Almost certainly the largest news story of 2021, even more than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has been the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. The images of insurrectionists, many of them armed, rightly led to condemnations from both sides of the political spectrum and led to former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment. One word that has been used frequently in describing the storming of the Capitol has been “coup.”
Referring to the storming as at least an attempted coup is accurate. After all, the goal of the stormers was to overturn a democratic election and install the election’s loser, with, at the very least, the perceived backing of the incumbent president. All of this is to say, now that President Joe Biden has been the victim of a coup attempt, one would hope that he uses this experience to at least avoid backing coups against democratically-elected governments — a stance the Obama administration did not always take.
A prime opportunity to oppose a coup right now would be in Haiti. Haiti has spent the better part of the last two months engaged in what could lightly be called a constitutional crisis. The crisis stems from whether or not the country’s constitution entitles the incumbent President Jovenel Moïse to another year in office or not. The relevant part of Haiti’s constitution, Article 134-1, states that “The term of the President is five (5) years. This term begins and ends on February 7 following the date of the elections.”
Normally, this would mean that Moïse’s term would end on Feb. 7, 2022, as he was elected in November 2016 and sworn in on Feb. 7, 2017. However, the election that Moïse was elected in was not held in the fifth year of his predecessor’s term, as Article 134-2 of Haiti’s constitution stipulates that it should be; the election was annulled because widespread violence following its first round prevented a second from occurring.
As such, Moïse was elected nine months after his predecessor’s term ended, in what we in the United States would call a special election. This is why Haiti’s Superior Court of Justice ruled that Moïse’s term ended on Feb. 7, 2021, and an interim successor should be sworn in. Moïse has responded by remaining in office, and, for good measure, unilaterally firing three justices from the court that ruled against him. If you have trouble seeing this as a coup, replace Moïse’s name with Trump’s and that should make it clear.
Now would be a good time for Biden to stand against coups and “demonstrate that democracy can still deliver for our people,” as he stated in a recent speech. However, Biden’s State Department has instead backed Moïse’s claim to another year in power, essentially granting him carte blanche to continue the anti-democratic activity he has engaged in. While this is obviously appalling, it is unfortunately consistent with the U.S.’s history of anti-democratic intervention in Haiti.
To name a few examples, the U.S. supported the dictatorial Duvalier dynasty that ruled Haiti between 1957 and 1986, conducted not one, but two different coups against Haiti’s democratically elected left-wing President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and interfered with the country’s 2010 election, held less than a year after the earthquake that destroyed the country. Essentially, Biden’s backing of Moïse’s coup is entirely consistent with long-time U.S. policy on Haiti, a policy that stands in stark contrast to the democratic ideals it claims to champion.
The question of why the Biden administration has chosen to stand against democracy in Haiti is also depressingly clear: Moïse supports U.S. business interests. A 2020 State Department document lauds Moïse for having “articulated a commitment to improve the business environment and attract foreign investors” and praises both him and his predecessor for “encouraging foreign investment and developing private-led, market-based economic growth.”
This stands in sharp contrast to former Haitian President Aristide, who railed against the low wages that foreign investment often brought. He was rewarded for this defiance by being the victim of two U.S.-backed coups. This is, once again, consistent with the U.S.’s stance toward the authoritarian Duvalier regime. Despite embezzling over $1 billion from the country and brutally suppressing dissent, the regime enjoyed consistent support from the U.S. because it staunchly opposed communism and offered benefits to American businesses. Biden supports Moïse for the same reason the U.S. has supported all sorts of horrible governments around the world — they support American business interests.
While it is unlikely that Biden will change course given all of the reasons mentioned before, it is still possible for him to do so. Pro-democracy protests against Moïse continue despite arbitrary detention of protestors, and it would be wind in their sails for the Biden administration to take their side against their anti-democratic government.
So, if Biden wants to stand for democracy and against coups like the one attempted against him on Jan. 6, his State Department should change its stance on Moïse’s power grab immediately.
Brandon Cowit is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.