PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After more than a month of opposition street protests aimed at forcing the resignation of President Michel Martelly, who is now ruling by decree, political graffiti is ubiquitous in the streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince. In Haitian Creole, demonstrators have scribbled “Down with Martelly” and “Resist” on the walls of hundreds of houses and shops.
But there are also slogans that reflect a popular anger directed at leaders outside this Caribbean country. These include phrases like “Bill Clinton equals Al Capone,” a reference to the former president’s role here directing the flow of relief funds after the 2010 earthquake. On the wall of the Senate building is scrawled, “Down with occupation — Long live Moise [Jean-Charles],” a senator who has criticized the international community’s support of Martelly and who has long called for the U.N. peacekeeping force to withdraw from Haiti.
Haiti is in the middle of perhaps the most acute political and constitutional crisis it has seen in years. With elections delayed for the past three years, the country has no elected mayors and no head of the Supreme Court.
On Jan. 12, after Martelly failed to reach an agreement with lawmakers over extending their terms and holding elections, the terms of the entire 99-member Chamber of Deputies, the rough equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives, expired. The terms of a third of the 30-member Senate also lapsed, leaving only 10 senators in office, below the 15 needed for quorum.
Since then, the president has ruled by decree. He has installed the former mayor of Port-au-Prince and opposition leader Evans Paul as prime minister and sworn in a new Cabinet of ministers, ostensibly a consensus government but without the vetting of the now nonexistent legislative branch.
Nixon Boumba, an organizer from the civil society group Mouvman Demokratik Popilè, said with the president ruling unchecked, “anything could happen,” a position commonly held by demonstrators and opposition lawmakers.
A United Nations Security Council team is due to arrive in Haiti on Friday in an effort to encourage a resolution to the crisis, but it faces the perception that it is not an unbiased mediator. Many activists and government opposition members believe the international community is in favor of Martelly rather than fair elections. Some see the recent international efforts to arbitrate as unwelcome interference in Haiti’s domestic affairs, the latest in a history of interventions that they believe have left the country’s democratic institutions weaker than ever.
“It is not an international community. It is a group of international colonizers,” said Boumba. “They put Martelly in power, and they would support him with their eyes closed.”
Ulysses Araud, a lawyer in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Price who supports the opposition, said international leaders “manipulate the situation so it's in their best interest — but it does nothing to help us.”
‘It is not an international community. It is a group of international colonizers. They put Martelly in power, and they would support him with their eyes closed.’
organizer, Mouvman Demokratik Popilè
Despite the rule of law reaching a new low and Martelly ruling with an amount of authority usually reserved for autocrats, the United Nations, the European Union, the U.S. and other countries have steadfastly maintained their public support of his actions.
A day before the Jan. 12 deadline, the U.S. Embassy released a statement indicating the U.S. would work with Martelly even if he ruled by decree. Hours before the legislative branch shut down, U.S. Ambassador Pamela White appeared in Parliament. Many saw that as interference in favor of Martelly and encouraged opposition senators not to show up, expediting the collapse of Parliament.
Then a group of ambassadors known here as the core group — representing Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, the U.S., the European Union and the special representative of the Organization of American States — issued a statement expressing “its support to the president of the republic in the exercise of his constitutional duty to ensure the regular functioning of institutions and the continuity of the state.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in a phone call to Martelly, according to a White House press statement, commended him “for his efforts to reach a negotiated agreement” and “expressed disappointment that Haiti’s Parliament did not pass an electoral law before lapsing.”
Some foreign diplomats in Port-au-Prince said they support Martelly as the least-bad option. They said that with the opposition fractured and some senators impulsively rejecting Martelly’s efforts to resolve the dispute, they are simply trying to help Haiti avoid even more political instability and chaos.
“Parliament [was] not working,” said a diplomat in Port-au-Prince who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Somebody needs to make a decision. In that sense, it’s better to have a president who at least was legitimately elected … We don’t want to have a vacuum in this country."
Diplomats said they expect Martelly to avoid abusing authority and to remain within the limits of his promise of forming a transitional government and organizing the long-delayed elections, which are constitutionally mandated before the end of 2015. The Security Council is expected to reiterate its call for executive restraint.
‘Parliament [was] not working. Somebody needs to make a decision. In that sense, it’s better to have a president who at least was legitimately elected.’
foreign diplomat in Port-au-Prince
To many opposition activists, the institutional vacuum is already present. Since Jan. 12, they have launched a new round of street protests, which they vowed to continue until Martelly steps down and fresh elections are held.
On Thursday hundreds of people marched through Port-au-Prince, holding anti-Martelly banners and chanting songs associated with Lavalas, the party led by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which was barred from participating in the 2010 elections.
“The international community’s [support of Martelly] is in fact the catalyst for the chaos we are in,” said Assad Volcy, an opposition activist who has been at the forefront of organizing the protests. He rejected a suggestion that Martelly’s ouster would further destabilize the country. “They just talk about chaos in order to intimidate us,” he said.
Opposition members are quick to point out the history of fraught international intervention in Haiti as their source of mistrust. This includes the 19-year occupation of the country by U.S. Marines in the early 20th century and the U.S.-backed coup in 2004 that overthrew Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president.
The international community pledged billions of dollars in post-earthquake reconstruction aid, but many say the money was funneled through international NGOs and never made it to the people or went through Martelly, who bungled recovery efforts.
The United Nations is a frequent target. The U.N. peacekeeping force, known by the acronym MINUSTAH, is widely believed to have brought cholera to Haiti, a disease that has killed nearly 9,000 people since 2010 and infected at least 725,000 more. The disease continues to spread. There have been protests against the mission after the emergence of allegations of sexual assault by peacekeepers.
“The international community needs to play a role here. The world is a village,” said Simon Desras, a former president of the Senate. Be he said the amount of support that Martelly has been receiving is “incredible,” given the collapse of the government.
“It is the only country in the world that is supposedly democratic but which operates without a parliament,” he continued. “How come the international community has tolerated what has happened, when the government hasn’t had elections in so many years and there are no mayors? How can the government cooperate with this de facto government?”
He concluded, “The international community could help by being a true mediator instead of an actor.”