Haitian president Jovenel Moïse’s refusal to step down eerily echoes the recent transition in the U.S., when many were unclear whether the former president would hand power over to his successor.
My father was 17 years old when Haiti’s ruthless dictator, Dr. François Duvalier, took office. On the brink of adulthood, my dad was a wiry, ebullient, young man with a talent for the sciences, love for the arts, and a passion for politics. He entered college and then medical school while his country was under the thumb of what would become one of the most brutal dictatorships in world history. Later on, my father left Haiti as a medical student in his twenties, largely because his parents were afraid he was becoming too politically involved.
I was seven years old when that dictatorship finally fell after almost 30 years. My parents were elated and as soon as they could, they scheduled a visit to return to Haiti with their four U.S.-born daughters in tow. I have few memories from this trip other than the mosquitoes, tropical heat and the endless parade of elders to greet. It was the beginning of an intimate relationship to a country whose richness, beauty and complexity never fail to inspire me.
When my father retired from his profession as a nephrologist at Boston Medical Center to return home for good, it was the realization of his lifelong dream. Lakay se lakay—the Kreyòl, the expression goes. There is no place like home.
Now an octogenarian who teaches at the state university’s medical school, while he was working for Partners in Health, and starting his own free clinic, a great obstacle and my father’s worst nightmare—the return of a dictatorship—unfolded before his eyes. Haitian president Jovenel Moïse is holding onto power, despite the end of his term and no longer being recognized by several major national institutions and sectors, ranging from the Higher Council of the Judiciary Power (CSPJ) to several major religious institutions.
Instead of stepping down as he should have last week, Moïse is claiming that he thwarted an attempted coup and has wrongfully imprisoned almost two dozen people. Local activists, artists and feminist organizations have decried the arrests and imprisonment of these ordinary citizens to no avail.
My parents’ downcast mood reflects that of many in Port-au-Prince, somberly fearful of what is to come. Unfortunately, this crisis is not new. Since he was elected in 2016, Moïse has done more harm than good in Haiti. He inspired a popular uprising that since 2018 that has been unrelenting in demanding his resignation. His administration has been characterized by gross mismanagement and rampant corruption as well as a flagrant disregard for Haitian lives.
Living conditions have declined steadily since the beginning of his presidency. Among the egregious incidents that occurred under his watch was the La Saline massacre in which dozens were killed and no one has been held accountable. Kidnappings have risen; according to one report by BINUH, they have increased by 200 percent. All of this is of course aggravated by the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The protests erupting throughout the country have been met with violent repression; for example, two journalists on Champs de Mars were shot by members of the FADH or national army. Moïse’s refusal to comply with the Haitian Constitution has prompted a response from the Supreme Court and the opposition. The two houses of legislature have been dissolved so Moïse now rules by decree, and no new elections have been called.
Moise’s refusal eerily echoes the recent transition in the U.S. when many were unclear whether the former president would hand power over to his successor. Even more troubling, it is raising the specter of dictatorship for a generation that remains traumatized by its legacy.
For as long as I can recall, my father’s dreams for his country have been eternally hopeful. When some of his fellow classmates refused to return, he double downed on his commitment to retire in Haiti. The 2010 earthquake fomented this dedication, reminding him of all the ways that his skills as a physician could be of use.
Like many Haitians these days, his unrelenting faith and optimism are waning. He is discouraged by the possibility of a return to dictatorship in his home country and frustrated by the inaction of his adopted country, which rather than send aid is deporting Haitians despite the Biden administration’s promise to halt deportations for 100 days.
In many ways my parents lived the immigrant’s elusive dream: experiencing success, educating their children, and retiring in the warmth of their beloved country when they could still appreciate it. Whenever I speak to my mother and father these days, I am reminded that as they age, I want nothing more than for them to experience peace and health in retirement. But Jovenel Moïse is trampling those dreams with each passing day.
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