After weeks of uncertainty, violence, Haiti’s new presidential council is now official

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After weeks of tense negotiations, a new transitional framework for governing Haiti over the next two years and creating a path toward eventual elections was officially created Friday.

An executive order formally establishing the new nine-member transitional presidential council was published in Haiti’s official gazette, the Moniteur. The publication officially creates the new executive panel that will share power with a newly appointed prime minister.

But first the new council will need to be sworn in, with some members insisting it take place inside the National Palace, which has been under a barrage of attacks by armed gangs seeking to take control of the nation’s symbol of power. After their swearing in, members will choose a president among their seven representatives with voting powers, and then begin the difficult task of finding a replacement for outgoing Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

Henry was forced to resign last month by Washington at the insistence of Caribbean Community leaders, who had grown weary of him as a powerful consortium of gangs demanded his ouster. The gangs led coordinated attacks on key government infrastructure in Port-au-Prince while Henry was on a visit to Kenya to shore up a deal for the deployment of an international force to Haiti.

Though the new council had written its own order to be published, Henry’s outgoing government opted for a more streamlined seven-page version after some ministers expressed discomfort over the constitutionality of the new executive authority and the considerable amount of power they’ve given themselves.

In trying to stay as close to the Haitian constitution as possible and to what was agreed upon in Jamaica last month, when the political deal was brokered with the help of the 15-member Caribbean Community, CARICOM, Henry’s government also decided to publish two separate decrees. The first one, issued on Friday, names the nine sectors that will be represented on the presidential council. A second order on the rules and procedures of the presidential council is expected to be published on Saturday. It is supposed to also have the actual names of the representatives on the panel.

In a statement, Caribbean leaders said “the establishment of the nine-member broad-based, politically inclusive council signals the possibility of a new beginning” for Haiti.

“It is also clear that one of the first priorities of the newly installed presidential council will be to urgently address the security situation so that Haitians can go about their daily lives in a normal manner; safely access food, water and medical services; children can return to school; women can move around without fear of horrific abuses; and so that businesses can reopen.”

The regional grouping said it stands ready to assist Haiti in what will still be “daunting challenges ahead.”

State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller, late Friday, also said the United States remains committed to supporting the council’s mission with CARICOM and partners. The council, Miller said, “helps pave the way for free and fair elections and the expedited deployment of a Multinational Security Support mission.”

“We applaud Haitians for their commitment to move forward in a spirit of reconciliation and national dialogue,” he said. “The security situation in Haiti remains untenable due to the violence caused by gangs that claim to represent the Haitian people but thrive on violence and misery. Gangs have shut down key infrastructure and economic sites that are lifelines for fuel, humanitarian aid, and other vital supplies, and continue to strip Haitians of their rights to food, education, and healthcare.”

Henry announced on March 11 that he would resign once the presidential council is installed. But under the decree published by his council of ministers, Henry and his government will remain in power until a new prime minister is named, in order to ensure a continuity of governance in the volatile country.

This means that both the new leadership structure and the outgoing one will have to find a way to cooperate as Port-au-Prince continues to be overrun by ruthless gangs that have forced the shutdown of the main international airport and seaport for more than a month.

The council’s creation comes more than a month after Caribbean leaders, with support from the United States and other nations, brokered the political deal during an emergency meeting in Kingston with Haiti’s warring political factions.

The Haitian representatives, unable to leave Haiti, participated on a video call. On the call were members of a coalition that supported Henry, but also many others who had been fighting to take the helm of the country’s leadership since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

About two months before his death, Moïse had tapped Henry, a neurosurgeon, to serve as his seventh prime minister in four years. But Moïse was killed before he could officially install Henry. The timing raised questions about Henry’s legitimacy and opened the U.S., the United Nations, Canada and France to criticism after they backed Henry’s appointment following a power struggle among interim prime minister Claude Joseph and the head of the Haitian Senate, Joseph Lambert.

Lambert has since been sanctioned by the Biden administration. Joseph, who launched his own political party, has emerged as a major player and power-broker in the new presidential council’s formation.

Overcoming conflict among themselves and paralysis within the governing framework will be key for the members of the new transition panel, given the deepening crisis facing Haiti. Since Feb. 29, an alliance of armed groups have launched an unprecedented wave of violence in the country that has led to the month-long shutdown of both the international and domestic airports in Port-au-Prince, the main seaport and major businesses. Hospitals, schools, police stations and private businesses have been looted and burned, and a raid of the country’s two largest prisons led to the escape of more than 4,000 inmates.

“This morning, our colleagues at the International Organization for Migration told us that since the end of February, because of insecurity, close to 95,000 people have left Port-au-Prince’s metropolitan area to seek refuge in the provinces,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told journalists in New York on Thursday, ahead of the publication of the order. “As we have been telling you, those communities also that are trying to absorb the displaced people are already under stress.”

With violence plunging Haiti deeper into a humanitarian catastrophe, the United Nations’ World Food Program warned this week that it could soon run out of food by month’s end. The U.N. says more than 360,000 people have been forced to abandon their homes over the last three years by gang violence. More than 160,000 in the capital are living in squalid displacement camps. As of late March more than 1,550 Haitians have been killed and 800 injured as a result of the violence.

When the violent uprising began, Henry was in Kenya signing an agreement for the deployment of a Multinational Security Support mission. But that mission has since been put on hold by the East African nation, citing Henry’s announcement of his resignation.

Though it was anticipated that the new council would allow for the rapid deployment of the mission, that now appears to be questionable. Not only does the mission continue to face roadblocks on funding, but some members of the presidential council have expressed a desire to go a different route. And there is no specific mention of the Kenya-led security mission in the councils’ newly forged “Political Agreement for a Peaceful and Orderly Transition,” which will guide the next moves.

Instead, council members and the groups they represent are talking about restoring public security and defining “with international partners the conditions for effective support to Haitian security forces, respecting national sovereignty.” In another section of the agreement, they speak of the creation of a National Security Council that will define the cooperation with international partners.

Soon after the creation of the presidential council, the White House announced that President Joe Biden, using a little known presidential authority, had ordered Secretary of State Antony Blinken to use $60 million for equipment and training for the new Multinational Security Support mission for Haiti.