PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — With foreign powers weighing in, Haitian officials announced a new prime minister Monday, in an attempt to resolve a caustic leadership struggle in the wake of President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination.
Claude Joseph, the prime minister who took control of Haiti’s government immediately after the killing, said he was stepping down in favor of Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who had been appointed to the position by the president shortly before he was killed.
“I’m a courageous man, I took charge, and I spoke to the population and said, ‘Keep calm. We need to behave intelligently,’” Joseph said in an interview, speaking of the role he played after the president’s death. “Otherwise, no one knows what would have happened.”
Since the assassination on July 7, Haitian politicians have been at loggerheads, grappling for control of the government. And the scramble for power is being heavily influenced — even directed, some Haitians say — by foreign countries, including the United States, which has held enormous sway in Haiti since invading the country more than 100 years ago.
“Haiti has become a baseball being thrown between foreign diplomats,” Joseph Lambert, the president of Haiti’s Senate, said in an interview, adding that pressure from U.S. diplomats was a major factor in the reshuffling of Haiti’s leadership.
As Senate president, Lambert said, he had sought to lead the nation after the president’s death. But, he said, the United States urged him to stand down.
“I received calls from certain American diplomats in Haiti,” he added. “Also I received calls from diplomats in the U.S. State Department, who asked me to postpone so we had time to build a larger consensus.”
U.S. officials said they were pushing for a unity government among the various figures claiming leadership of Haiti, with the aim of paving the way for free and fair elections down the road.
Joseph said he would now become the foreign minister in Henry’s Cabinet.
“We are encouraged to see Haitian political and civil actors working to form a unity government that can stabilize the country, and builds the foundation for free and fair elections,” said Ned Price, a spokesperson with the State Department.
The switch in government announced Monday follows a period of intense uncertainty in the wake of the president’s assassination. But the political maneuvering by Haitian officials and international power brokers was met with anger by Haitian activists and democracy advocates, who said it did not consider what the people wanted.
“It’s as if they have replaced the Haitian people. It’s revolting,” Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the leader of Seeing Eye To Eye, a civil society group that represents more than 1 million Haitians in the countryside, said of the foreign powers. “We need the accompaniment of a lot of countries but we can’t accept they make decisions in our place.”
Joseph, the nation’s interim prime minister, had been scheduled to be replaced the week of the assassination, but the newly appointed prime minister, Henry, had yet to be sworn in. Both declared themselves to be legitimate prime ministers, creating a power vacuum that threatened to further destabilize a country that had already been gripped by months of street protests over Moïse’s rule.
At least one senator had called Joseph’s move to run the country and impose a state of siege after the assassination a form of a coup.
On Sunday night, Henry released a prerecorded speech addressing the Haitian people on social media channels.
He saluted the maturity of the Haitian people in the face of “what could be called a coup d’état,” and he asked the nation’s political actors to walk along the peaceful path that Haiti’s people have followed.
He said he would announce his Cabinet shortly while gathering “sufficient consensus” to lead an interim government until conditions were met for elections.
The political standoff in the wake of the assassination was made all the more complicated by the fact that many of the nation’s democratic institutions had been hollowed out during Moïse’s time in office.
Only 10 sitting senators remained out of 30 because the terms of the other 20 had expired and elections were not held to replace them. The lower house is entirely vacant — its members’ terms expired last year — leaving Moïse to govern by decree for more than a year before he was killed.
Beyond that, the head of Haiti’s highest court died of COVID-19 in June, depriving the country of yet another means of deciding who should govern next.
In the middle of the dispute, the remaining members of the nation’s Senate also weighed in, saying the Senate president, Lambert, should lead Haiti, adding more confusion to the caustic dispute over who should govern.
The so-called Core Group of powerful foreign governments and international organizations that exercise great influence in Haiti — including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the European Union, the United States, France, Spain, Canada, Germany, and Brazil — called Saturday for the formation of a “consensual and inclusive” government.
To this end, the group said, it “strongly encourages the prime minister-designate Ariel Henry to continue the mission entrusted to him to form such a government.”
Shortly after the assassination, the United States said that it recognized Joseph as the incumbent and would work with him as such. Then it switched to throw its weight behind Henry.
A senior U.S. administration official, along with a Western diplomat, said the goal was to get the two men to work together. The diplomat also said that Henry was considered a less polarizing choice for prime minister because he was perceived as less entrenched in Moïse’s contentious administration.
But Joseph said he did not step down because of international pressure. “This is not the case and that would never be the case,” he said, adding that he and Henry met frequently as “gentlemen” to discuss a way forward.
The nearly two weeks since Moïse’s assassination have been tense ones in Haiti.
Before the killing, the country had been seeing a surge in street violence and kidnappings as armed groups, which had become more powerful in recent years, clashed and competed for control. But since Moïse’s death, the capital, Port-au-Prince, has felt deserted, its normally gridlocked streets nearly empty of cars.
It’s like the entire city has been holding its breath.
The news of the change in government, and of the influence of foreign powers on the decision, however, was not welcomed as a solution by many Haitians.
“The virus of this country is Haitian politicians,” said Israel Joseph, perched on a ledge in a suburb of Port-au-Prince, discussing Haiti’s future with a friend between rolls of dice in a game of Ludo and drags on their cigarettes.
“They look out only for their own interests,” added Joseph, a 44-year-old security guard.
His friend, Nicson Cajou, disagreed. “It’s the international groups that are responsible too for destabilizing the country,” he said. “They decide our destiny for us — they choose our government, choose what we eat, what we can do and can’t do.”
Lambert has been among those aiming to fill the void left by Moïse’s killing. After eight of his fellow senators and several political parties declared that he should become provisional president, he announced a week ago that he was going to be sworn in by the Parliament.
Then, he promptly postponed.
While he had explained in a tweet that the decision had been to allow all senators to be present for the nomination, on Sunday he said the real reason was pressure from U.S. diplomats.
Rather than a consensus, he said, the Core Group of international actors had imposed a “unilateral proposal.”
“They always say the solution has to be Haitian, but this is not a Haitian solution,” said Lambert.
The risk of allowing decisions to be guided by foreign powers, he said, was further unrest. Most political parties in the country won’t accept this decision, Lambert said, and “Haiti will continue on this spiral of instability.”
The Core Group was set up in 2004 after a coup, as part of the U.N. stabilization mission, said Jake Johnston, a research associate for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. Since then, he said, it has become a “de facto fourth branch of government.”
The Core Group’s role in the reshuffling of Haiti’s government came as a slap in the face to the Commission, a gathering of civil society groups and political parties with more than 150 members who held marathon meetings over the weekend to publicly work out the kind of transitional government they wanted.
The scene was one of participatory democracy, with debates and votes on propositions including how long the transitional government should last and what form it should take.
Jean-Baptiste, a participant, said that Joseph’s resignation Monday made little difference to him, pointing out that Joseph and Henry, like Moïse, came from the same political party, the ruling Bald Head party, or PHTK.
“We can’t accept that PHTK will continue to lead the country,” Jean-Baptiste said Monday, “with the gangs, with the massacres, with the looting of state coffers. It’s not possible. We want to finish with the regime of Jovenel Moïse.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.