Controversial referendum postponed
The situation in Haiti has been turbulent for quite a while, but covid-19 infections fortunately remained few during the past year. This now seems to be changing as the number of infections is increasing rapidly, while vaccines are not yet available. Meanwhile, armed gangs are blocking the major access roads of the capital Port-au-Prince. The government is taking no actions. The residents are trapped. This article is taken from the Dutch website La Chispa (www.lachispa.nl ).
Last Monday, the president of the Haitian election council, Guylande Mesadieu, announced that the referendum on revisions of the constitution would be postponed once again. If it had been up to the Haitian government, a referendum would have taken place to vote on proposals to change the constitution. This has been met with a lot of resistance from the opposition parties and from the population in general. First of all, the constitution itself prohibits a referendum on the constitution. Moreover, the proposals have been conceived in a shady way, without any broad participation from a diversity of society’s sectors. And at least as important is the fact that the majority of the Haitian population no longer recognizes current president Jovenel Moïse as being the head of state. His term would have expired in February of this year. How can such a government present a proposal to adapt the constitution?
Moreover, the questions to be asked at the referendum can only be responded to with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. According to the government it is not necessary to know all the details. “But”, said a number of civil society organisations, “this shows a lack of respect towards the people, that are seen as immature and unable to think for themselves.”
The government states that the current constitution is making it impossible to do their job, and in fact is a source of conflict and unrest. The solution would be to give much more power to the president and at the same time to the role of parliament. In their reaction the civil society organisations argue that the constitution is exactly intended to avoid a new dictator takes all power to himself. After all, the current constitution has been created when 1986 brought an end to almost thirty years of dictatorship.
In addition to all substantive arguments against a referendum, there are also a number of practical considerations. Firstly, there is the increasing number of infections with the coronavirus. When people will have to wait in line for a long time (voting is obligatory in Haiti), the virus will only be spreading faster. Recently, schools have been closed again, with the exception of exam classes. But in fact Haitians still seem little aware of the seriousness of the pandemic. Few are wearing face masks and vaccines are scarce. This might change, as the number of deaths by corona is rising, and especially as well-known Haitians are falling victim to the disease. This past week the rector and the vice-rector of the Episcopal University past away within days of each other, both due to corona, a great loss to the university. On May 31, the government announced an emergency situation in response to the rapidly increasing number of infections. This is why the election council decided to postpone the referendum. A new date has not yet been made public.
And then there is another reason that stands in the way of a referendum and elections, but which the government and also the electoral council are silent about: the increasing violence. In recent days, armed gangs have blocked several major access routes around Port-au-Prince. This means that the population in the southern provinces can no longer enter the capital. The roads to the border with the Dominican Republic and to the north of the country are also closed. Gangs have been fighting each other for several years for control of the suburbs of Port-au-Prince without government intervention. The human rights organization RNDDH recently published a report stating that since August last year, 81 people have been killed by gang violence, 24 people have gone missing and more than 160 houses have been burned down in the Bel-Air district alone.
With the closure of the access roads, the violence seems to be entering a new phase. Historian and writer Michel Soukar made a disturbing comparison with the period 1908-1915 at a press conference on the occasion of the opening of the annual book festival in Port-au-Prince, Livres en folie, this week. The guest of honour at the book festival said that these days remind him of a hundred years ago, when the country was also in chaos, gangs ruled the law and politicians derailed. Those years ended in the American occupation of Haiti, which lasted until 1934. Soukar’s comparison is only partially valid. Although many current gang members, like the so-called cacos a hundred years ago, are often paid by politicians and businessmen, the cacos stood up for the interests of the small farmers and fought against foreign companies that took over the land, something that today’s gangs do not. In August, Soukar predicted that you would soon only be allowed to circulate with the permission of the gang leaders if everything continued like this. It has now actually come to that. Michel Soukar fears the worst.
Sources: CRAN/CE-JILAP, Le Nouvelliste, RNDDH