The government of Haiti is locked in an intensifying lobbying fight with influential members of the Haitian-American diaspora as the Joe Biden administration and key members of Congress split on whether the Caribbean country’s president should step down.
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States Bocchit Edmond told Foreign Lobby Report on Tuesday that he has reached out to lawmakers who are demanding that President Jovenel Moise relinquish power, speculating that they are being influenced by constituents close to the opposition. He implored US policymakers to listen to his arguments before intervening in a constitutional fight that has caused a political crisis in the country.
“I thought it was the most important thing to do to send them information so they would not be misled by what the opposition, or sympathizers of the opposition, are sending to them,” Edmond said. “Because, unfortunately, it seems that they just decide on only one judgement.”
The ambassador’s remarks come as seven House Democrats — including the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and the chairman of the committee’s Western Hemisphere panel Albio Sires (D-N.J.) — wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend urging the Biden administration to support a transitional government in Haiti. Meeks co-led the letter with Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), whose Brooklyn district is home to a significant Caribbean diaspora.
The offices of Meeks and Clark did not respond to requests for comment. Also signing on are Reps. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Darren Soto (D-Fla.).
“We cannot parse words: President Moise has lost credibility,” the lawmakers wrote. “He has been ruling by decree since January 2020, and although he pays homage to forthcoming elections, he insists they can only occur after the completion of dubious constitutional reforms.”
The Biden administration appears to see things differently. State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a briefing Friday that Moise’s term ends in 2022.
At its core the fight is over when Moise’s five-year term officially began. Elections that he won in 2015 had to be re-run amid allegations of irregularities, leading Moise to be sworn into office in February 2017 after a year during which Jocelerme Privert served as interim president. Moise has ruled by decree since last year after legislative elections scheduled for November 2019 never took place.
The dispute has given rise to political turmoil. Haitian authorities arrested 23 people connected to an alleged coup attempt to install a Supreme Court judge as interim president on Sunday. Meanwhile the opposition on Monday picked a 72-year-old Supreme Court judge as interim president to replace Moise.
Haiti has leveraged its lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs to make the case that Moise’s term runs until 2022, a view shared by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations. Mercury has had a contract with its parent company Mercury International UK to represent the office of President Moise since 2018. While the contract doesn’t spell out specific fees, Mercury disclosed receiving $506,000 ($368,000 in fees and $138,000 in expenses) for its Haiti work in 2020.
The firm has been making the case to US policymakers in favor of Moise’s plans to hold a referendum on constitutional reforms in April followed by presidential and legislative elections in September. Former Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) is lobbying on the account along with Chris Murphy, the director of the firm’s Washington office.
“President Moise is not seeking re-election when his term ends, nor will the new constitution allow him to be reelected,” Edmond said in statements recently distributed to US policymakers by Mercury. “He is very committed to allowing all Haitians the right to choose their next President via democratic elections, upholding the rule of law, and serving out the term in office he was elected to serve.”
Two other groups work for the Haitian government in Washington.
Damian Merlo, former US advisor to ex-President Michel Martelly, and his Miami-based Latin America Advisory Group signed a year-long $8,000 per month contract with Edmond on Nov. 17 for outreach to policymakers in the legislative and executive branch. Johanna Leblanc, a former vice-chair of Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s Commission on African Affairs, has been paid $5,000 a month to serve as an adviser to the Haitian government since March 2019.
But the opposition has also been active.
MTVAYITI (the Movement for the Transformation and Valorization of Haiti ), a political party led by the former head of Haiti’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry Reginald Boulos, retained the services of Allison Maria Llera of Florida in the fall of 2019 to help with outreach to the Haitian diaspora in the United States, lobbying filings show. Llera could not be reached for comment.
Boutros himself has retained the services of Art Estopinan, a longtime chief of staff to former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), since November 2019. The Estopinan Group has disclosed $120,000 in payments from Boulos since then to lobby on “promoting human rights in Haiti.”
Boulos also briefly hired Richard Shamlin of Maryland to lobby on his behalf in early 2020. Lobbying records indicate Boutros met with staffers for Rep. Clarke and several other lawmakers in January 2020 to discuss “human right and the current political crisis in Haiti.”
Meanwhile diaspora groups are also weighing in.
Among them is the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network (NHAEON), an organization of Haitian-American elected officials with more than 150 members spanning several states. While the group has not formally taken a position on Moise’s term, it sent a letter to Blinken on Feb. 2, just days before Meeks and Clarke, urging the Biden administration to step in.
“NHAEON is calling for the Biden-Harris Administration and responsible legislators to help prevent the pending bloodbath through negotiations to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Haiti,” Chairman Alix Desulme wrote in the letter, which was shared with Reps. Meeks, Levin and Sires. “If talks are not urgently held to de-escalate the conflict, the Biden-Harris Administration and the American Legislature are going to be forced to make expedient decisions and choose whether to support President Moise or deem him as illegally withholding power.”
Despite the group’s professed neutrality, Desulme, who is Vice Mayor of North Miami, said he was pleased with the Meeks-Clarke letter. He told Foreign Lobby Report that he was taken aback by the support Moise continues to receive from the White House and international organizations.
“We are asking the US to keep a double eye on the situation, and we know that it’s bad,” Desulme said. “But if it does turn worse … bloodshed would totally be on [US officials], because they are aware that this is not a good situation.”
Desulme said NHAEON is monitoring the situation daily while having their members talk to Congress. Over the past several months, he said he has also been invited to several meetings with the Haitian diaspora.
The Queens County Politics web site reported Monday Kings County Democratic Party Chairwoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, who is a member of Desulme’s group representing Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly, as siding with Moise’s opponents.
“The people of Haiti want a stable, democratic government that abides by its constitution,” Hermelyn was quoted as saying. “Many people believe that President Moise has served his term and it ends today, while the President maintains that his term ends next year, in 2022. I also believe it is the will of Haitian-Americans here in Brooklyn, and in the United States, that our loved ones abroad are no longer denied a voice in their government.”
The intra-US fight could have an outsize impact on Haiti. The United States has provided more than $5 billion in aid since the Jan. 2010 earthquake that devastated the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus of which Meeks and Clarke are members playing an outsize role in setting US policy toward Haiti.
Edmond, the ambassador, said people in Haiti are also taking their cues from what happens in Washington. He said any US show of support for an unelected transitional government emboldens the opposition and fuels chaos in the country without aiding the electoral process.
“It’s a shame to see this coming from a democratic country, trying for regime change when you have a democratically elected president,” he said. “It is not right.”
This story has been updated since its original publication to reflect lobbying by Art Estopinan on behalf of opposition figure Reginald Boulos.