Haiti’s Rule of Lawlessness

By Monique Clesca, Foreign Affairs, March 10, 2023

To comprehend the depth of the rot in Haitian politics, consider the public figures who have been slapped with sanctions by the U.S. and Canadian governments over the last few months because of their corruption and connections to drug smuggling and gang violence. The list reads like a who’s who of the politically and economically powerful in Haiti. It includes two former Haitian presidents, Michel Martelly and Jocelerme Privert, and two former prime ministers, Laurent Lamothe and Jean-Henry Céant. Also on the sanctions list: two cabinet ministers, four former senators, several leading former members of parliament, and three prominent business figures who together own a good portion of the Haitian banking system.

Over the past decade, the rot has spread from politics to almost every barely functional Haitian government institution. In January, a judicial oversight board refused to recertify 30 Haitian judges because of their corruption and ethical lapses. This group includes the judges presiding over the country’s two highest-profile cases: the inquiry into the Petrocaribe scandal, in which $2 billion went missing from a government aid program between 2008 and 2016, and the stalled investigation of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, who was murdered in his home in July 2021. Corruption is also deeply embedded in Haitian law enforcement. Drug traffickers report that the Haitian police help move drugs, and a handful of senior officials and well-connected individuals—including the former head of presidential security, a former president’s brother-in-law, and several judges—are suspects in one of Haiti’s biggest drug trafficking cases, which involved a shipment of over 2,000 pounds of cocaine and heroin in 2015. Government officials have been implicated in planning and providing weapons and vehicles for gang massacres of civilians. An August report by the Haitian government’s anticorruption unit found gross misconduct among town mayors, the head of the national lottery, a member of the board of directors of the central bank, and officials at the government’s regulatory agency, and the former head of the Haitian National Police.

Criminality is ubiquitous in Haitian officialdom. In fact, Haitian politics and government at all levels have become so enmeshed in and dependent on graft, gunrunning, drug smuggling, and gang violence that it is nearly impossible to disentangle them. All this depletes the state’s capacity to provide critical social services for Haiti’s more than 11 million people—that is, if the current leaders had any will to do so.

Ariel Henry, the unelected and illegitimate acting prime minister, is deeply embedded in this criminal system of government. His entry into politics came through several of the sanctioned leaders, and his own government ministers have been slapped with sanctions, too. Meanwhile, Henry has overstayed any arguably constitutionally legitimate term in office—and still many countries, including the United States, support him.

As violence and insecurity continue to escalate and outsiders contemplate sending foreign troops to Haiti, it is critical to understand how foreign military intervention would reinforce this relationship between crime and politics. Haiti does not need foreign troops to solve its problems, but it does need the United States and its partners to stop propping up a corrupt government aligned with criminal gangs. The sanctions imposed on the country’s former leaders are a welcome development, but they put far too little pressure on the political system to make any difference. To help Haiti move away from being a criminally controlled failed state to a functional and stable democracy, foreign governments, especially the United States and Canada, should listen to Haitians and do everything in their power to pressure Henry to step aside or go to the negotiating table.


Henry is a product of this corrupt political system. He previously served as interior minister and minister of social affairs under Martelly, a popular singer who became president in 2011. Martelly, with his Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale, laid the foundations for a decade of government corruption, gang patronage, and drug and arms trafficking. Martelly’s protégé and successor, Moïse, promoted criminality with similar zeal and destroyed democratic institutions that got in his way, such as the Supreme Court. Two days before he was assassinated, Moïse chose Henry to become prime minister, but Henry had not yet taken office when Moïse was killed. After Moïse’s murder, foreign diplomats quickly encouraged Henry to assume the role of prime minister and have continued to support him, even after Henry was implicated in Moïse’s assassination.

The ongoing international support for Henry has become increasingly difficult to justify. Over the course of 20 months as prime minister, Henry has presided over Haiti’s precipitous collapse. Under his rule, gangs have not only ratcheted up their violence but also paralyzed the country with an entirely new form of terror for Haiti: shutting off the public’s access to the country’s main fuel depot, leading to hospital closures, a worsening cholera outbreak, and widespread hunger. Rampant kidnappings, rapes, killings, and massacres are almost never investigated, much less prosecuted. Under Henry, the judiciary has mostly ceased to function. In January, the terms of Haiti’s last ten remaining elected senators officially expired, leaving the country without a single elected government official. Henry’s term in office is tied to Moïse’s, which was itself disputed but would have ended in any case by February 2022. Henry has stayed in office over a year since then, which means his claim to power has no constitutional legitimacy.

Mass demonstrations against Henry’s leadership have persisted for months, but Haitians have no mechanism to oust the leader for whom they never voted. Last month, hundreds of police officers revolted against Henry, vandalizing and shooting at his office and his official residence in Port-au-Prince and surrounding the airport and temporarily preventing Henry, who was returning from abroad, from leaving.

The United States and Canada have encouraged Henry to start a political dialogue and create consensus—in other words, to reach an agreement with pro-democracy civil society leaders who are pushing for a democratic path forward. This broad alliance of local organizations and institutions represents millions of Haitians. In August 2021, leaders of the group presented their blueprint for a transitional government that would lay the groundwork to eventually hold democratic elections. The plan, known as the Montana Accord (after the hotel in Port-au-Prince where it was unveiled), has close to 1,000 signatories. I helped develop this accord, and I believe it is the best way to forge a path to democracy in Haiti.

But Henry has refused to compromise with representatives of the Montana Accord. Instead, on December 21, presenting his longtime political associates as a new alliance, Henry proposed extending his rule as prime minister by another 18 months without any new systems of checks or balances, all in the lead-up to elections that his government would quickly organize. He called this plan a “consensus accord,” but it was not preceded by any serious dialogue with either the main political parties or Haitian groups working toward restoring democracy. The blueprint offers no ideas for how to ensure that elections will be peaceful, participatory, and fair. Bewilderingly, some international officials seem to support Henry’s bid to stay in power. In February, Brian Nichols, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted a quasi endorsement of Henry’s accord, calling the installation of a council of technical advisers “a crucial step in restoring democratic order and improving security.” He added, “We continue to encourage greater consensus.”

Henry’s request in October for foreign military intervention to help combat gangs is also a move that would help him stay in power. Although many desperate, terrorized Haitians support this request, a military intervention would be yet another catastrophic mistake. The last UN-led military mission to Haiti left a legacy of trauma and disease. By taking the place of Haiti’s police and military, plus its government agencies and civil society—without sufficiently reinforcing or supporting reforms in any of them—UN forces weakened Haitian institutions and exacerbated problems in governance that led to the current crisis. Haiti’s political leaders and government have remained dependent on foreign governments and international institutions to an extent unseen in most of the world. And those foreign governments and international institutions, as they impose decisions that allow Haiti’s criminal regime to prosper, rarely acknowledge publicly the extraordinary power they hold to make or break Haiti’s political system.

In all likelihood, foreign military forces would temporarily help the Haitian National Police subdue the gangs, which would serve to prop up Henry’s failed government. This outside support would probably keep Henry and his allies limping along so that they could set up the kind of farcical elections that have kept criminal politicians in office for decades in Haiti. Decent people would not risk their lives to run for office. Few Haitians would risk their lives to vote. Votes would no doubt be manipulated. The process might succeed in producing the veneer of a democratically elected leadership, which would absolve the international powers from responsibility for Haiti’s pitiful governance. But the parliament would be composed of gang affiliates. When the foreign forces left, the gangs would rise again.

In truth, it is nearly impossible to move directly from a predatory state to a democracy, because predatory leaders control the levers of power and elections and know how to manipulate them to shape outcomes. They are deeply invested in perpetuating their power and their cash flows and in avoiding prosecution for their crimes. A system this rotten cannot simply clean itself up on election day.


Haitians want far more than short-term, cosmetic solutions. Through massive protests, they have repeatedly demanded sustainable answers. That is why the road to a democratic system must run through a representative and democratic transitional government—one not affiliated with criminal elements.

Haiti has precedents for transitional governments that successfully moved the country to viable democratic elections. From 1957 to 1986, a family dictatorship led first by François Duvalier and then by his son, Jean-Claude, ruled Haiti, and when their regime fell, there was military rule. Then, Supreme Court Judge Ertha Pascal-Trouillot was named the provisional president of Haiti as part of a transitional government from 1990 to 1991 that paved the way for democratic elections. Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency, but a coup d’état unseated him a few months later—and Haiti was again governed by generals. In 1994, Aristide came back to power with the military support of the Clinton administration, and there was a stretch of democratic government until Aristide, after being reelected, was again removed from power following massive protests in 2004. Another Supreme Court judge, Boniface Alexandre, assumed the role of provisional president. Alexandre’s transitional government organized elections in 2006 that were fair and successful and brought René Préval, who had served as president from 1996 to 2001, back for a second term.

Well aware of these two precedents of Supreme Court judges serving as presidents in provisional governments, Moïse felt threatened by his own Supreme Court and unconstitutionally fired three of the judges in February 2021. He appointed replacements, but the remaining judges refused to swear them in. Since then, the court has been unable to hear cases because it doesn’t have a quorum. The lack of a legitimate Supreme Court also means that there is no ready alternative head of state, but in early March, Henry illegally named eight new judges to the Supreme Court.

When Moïse began acting outside Haiti’s constitution in early 2021, civil society leaders created a commission to consider how to take Haiti from a failed state to a functioning and stable democracy run by competent leaders who prioritize Haiti’s best interests—not their own. I joined as one of 13 commissioners. As we undertook months of consultations across Haiti, it became clear that the country needed a rupture—a clear break with the criminal past. We saw that a carefully composed, representative, principled transitional government was our best option to confront a deeply entrenched, predatory system.

We hammered out the Montana Accord, delineating a process for building an inclusive transitional government. This government would lead the country for a two-year period. The Montana Accord members elected a president, expecting that person to eventually lead the transitional government—but that is currently open to negotiations. The founding commissioners who created Montana along with the members of the Montana Monitoring Bureau have pledged not to accept political positions during the transition. The goal of the transitional period would be to strengthen government institutions, increase security, and build trust sufficient to hold truly participatory, free, and fair elections within two years.

Observers sometimes mistake supporters of the Montana process for the political opposition—a dangerous misreading that equates Montana and the Henry government as equally legitimate rivals. In fact, Montana is a pro-democracy civil society movement working against an antidemocratic and criminally backed power structure that includes Haiti’s leading political parties and business interests. A broad coalition of professionals, peasant and labor leaders, religious figures, anticorruption activists—and yes, some politicians—have coalesced around Montana as a democratic path forward. Despite grave personal risks, many Haitians throughout the country have rallied to support the Montana process. It is incredibly difficult to maintain political consensus in Haiti in the crucible of constant threats and violence, but over a year and a half, Montana’s leaders have made compromises, such as building consensus with a powerful alliance of seven of Haiti’s political parties.


As outsiders consider their next moves, they should stop confusing Henry’s needs with Haiti’s. Henry seeks international forces to subdue the gangs and keep himself in power. Haiti needs a representative transitional government to give its people a voice and reestablish trust and institutional capacity until secure and free elections are possible.

U.S. messaging on how Haiti can move forward is extremely influential. U.S. officials helped install Henry in office after Moïse’s death by tweeting a statement asking him to form a government. More recently, Nichols, the State Department official, bestowed legitimacy on Henry’s newly formed High Transition Council by tweeting positively about it. U.S. officials should use this power and publicly declare their concerns about Henry’s leadership and endorse negotiation as a way forward. After decades of influencing policy and politics in Haiti, and often creating Haiti’s rulers, the United States has outsize power. Everyone would understand the signals that the tide was turning and that foreign powers would no longer support an undemocratic regime. If there is political will among U.S. officials to stop propping up Henry’s government and bring him to the negotiating table, it can happen.

But the action needed is not just rhetorical. Other countries should cut off their massive aid for the Haitian police, until there is a representative transitional government in place to make decisions. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already said that Canada would not send troops to Haiti until Haitians reached a political consensus.

It is difficult to understand why the international community has not yet abandoned Henry. Diplomats often privately say that they value stability, but Henry’s incompetent and dangerous rule has created the worst economic, political, and humanitarian instability in the country in decades. International support is keeping Henry in power and stymieing democracy activists’ efforts to build a more functional, more inclusive, and more stable democratic system.

Montana Accord advocates are open to dialogue and ready to come to the table for talks; in January, they responded positively to the offer from the Caribbean Community, of which Haiti is a member, to play a mediating role. Members of the Montana Accord understand that compromises on the details of the process that the accord laid out may be needed in the name of coming together for Haiti.

The biggest change in policy toward Haiti in recent months has been the imposition of sanctions by the U.S. and Canadian governments that target Haiti’s corrupt leaders—past and present. The sanctions work to expose and isolate some of the worst, most criminal, violent, and controlling actors in Haitian public life, and they have started to create a bit more space for democrats, including women, to operate by speaking publicly, organizing politically, and potentially running for office. But much more expansive sanctions, including the freezing of assets, are needed to isolate a larger swath of the criminal class. Haiti does not manufacture arms and munitions, yet the country is filled with them. The United States can support Haiti by better controlling its own ports to prevent arms from being sent to Haiti. U.S. law enforcement can also help to vet and train Haitian port officials to intercept the guns that feed the gangs.

For decades, Haitians have struggled to build a democracy. Too often, Haiti’s international partners have decided that Haitian efforts at democracy are too complicated and too messy, and foreign countries and international agencies have responded with intervention to manipulate electoral levers and outcomes. But those outside efforts have failed spectacularly, and they helped create a Haitian government as dependent on international power as it is on criminal enterprises and gang violence. The only way to build something new is to start fresh.


Posted March 18, 2023