News analysis: How the prime minister role became a pass-through that failed Haiti and, ultimately, Moïse
Throughout his career in Haitian politics, Claude Joseph had often wondered how the prime minister found time to sleep. Then in April 2021, Joseph was thrown into the grueling role when President Jovenel Moïse called him to ask that Joseph take on the job of leading Haiti’s government.
Moïse, Joseph said, had just accepted the resignation of his fifth prime minister in four years, Joseph Jouthe. A man who had attempted to resign about a month before being successful in his second attempt.
Joseph, then the minister of foreign affairs, did not give Moïse his answer right away. But he gave it some thought and then said yes — out of obligation.
“I measured the responsibility in tears,” said Joseph, during a May interview with The Haitian Times. “I told the president, ‘If it’s for the country, I have to accept.’”
“But I have to emphasize that I’m only prime minister for a little while, for a short time,” Joseph added.
Little did Joseph know then that his temporary term would be extended twice more and that during his final days in the position, he would step into the role of Moïse himself after the president was assassinated in a brutal late-night raid. But it’s no surprise, to be sure, in a country that saw seven different prime ministers during Moïse’s four-year tenure. With each successive leader in that role, the country has fallen deeper into crisis.
“There are different sectors — there’s education, justice, there’s finance, there’s commerce, etcetera — so you have to coordinate the actions of the government so that the government can speak in one voice,” Joseph said in the Zoom interview. “That’s not easy. Then, to add to that, there’s the political climate, the current situation we’re in.”
“We have political actors who don’t want to sit together and put their interests down so Haiti can move up,” Joseph added in the 11-minute recording. “You have to charm the opposition to tell them let’s have a political agreement so we can move on with these two pillars: the constitutional referendum and elections.”
Squashing both the ongoing violence, perpetrated by warring gangs in Port-au-Prince, and the kidnapping-for-ransom racket — collectively referred to as “insecurity” in Haiti — were of the highest priority.
“The president said ‘Listen, we’re going to work on security,’” Joseph said. “That’s why I met with the national police so many times.”
Ironically, the lack of security traversed the streets of Port-au-Prince and reached the President’s door in the worst of ways. An unknown number of assailants breached Moïse’s private home, stomped into his bedroom and fired machine-gun style shots — 12 of which struck Moïse and left him dead. All while his wife watched and sustained several bullet wounds herself in the brazen attack.
To understand how Haiti arrived at the point where even the president can be left so pathetically vulnerable, it is important to look through the lens of its government, or lack thereof. The prime minister’s key task is to establish a government that keeps the country operational. In the case of Moïse’s prime ministers, none formulated a working, sustainable government.
- When Moïse stepped into office in February 2017, Enex Jean-Charles was the prime minister. Jean-Charles was appointed by Joceleme Privert, the previous provisional president whose main objective was to hold elections. The elections under Jean-Charles’s government were allegedly fraudulent and he failed to stop violent protests after Moïse was elected, setting up a tumultuous time at the National Palace for Moïse.
- A month later, Moïse named Jack Guy Lafontant as his prime minister. Lafontant resigned in September 2018, soon after an economic crisis swelled so high that the prices of basic necessities skyrocketed.
- Soon after, Jean-Henry Céant was appointed to the role. Two months later in November 2018, at least 71 residents were killed in a massacre in La Saline, Port-au-Prince. Witnesses accused the government of planning the massacre, according to human rights reports. The police never held an investigation. Residents also accused Moïse’s party, Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK), of pocketing the PetroCaribe funds. Céant didn’t initiate an investigation for embezzlement either. Consequently, residents’ hate for Moïse grew thicker in front of Céant’s eyes. His government dissolved in six months and he was fired.
- Moïse then designated Jean-Michel Lapin to serve as acting prime minister in March 2019. Residents held violent protests demanding Moïse to step down more frequently. Lapin resigned in July 2019 but was kept in office and his presence proved to be futile. The opposition led a “peyi lok” — a shutdown of businesses, schools and other institutions in protest. There was no clear plan from Lapin to stop it.
- Moïse named Jouthe as prime minister in March 2020. Three months after his nomination, Haiti’s most powerful armed crew was formed, G9 Family and Allies. Gangs in Port-au-Prince’s slums began engaging in shootouts on a daily basis. News of residents getting kidnapped and public figures gunned down also became a norm. Constitutional scholar Monferrier Dorval was among the public figures killed. Jouthe said in a press conference that he regularly talks on the phone to all the gang leaders of the country, leading more residents to believe that Moïse was behind the ongoing violence. Throughout these different crises, Jouthe had to organize elections, a constitutional referendum and deal with demands for Moïse to step down on February 7, 2021. A group of 23 people allegedly attempted to overthrow Moïse that day, a group that some have said has ties to former PM Céant. Jouthe tried to resign in March, but Moïse rejected his request. He eventually resigned in April.
- Joseph then took on the role, after that unexpected phone call from the president. Moïse has struggled for weeks to find a politician who was on the same wavelength as he was. There were reports that five different people being considered asked to be removed from his list. Joseph’s term was extended to 30 more days, twice. Under his watch, the country’s security apparatus completely failed — this time leaving the president dead and a country in mourning.
Accusations in plot against Moïse
Back in April, after Joseph spoke with The Haitian Times, he actually shed tears during a press conference on July 1, a day of carnage when 15 people were shot dead in Delmas. Six days later, Moïse was assassinated in his home in Pelerin 5, Port-au-Prince, leaving Joseph as Haiti’s de facto head of state.
Scores of people instantly accused Joseph of orchestrating the murder so he could rise to become head of the republic, even though he maintains he hasn’t been thrilled with becoming the prime minister.
“Please have our FBI investigate Claude Joseph!,” Wedlin Sainval posted on Twitter. “Please denounce his implication in this horrific crime! Please make us Haitian American proud! Politics is different from how things used to be done in the past! We are in the 21st century!”
Joseph passes torch to Henry after controversy
About two weeks after being in charge of Haiti, Joseph ceded his role as prime minister to Ariel Henry, a former neurosurgeon and minister of interior. Henry was named prime minister in a July 5 decree that revoked Joseph. However, Dr. Henry hadn’t been installed when Moïse was assassinated. It led to a dispute about who should’ve became acting president. Dorval had said that an uninstalled prime minister is “useless.”
“When a prime minister is named for him to form a government he has to be installed,” Dorval said in an interview with A Vos Cas. “If he wasn’t installed he can’t make any decisions, he’s useless.”
The United States and the United Nations supported Joseph as prime minister, according to a statement from the government. However, Joseph abruptly agreed to step down after a conversation with Dr. Henry Sunday, according to the Washington Post. Joseph said he stepped down “for the good of the nation.” He retains his post of minister of foreign affairs in Henry’s new government.
Now, Haiti’s newest prime minister, Dr. Henry, is stepping into the head of government role. He faces not only the deep difficulties that led to his predecessor’s firing or resignation, but healing a nation deeply shaken by the president’s slaying.
Even before Henry was installed Tuesday, opposition leaders like Andre Michel have posted on social media that Henry shouldn’t be Haiti’s head of state.
All eyes will be on Henry as he will look to hold elections after an assassination and during Haiti’s political crisis.