The deepening political crisis in Haiti has come into renewed focus as the country’s only remaining senators saw their terms expire overnight, an alarming development in a country beset by surging gang violence and instability.
The Senate was Haiti’s last democratically elected institution, though its ranks had been reduced to just 10 after the country failed to hold legislative elections in 2019 to fill vacant seats. Those 10 senators represented a country of nearly 12 million people.
But as their terms expired overnight on Tuesday, the Caribbean country has been left without a single legislator in its House or Senate.
“It’s a very grim situation,” Alex Dupuy, a Haitian-born sociologist at Wesleyan University in the United States, told The Associated Press news agency. “One of the worst crises that Haiti has had since the Duvalier dictatorship.”
The bloody regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who fled the country in 1986 after succeeding his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, marked the last time Haiti lacked elected officials.
Gang violence has been on the rise in Haiti in recent months, particularly after the power vacuum created by the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise, who had been ruling by decree.
The country’s de facto leader, interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, whom Moise chose for the post just days before he was killed, has faced a crisis of legitimacy, with some Haitian civil society leaders urging him to hand power over to an inclusive, transitional government.
Henry has rejected that demand, saying Haiti needs new elections to chart a path out of the overlapping crises it faces.
But rights groups have questioned how a vote can be organised when instability appears to be worsening and most Haitians are living in fear of deadly violence on the streets, especially in and around the capital Port-au-Prince.
On January 1, Henry said that the Supreme Court would be restored and a provisional electoral council would be tasked with setting a reasonable date for elections, but he did not offer a specific timeline.
En cette année 2023, nous devrons apprendre à nous faire confiance les uns les autres. Et je vous demande de me prendre au mot quand je parle de la volonté de mon gouvernement de tout mettre en œuvre pour reconstituer nos institutions démocratiques. pic.twitter.com/jynJKUKwTq
— Dr Ariel Henry (@DrArielHenry) January 1, 2023
Translation: “In this year 2023, we need to learn to trust each other. And I am asking you to take me at my word when I speak of my government’s desire to do everything possible to reconstitute our democratic institutions.”
In a series of posts on Twitter, Henry asked Haitians to trust each other, as well as to trust that his government wants to do all it can to rebuild Haiti’s democratic institutions.
Dupuy, the professor, said there currently are no checks and balances on Henry’s power, however. “As long as that situation continues, Henry is going to be behaving like a dictator,” he said.
A spokesperson for the prime minister declined to comment to The Associated Press.
The United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator in Haiti warned in November that armed groups were “terrorising” residents of Port-au-Prince, with nearly 200 murders and more than 100 kidnappings reported during the previous month.
Haitian gang members also have used sexual violence, including rape, “to instill fear” in communities, Ulrika Richardson said at that time.
“We are scared to step out of our houses,” said Daniel Jean, 25, who sells phone chargers and other equipment in the capital. “We are cornered: kidnapping, extortions. Gangs are killing people because we don’t have ransom.”
Haitians have lost all trust in the democratic process, Jean told AP, adding that he will not vote if the same politicians and parties appear on the ballot: “They have more influence than the gangs. They control all the gangs.”
In October, Henry appealed for an international armed force to be deployed to Haiti to restore order and secure a humanitarian corridor to allow fuel and water deliveries in the capital.
The demand enjoyed the backing of the UN and the US, but it also set off new protests, with many Haitians, including civil society leaders, rejecting the prospect of foreign intervention.
Washington-led efforts to mount “a non-UN mission led by a partner country” to Haiti have stalled since then, as President Joe Biden’s administration so far has failed to get another nation to agree to lead such a force, US media outlets have reported.
The issue was expected to come up in discussions on Tuesday between Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who are meeting in Mexico City for a “Three Amigos” summit hosted by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.