earthquake. The U.S. government has made available $4.8 billion toward humanitarian relief assistance of which $3.3 billion went for recovery, reconstruction and development assistance.

But Haiti’s needs go far beyond that. It is still suffering from a severe economic downturn, a cholera epidemic, a hunger crisis in regions hit by last year’s Hurricane Matthew — and the United Nations is preparing to withdraw its peacekeeping troops after nearly 13 years.

Still, at the OAS meeting in Washington Tuesday, Jean-Baptiste took a stand against the U.S. position on Venezuela, railing against the OAS and questioning Secretary-General Luis Almagro’s authority to call for Venezuela’s suspension from the hemispheric body. Haiti joined 10 other pro-Venezuela nations in a failed bid to halt the meeting.

“If we authorize the threat of a coup d’etat, cosmetically disguised, against Venezuela, we cannot prevent this from happening against other countries,” Jean-Baptiste said. “What is happening at the OAS at this very moment promises dark days for the hemispheric organization and for our region.”

The State Department on Friday reiterated that one of the goals of OAS members — including Haiti — is to promote democracy. The OAS has called for an emergency meeting Monday on the Venezuela crisis.

“We believe the region has a role to play when a country in the hemisphere experiences the kind of democratic backsliding Venezuela is currently experiencing,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The OAS is the appropriate institution to address these issues. Member states, including Haiti, expressed desire to promote and defend representative democracy and human rights under the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who had warned the Haitian government that it risked losing U.S. aid if failed to side with the United States, called Haiti’s OAS vote “shameful” in a tweet.

“President Moïse is going to have to decide quickly whether he wants to stand with the Western Hemisphere’s worst tyrants, or stand on the side of human rights and democracy,” Rubio later told the Herald. “He has placed U.S. aid to his country at serious risk, and if he does not change his approach to foreign policy will soon find himself with fewer friends in Florida and Washington.”

Lack of experience may be part of the issue. The president, a banana-farmer-turned-politician, is new to power and to elected office, as are many of his closest advisers including newly installed Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant.

He has also shown a disregard for U.S. priorities in the past, openly campaigning with Philippe last year, despite a 2005 sealed U.S. indictment for drug trafficking and money laundering. Philippe has since been arrested and is now being held in a Miami jail until his federal trial.

Or he may be embracing a familiar brand of Haitian politics, Fatton said. “President Moïse may want to demonstrate to his domestic constituency that he will have a more nationalistic foreign policy and will no longer accept what many Haitians perceive as undue and detrimental years of United Nations and foreign interferences in the country’s politics.”

He also may be trying to take a page out of former Haitian President René Préval’s political playbook.

Préval, who unexpectedly died on March 3, managed to keep good relations not only with the U.S. but also with Cuba and Venezuela, when Cuba was still considered a U.S. nemesis. Even so, the political chess player had to confront U.S. displeasure when he flirted with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

“President Moïse has to be careful,” Fatton said. “What is clear is that whatever may be his objectives and policies, President Moïse will not be able to do much to extricate Haiti from being ‘the backyard’ of the U.S., as some American policy makers put it.”

With the exception of Venezuela and Mexico, Haiti and the other countries of the Americas have drawn little attention in the early days of the Trump administration, which is looking for ways to cut foreign assistance. Some are worried that the Moïse administration’s recent decisions could hamper efforts by Haiti supporters in Congress to minimize the damage from proposed cuts to the U.S. foreign aid budget and tighten immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump.

In recent weeks, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers led by Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-New York, has launched an effort to save the State Department’s independent Haiti office, which was created after the country’s devastating earthquake.

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And 10 Democratic and Republican members of Congress representing Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties signed onto a letter seeking the extension of Haiti’s Temporary Protected Status designation. Set to expire on July 22, the designation allows Haitians to live and work freely in the United States without fear of deportation.

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“Haiti has one of the largest U.S. assistance packages in the hemisphere, so even under the best circumstances it would be prone to paring,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/ Council of the Americas, a New York-based policy association focused on the Western Hemisphere. “Anything that calls into question the country’s commitment to democracy, anti-corruption and counter-narcotics [efforts] will just make it that much easier for budget cutters in Washington to take a long and serious look at reducing U.S. assistance there.”

Rubio echoed those sentiments.

“If the Haitian government is going to provide political cover for Nicolás Maduro’s human rights abuses and assault on democracy, it sends a terrible message about their interest in safeguarding and strengthening democracy and human rights at home,” he said.

And Haiti’s aid, Rubio noted, isn’t just endangered because of Maduro, whose government has provided Haiti nearly $2 billion worth of loans through its discounted PetroCaribe oil program since the quake. It’s also worrisome that the Moïse administration decided not to renew U.N. supervision of its human rights situation, and to give a top security post to the president of Philippe’s National Consortium of Haitian Political Parties, Jeantel Joseph. Since Philippe’s Jan. 5 arrest and extradition to Miami, Joseph has led demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy demanding Philippe’s return to Haiti.

“If the Haitian government has to exert a lot of energy explaining and justifying to the U.S. and other international partners, it puts a cloud over them and makes it harder for some to justify assistance to them,” Rubio said, adding that it’s important for the Haitian government to be transparent about its human rights record. “As a major recipient of foreign aid and charitable donations from all over the world, taxpayers and donors are going to want independent accountability and oversight measures in place to ensure that their money is not being misused or going to a government that does not adequately protect human rights.”

In deciding to do away with the human rights supervision by U.N. rights expert Gustavo Gallon, an adviser to Moïse told the country’s Nouvelliste newspaper that Gallon’s reports fuel “the international perception of an unstable country under constant threat of civil unrest.”

“The government seems to be betting that it can pick and choose its engagement, and I am not sure that’s the way the world works,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, which has been calling on the Haitian government to reverse its position on Gallon. “What I fear is people will forget about Haiti, and Haiti is not in a position where it can afford to be forgotten about.”