Nearly 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 set to assume office. But any fanfare will likely be dampened by the monumental political and social problems facing the impoverished nation and its new leader.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who will be replaced by Henry, remained in office with the backing of the police and military after Moïse’s July 7 assassination. In the days after Moïse’s killing a power struggle ensued, with both Moïse and Henry claiming to be in charge. Over the weekend, it seems that the two men came to an agreement and Joseph has agreed to step down.
Henry, a 71-year-old neurosurgeon who is no stranger to politics, is set to take the reigns Tuesday afternoon.
He once studied in Boston, and led the response to Haiti’s cholera epidemic
Henry was educated at France’s University of Montpellier school of medicine and at Boston University, according to Haiti Libre.
In 2016, he became interior minister. He also led the country’s public health response to a deadly cholera epidemic that killed some 10,000 people and infected another 800,000 in the wake of a devastating 2010 earthquake.
Henry is closely associated with Moïse, a deeply unpopular and divisive figure who during his time in office further fractured Haiti’s already divided political landscape.
“[Even] though he is not from Moïse’s party, he remains associated with Moïse’s increasingly authoritarian presidency, which many in the country believe already overstayed its mandate,” says Paul Angelo, a fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an email to NPR.
He is closely associated to the country’s entrenched powers
Despite being closely associated with the entrenched political powers in Haiti, Henry appears to be signalling a desire for “unity.”
“Some have observed 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 with various unidentified figures in Haiti’s civil society and 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 there will be any break with the country’s divisive past.
“I don’t think he can fix the problems we have now,” Samuel Madistin, a criminal defense and human rights lawyer, told NPR.
There’s been no sitting parliament in Haiti since January 2020, and Moïse had been effectively ruling by decree. So, the late president’s appointment of Henry is problematic, says Angelo.
“Ariel Henry is a known entity to Haitians, given his former role as the coordinator of the country’s public health response to the 2010 cholera outbreak,” Angelo says. “But for many Haitians, he represents an unsatisfactory option to lead the country out of its current crisis.”
Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer who founded the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), says Henry “has long been active in politics, usually as part of undemocratic regimes.”
After the 2004 ouster of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Henry “was part of the Council of Sages, an extra-constitutional body that wielded illegal powers to usher in Haiti’s brutal interim government,” Concannon said in an email to NPR.
Moïse, he said, named Henry as prime minister “following a series of backroom discussions, not the broad consultations that Haitian civil society was demanding.”
Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince based political analyst, sums it up in the Miami Herald: “Is he a game changer? Is he the man of the moment to tackle threatened, vital national interests? Does he have the political clout to play the role of a neutral broker? Can he exercise leadership in a captured state?”
Gaillard’s conclusion: “Most likely not. How can he maneuver a sinking ship while wearing a straitjacket?”
His backing 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 from the United Nations and the Organization of American States — is seen as crucial in Henry winning out in the power struggle with Joseph.
Although backing from such heavyweights could prove valuable, it could also hurt him at home.
Haitian journalist and activist Monique Clesca rejected the Core Group’s statement, calling it “interference.”
In a tweet on Tuesday, she wrote: “Let’s be crystal clear: Nothing has changed in #Haiti except the name of a Prime Minister. He is from the same PHTK regime chaotically ruling for the last 10years with US support. And, it’s unconstitutional.”
Angelo says that the support from the Core Group fuels “perceptions that once again Haiti’s sovereign decisions are being dictated by external actors.”
It’s a perception shared by “most Haitians,” says Concannon. They believe that Moïse was able to hold onto power because of the backing of the Core Group nations — especially the U.S., support that “will similarly allow [Henry] to maintain power for some time.”
Even so, the Core Group’s support will challenge Henry’s legitimacy, Concannon says.
He says he’ll hold new elections, but can they be fair?
Henry has promised to form a provisional government until elections can be held, but there is disagreement whether such polls could be free and fair.
Madistin, speaking to NPR earlier, said elections are needed to “bring stability in Haiti,” but he also expressed concern that rushing ahead with polls — especially given Haiti’s current wave of crime and gang violence — might not be the best idea.
Moïse’s ruling Haitian Tèt Kale Party, or PHTK party, which has been in power for nine years, has run several elections, “but none of them have been fair or inclusive,” says Concannon. “The Haitian commentators and activists I have heard from see nothing in [Henry’s] nomination and government that indicates PHTK will change course and allow fair, inclusive elections.”
Peter Mulrean, who was a U.S. ambassador to Haiti during the Obama administration, writes in Just Security that it’s “tempting to think that new elections will clarify the situation and restore stability.”
“[But] experience teaches us just the opposite,” Mulrean says. “What Haiti needs is to take stock of what is broken and fix it.”
“The decline of Haitian democracy has accelerated recently, but is long in the making, with each set of elections representing a negative loop that further weakens its foundations and the people’s confidence,” he writes.