Wed, 12 May 2021

WASHINGTON - The U.S. is reiterating its call Wednesday for free and fair legislative and presidential elections in Haiti, hours after Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe resigned and President Jovenel Moise named Foreign Minister Claude Joseph as his replacement.

"The U.S. looks forward to continued cooperation with Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, the Government of Haiti and all Haitian stakeholders and international partners working to hold free and fair legislative and presidential elections in 2021," tweeted Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Jouthe announced his resignation in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday without explaining why he decided to step down. He had been at odds with other members of Moise's Cabinet, who openly opposed and acted against Jouthe's orders on issues pertaining to security and justice.

"I gave my letter of resignation to the President of the Republic, SEM @moisejovenel. It has been an honor to serve my country as prime minister. I thank the members of my government, (and) our technical and financial partners for their collaboration. God Bless Haiti!" Jouthe said on Twitter.

In a tweet, Moise said, "The resignation of the government, which I have accepted, will allow me to address the insecurity that is calling out to be handled and pursue discussions that will help us find the consensus that is necessary for political and institutional stability in our country."

Responding to VOA's request for comment on the Cabinet reshuffle, a State Department spokesperson expressed the Biden administration's commitment toward working with Haiti to promote democratic governance and the rule of law.

"We encourage Haitian politicians, civil society and the business community to find common ground to work toward free and fair overdue legislative, as well as presidential, elections," the spokesperson told VOA.

The Moise government plans to hold a constitutional referendum in June, followed by legislative and presidential elections in September and November.

Spike in kidnappings

The Cabinet change follows a spike in kidnappings during recent days that saw Protestant pastors and church officials kidnapped at gunpoint during a live broadcast on Easter Sunday, the abduction for ransom of Catholic priests and nuns, and the killing of a prominent businessman in broad daylight during a failed kidnapping attempt.

The Organization of American States expressed its concern late Tuesday about the deteriorating security situation.

"The Secretary General of the OAS (Luis Almagro) is closely following the situation in Haiti and deplores the deterioration of the security situation, particularly the resurgence of kidnappings and killings, including five religious leaders over the weekend," the OAS said in a tweet.

"The right to life is a reflection of respect for human life, which is a fundamental human right. the OAS Secretary General calls on Haitian officials to take the necessary measures to protect the life and dignity of its citizens."

Laurent Weil, research analyst and specialist on Latin America and the Caribbean at The Economist magazine, said the Cabinet change was not enough to improve security.

"A change of prime minister or Cabinet reshuffle is unlikely to be sufficient by itself to improve the security situation ahead of the referendum," Weil told VOA. But he thinks the resignation could signal Moise's willingness to engage in a more inclusive dialogue.

"The move may reflect President Jovenel Moise's recognition of the deteriorating situation and indicate that he is willing to engage in talks with some of his opponents to lower the heat on the political scene," Weil said. "But the prospects for negotiations are slim, as very few political leaders are willing to cooperate."

The United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti, BINUH, criticized the electoral process Tuesday, saying it was neither inclusive nor transparent enough.

"The national appropriation of the constitution project requires the engagement of a larger segment of political actors, civil society, women and religious groups from across the nation," BINUH tweeted.

Weil said there are steps Moise can take to show he is committed to free and fair elections.

"At this stage, if the government is really committed to free and fair votes this year, its priority will be to improve citizens' confidence by ensuring that a significant portion of the population takes ownership of the referendum and electoral process," he told VOA.

The new prime minister

Joseph is Haiti's 164th minister of foreign affairs and religious affairs. Before being named foreign minister in March 2020, he held posts as Haitian ambassador to Argentina, and charge d'affaires at the Haitian Embassy in Spain. Prior to working in politics, Joseph was a professor at the University of Connecticut and at Long Island University.

Under normal circumstances, Joseph's nomination would require Parliament's approval. But the legislative body is not functioning because of a failure to organize elections to renew the terms of lawmakers.

Joseph has not responded to VOA's request for comment on his new Cabinet position, but he did retweet Moise's announcement of his appointment, as well as a congratulatory tweet from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan.

"We welcome @moisejovenel's naming of @claudejoseph03 as interim PM of Haiti & look forward to continuing close bilateral cooperation in areas of mutual interest benefiting the people of both countries and the region. Taiwan is Haiti's true friend & partner in prosperity."

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