Dueling Prime Ministers Fight for Power in Haiti

Haitian police control the area next to a painting of Haiti's President Jovenel Moise next
AP Photo / Joseph Odelyn

The shocking assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise by a squad of gunmen on Wednesday left two people claiming to be the interim prime minister and dueling for power: neurosurgeon Ariel Henry, former minister of the interior, and former foreign minister Claude Joseph.

Haitian politics are not simple at the best of times, and the power vacuum created by Moise’s murder is creating pure political chaos. Joseph technically held the position of interim prime minister at the moment of Moise’s death, but the day before he died, Moise named Henry to take over as permanent prime minister.

Both men firmly claimed to be prime minister on Thursday. Joseph, who declared martial law and a “state of siege” in the wake of the assassination, argues that Henry was merely “designated” as prime minister by the slain president but never formally took office. 

Joseph further contends that his interim appointment was indefinite, unlike most previous interim prime minister positions in Haiti.

“I was the one who was a prime minister, who was in office. This is what the law and the constitution says,” Joseph told the Associated Press on Thursday.

Joseph promised to work with all parties in Haiti to “move the country forward” and hold elections on schedule later this year.

Joseph said in a statement on Thursday:

The head of Government is committed to dialogue with opposition leaders and other actors to appease the socio-political climate and to facilitate the holding of inclusive and credible elections according to the calendar established by the Provisional Electoral Council.

Joseph claimed he has spoken with Henry several times since the assassination and Henry agreed that Joseph should remain in position as interim prime minister.

On the same day, however, Henry told the Associated Press he is the rightful prime minister.

“It’s an exceptional situation. There is a bit of confusion. I am the prime minister in office,” Henry said.

Adding to the confusion is Moise’s profound unpopularity – there were massive demonstrations against his government – and demands from the opposition that he should have stepped down long ago because his term allegedly ended in February. 

Moise argued that he was technically sworn in as president in 2017 despite taking over for former President Michel Martelly in 2017. He claimed that he would not participate in the 2022 presidential elections.

Henry would have been Moise’s seventh prime minister in four years. Even before the assassination, Moise’s critics argued that Henry’s designation as prime minister was illegitimate because Moise was not legitimately president and had no authority to make him.

Haiti’s constitution specifies that if the presidency is abruptly vacated, the president of the national Supreme Court becomes the interim president. Unfortunately, the president of the Haitian Supreme Court, Rene Sylvestre, was killed by the Wuhan coronavirus three weeks ago and has not yet been replaced.

“I don’t want to add fuel to the fire,” Henry said in an interview on Wednesday. He congratulated Joseph for doing a “good job” in the wake of Moise’s assassination, although he criticized Joseph’s order for martial law as “a bit rushed.”

However, Henry insisted he is the legitimate prime minister, saying he was “very advanced” in the process of “choosing the members of my cabinet” when Moise was killed.

“A government that has resigned is a government that has resigned to my knowledge. It is not a full-fledged government. If there was no need to have another government, I think that President Jovenel Moïse would not have sought me out or made the consultations,” Henry observed.

“I am an appointed Prime Minister, Claude was an interim Prime Minister who resumed his position as Minister of Foreign Affairs. I think we need to talk to each other. Claude was supposed to stay in the government I was going to have,” he said.

“In my opinion, he is no longer prime minister,” Henry concluded.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Joseph on Wednesday and “reiterated the United States’ continued commitment to work with the Government of Haiti in support of the Haitian people and democratic governance, peace, and security.”

The Biden administration seems content to work with Joseph for the moment, although the State Department pointedly insisted that “elections this year should proceed.”


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