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Almost two weeks after the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, the man he chose to become the country’s next prime minister, Ariel Henry, is expected to take office. But any fanfare will likely be tempered by the monumental political and social issues facing the impoverished nation and its new leader.
Acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who will be replaced by Henry, remained in office with police and military support following the assassination of Moses on July 7. In the days following Moses’ murder, a power struggle ensued, with Moses and Henry claiming to be responsible. Over the weekend, it appears the two came to an agreement and Joseph agreed to step aside.
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Henry, a 71-year-old neurosurgeon who is no stranger to politics, is expected to take the reins Tuesday afternoon.
He previously studied in Boston and led the response to the cholera epidemic in Haiti
Henry was educated at the University of Montpellier’s medical school in France and at Boston University, according to Haiti Libre.
In 2016, he became Minister of the Interior. He also led the country’s public health response to a deadly cholera outbreak that killed some 10,000 people and infected 800,000 more in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Henry is closely associated with Moïse, a deeply unpopular and divisive figure who, during his tenure, further fractured Haiti’s already divided political landscape.
“[Even] although he is not of Moses’ party, he remains associated with the increasingly authoritarian presidency of Moses, which many in the country say has already passed his term, ”said Paul Angelo, researcher on Latin America to the Council on Foreign Relations, in an email to RADIO NATIONALE PUBLIQUE.
He is closely associated with the entrenched powers of the country
Although closely associated with the political powers entrenched in Haiti, Henry seems to manifest a desire for “unity.”
“Some have watched the latest events with amazement, others wonder with reason about the management of the country,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
Moïse said he had met various unidentified figures from Haitian civil society and the private sector: “I intend to continue and deepen these discussions, because it is the only way to bring the Haitian family together,” he said.
But many observers are skeptical of a break with the country’s conflicted past.
“I don’t think he can solve the problems we have now,” Samuel Madistin, a criminal defense and human rights lawyer, told NPR.
There has been no sitting parliament in Haiti since January 2020, and Moïse had effectively ruled by decree. So the appointment of Henry by the former president is problematic, says Angelo.
“Ariel Henry is an entity known to Haitians, given his former role as coordinator of the country’s public health response to the 2010 cholera epidemic,” Angelo said. “But for many Haitians, it represents an unsatisfactory option for pulling the country out of its current crisis.
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Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer who founded the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), says Henry “has long been active in politics, usually under undemocratic regimes.”
After the ousting in 2004 of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Henry “was part of the Council of Elders, an extra-constitutional body which exercised illegal powers to inaugurate Haiti’s brutal interim government,” Concannon said in an email to NPR.
Moïse, he said, appointed Henry prime minister “following a series of behind-the-scenes discussions, not the broad consultations that Haitian civil society demanded.”
Michel Eric Gaillard, political scientist based in Port-au-Prince, sums it up in the Miami Herald: “Is he a game changer? Is he the man of the moment to tackle threatened and vital national interests? Does he have the political weight to play the role of a neutral intermediary? Can he exercise his leadership in a captured state? ”
Gaillard’s conclusion: “Most likely not. How can he maneuver a sinking ship while wearing a straitjacket?”
His support from Western powers could hurt him at home
A statement on Saturday from the core group – made up of ambassadors from the United States, Canada, Brazil, Spain, France, the European Union and representatives of the United Nations and the Organization of American States – is considered crucial for Henry to win in the power struggle with Joseph.
While the support of such heavyweights can prove to be invaluable, it could also hurt him at home.
Haitian journalist and activist Monique Clesca rejected the Core Group’s statement, calling it “interference”.
In one Tweeter Tuesday she wrote: “Let’s be clear: nothing has changed in #Haiti except the name of a prime minister. He belongs to the same PHTK regime that has ruled chaotically for 10 years with the support of the United States. And that’s unconstitutional. “
Angelo says that the support of the Core Group fuels “the perception that once again Haiti’s sovereign decisions are dictated by external actors.”
This is a perception shared by “most Haitians,” says Concannon. They believe that Moses was able to retain power thanks to the support of the nations of the core group – particularly the United States, support which “will likewise [Henry] maintain power for a while.
Even so, the support of the Core Group will challenge Henry’s legitimacy, Concannon says.
He says he will hold new elections, but can they be fair?
Henry has vowed to form a provisional government until elections can take place, but there is disagreement over whether such polls could be free and fair.
Madistin, speaking to NPR earlier, said elections are needed to “Bring stability to Haiti,” but he also expressed concern that rushing polls – especially given the current spate of crime and gang violence in Haiti – might not be the best idea.
The Haitian party Tèt Kale in power under Moïse, or The nine-year-in-power PHTK party held several elections, “but none of them were fair or inclusive,” Concannon said. “The Haitian commentators and activists that I have heard do not see anything in [Henry’s] nomination and government that indicate that the PHTK will change course and allow for fair and inclusive elections. “
Peter Mulrean, who was US Ambassador to Haiti during the Obama administration, writes in Just Security that it is “tempting to think that new elections will clarify the situation and restore stability.”
“[But] experience teaches us just the opposite, ”says Mulrean. “What Haiti needs is to take stock of what is broken and fix it.
“The decline of Haitian democracy has accelerated recently, but it has been brewing for a long time, each series of elections representing a negative loop that further weakens its foundations and the confidence of the people,” he wrote.