Haiti President Jovenel Moïse has tapped a longtime government bureaucrat, who once served as a courier in public administration before rising to the job of culture minister, to lead his third government in two years.
Acting Prime Minister Jean Michel Lapin, who was promoted to the No. 2 job last month after lawmakers in the Lower Chamber of Deputies fired Prime Minister Jean Henry Céant after only six months, was announced by Moïse in an early morning tweet Tuesday before he left Port-au-Prince for Panama. Lapin will now spend the next days forming his government before going in front of the chamber of Deputies and the Senate to be ratified with a vote on his political program.
Under Haiti’s constitution, Lapin is technically prime minister, in charge of running the day-to-day affairs of the financially struggling and crisis-laden country. But parliament can still reject his nomination — as it did in 2016 after interim President Jocelerme Privert nominated U.S.-educated economist Fritz Jean as prime minister — by voting down his political program.
In an interview with the Miami Herald last month, Moïse said he was in search of a prime minister who wasn’t divisive, who could maneuver among the different political factions and had good relations with the international community.
“We are looking for a man or a woman who binds ... someone who isn’t an irritant, who can talk to everybody regardless of their political leanings,” he said. “Secondly, we are looking for someone who is going to work in their role as prime minister ... to focus on the development of the country. ... And thirdly, a person who has good relations with the international community.”
But given Haiti’s violent economic storm, some critics say you don’t give command of a sinking ship to an inexperienced captain.
“We do not have the feeling that the capacity to tackle economic challenges was taken into account in the selection process of the new prime minister,” Haitian economist Etzer Emile said. “The president may not have learned the lesson that the fall of the first two prime ministers was accelerated by the worsening of the economic problems.
“If jobs creation, cost of living, economic growth, investment, all these factors are not driving the selection process of a new prime minister, we will have to get ready for another prime minister in the next six months,” Emile added.
Others say the country’s problem isn’t the prime minister but rather a failed system that has existed for more than 200 years without results.
“Whether it’s Lapin or someone else, the country is aligned with a sociopolitical system that’s in place ... and has not produced any change for the youth or women, a system that needs to change,” said Andre Michel, a lawyer who has been leading opposition protests and calls for Moïse’s resignation.
Michel says his position and that of other opposition leaders has not changed with the selection. This is also why, he said, several opposition parties refused requests from Moïse in recent days to meet over the formation of the next government.
“We are not interested in negotiating over government posts, and we continue to call for the resignation of Jovenel Moïse, a legal process into the PetroCaribe corruption scandal and a move toward a national dialogue conference among Haitians,” Michel said.
Moïse’s selection of Lapin came after meeting with some political parties and consulting with the presidents of both chambers of parliament about his choice. He presented a list of 12 names, which included three women. He had narrowed his list to three, he told the chamber presidents on Saturday.
In addition to Lapin, the short list included: Gabriel Fortuné, the divisive mayor of the city of Les Cayes and a former senator; and the former Haiti consul general to Boston, Marjorie Alexandre Brunache. The daughter of former caretaker president Boniface Alexandre, Brunache, a lawyer, is married to Michel Brunache, who served as a justice minister under ex-president Michel Martelly and then as special adviser to Martelly’s prime minister, Laurent Lamothe.
“I am not convinced that the three candidates have the skills and experiences to deal with this economic crisis,” Emile said. “I have the feeling our authorities are not aware that the country is facing one of the worst or maybe the worst economic crisis in the last 20 years.”
Lapin is a relative unknown despite his years in public administration and having served under the last four Haitian presidents, dating back to René Préval. He started as a messenger in government, and then became an administrator in the ministry of culture and communications before becoming its executive director after Prèval’s Lespwa political coalition achieved victory under Sen. Joseph Lambert.
A native of Jacmel, a port city in the southeast, he was one of the few officials in the Martelly administration who managed to keep his job during Privert’s 2016 interim presidency. In September 2018, after the resignation of Moïse’s first prime minister, Lapin became culture minister in the new government.
During a visit to Miami during Art Basel in December, Lapin told the Herald that one of his goals as culture minister was to strengthen the bond between Haitians in the diaspora and those in Haiti by promoting Haiti’s cultural events like Carnival overseas. Some who have worked with him have criticized his lack of organizational skills, while wondering about his ability to rise to the challenge of being prime minister.
If ratified by parliament, Lapin faces a tough challenge. He will need to quickly get a budget voted in parliament so as to not delay or lose about $100 million in international aid disbursements to help provide relief to the country’s 11 million residents. Haiti, which had a record $350 million budget deficit, is facing a $450 million deficit this year.
Inflation is at 17 percent, its highest since 2008, and unemployment, assumed to be over 50 percent, could get worse. Foreign factory owners, already facing difficulties with an ongoing fuel shortage, are warning that a recent vote by the chamber of deputies to raise the minimum wage for factory workers from $4.99 a day to $8.92 could lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. The Senate has not yet voted on the proposal.
With the economy a mess, and Haitians fed up with government corruption and dysfunction, the country has seen more than 200 protests, many of them violent, since December. The worst of the demonstrations led to a 10-day shutdown, with businesses and schools unable to function throughout the country in February, prompting a Level 4 travel warning from the U.S. State Department.
Protesters have been calling for the president’s resignation, and an investigation into the funds from a Venezuela oil program, PetroCaribe, that was supposed to be invested in social programs. Two Senate commission reports say that most of the funds, about $2 billion, were embezzled by government ministers and supporters. A report by the country’s superior court of auditors has also raised questions about how the funds were distributed and government contracts were distributed.
By October, the country could also be without a U.N. peacekeeping mission, forcing its national police force to shoulder the burden of providing security for the first time since it was rebuilt 15 years ago. Local and legislative elections are also due to occur that same month.
Meanwhile, Haitians are facing recurring blackouts and fuel shortages due to the government’s inability to pay fuel suppliers. On Sunday, Haitians continued to form long lines at gas stations trying to purchase fuel while a boat sat off the coast of Port-au-Prince with 150,000 barrels of gasoline. U.S.-based supplier Novum had placed the fuel delivery on hold, waiting for the government to pay $58 million in arrears.
In addition, the government has wracked up $2.5 million in penalties for not being able to unload the gas — more than 20 percent of the price of the gas itself.
“The situation has become untenable for Novum and as such our vessel, the MT Nord Innovation, carrying 150,000 barrels of gasoline, has remained outside of Haiti since February 27 awaiting payments and a formal schedule of when we can expect to receive the remaining amounts outstanding,” Chris Scott, the company’s chief financial officer, said last week.
On Saturday, the same day that Moïse met with lawmakers to discuss his choice of prime minister, Scott said that while a partial payment had been made, the company was “doing everything we can to grant as much payment time as possible within our means, but we have reached a point where we cannot go any further than this. Essentially we are now granting more than four months of credit.”