A politically inexperienced banana farmer who campaigned on reinvigorating agriculture became Haiti’s 58th president Tuesday, promising to return law and order, root out corruption and put this dysfunctional nation back on the road to economic recovery and development.
“Haiti is back on the path to democracy,” Jovenel Moïse declared in his inaugural presidential address after taking the oath of office earlier in the day at Parliament before a guest list that included Haitian lawmakers, the vice president of Venezuela and a former reality star representing the Trump administration. “Today is not the victory of one camp over other camps, but it’s the victory of democracy. … It’s Haiti’s victory and that of all Haitians.”
Moïse’s swearing-in effectively brings to an end a prolonged political crisis that stymied economic growth and tested international support at a time when Haiti needed them the most. The country still hasn’t recovered from its devastating Jan. 10, 2010, earthquake, and in October — in the midst of the crisis — Category 4 Hurricane Matthew nearly wiped out its southern peninsula.
Moïse, 48, now faces the overwhelming task of reconstructing a country ravaged by both disaster and decades of bad governance. And he will have to do it in a deeply divided society and in a context of greatly diminished foreign assistance and investments, a departing United Nations peacekeeping force, and looming money-laundering suspicions over his business dealings.
A political protégé of former President Michel Martelly, who attended both the swearing-in at Parliament and the larger event on the presidential palace grounds, Moïse comes into office with a legal cloud that could cripple his presidency and further destabilize Haiti.
He’s the target of an ongoing money-laundering probe by the government’s anti-financial crimes unit. The probe was launched in 2013 under Martelly’s administration, and then transferred to an investigative judge under interim President Jocelerme Privert.
Late Monday, government prosecutor Danton Léger ordered the judge to launch a complementary investigation by interviewing the first lady and three others.
Moïse has maintained his innocence and dismissed the allegations as the work of political enemies. He made no mention of his pending legal problems during his 25-minute address in Creole and French under a replica of the quake-destroyed palace.
Instead, he emphasized that during his presidential term, “justice will be impartial and fair,” and the country’s diaspora, “who want to return home, will be able to do so without being scared.”
“Never, never … will justice be used in Haitian institutions as an instrument for political persecution,” he said, a statement that received a standing ovation from many in the crowd that also included Dominican President Danilo Medina and Guyana President David Granger. “We are all Haitians, and we will build one Haiti for all Haitians.”
Eric Jean-Baptiste, a former presidential candidate who had supported Moïse’s closest presidential competitor, Jude Célestin, said he thought the president’s promises to unite different factions, combat corruption and strengthen institutions “are extremely important considering that he has a case before the justice system, and says that he will let justice do its job.”
“I wish him good luck,” Jean-Baptiste said. “If the president succeeds, it is Haiti that succeeds. Five years is short and it is long. It’s long when there are bad decisions that are being taken, and it’s very short when there are good decisions being taken on behalf of the country.”
Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, said that while the current situation in Haiti “invites pessimism, Jovenel Moïse may have a small window of opportunity to create a renewed sense of hope.”
“Unlike his predecessor and mentor, Michel Martelly, he will enjoy a parliamentary majority which should allow him, at least in the short term, to govern more effectively and without fear of confronting a quasi-permanent opposition,” Fatton said, referring to the number of legislative seats Moïse and Martelly’s Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) and its allies were able to secure in the recent elections.
Haiti’s recent rough times might actually help the new president, Fatton added. “Low popular expectations and the political fatigue generated by years of protests may paradoxically give President Moïse the chance to enjoy a period of badly needed stability to forge new programmatic priorities and policies.”
Robert Maguire, a professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, said despite Moïse’s lack of political experience and the mere 590,000-plus votes that brought him to victory, the new president could make history.
“If he can indeed take steps to reinvigorate food production in Haiti by investing in farmers and the rural economy, his presidency could be historic,” Maguire said. “On the other hand, given these raised expectations, if Moïse fails to truly improve Haitian agriculture and its ability to feed Haitians, he will be shown to be someone who raises very popular expectations without delivering on them. This could cripple his presidency.”
Moïse also faces another external pressure. In addition to the imminent departure of the U.N. peacekeeping force after 12 years, Haitians continue to leave by the plane and boatload. There are more than 4,000 along the U.S.-Mexico border, hoping to enter the U.S.
“The government of Haiti will be pressed to take some responsibility for those Haitians who have piled up along the Mexican border,” Maguire said.
Conditions in Haiti, he said, “are once again pushing Haitians to desperation. This only adds to Mr. Moïses’ problems and challenges.”
During Tuesday’s ceremony, Roman Catholic Cardinal Chibly Langlois reminded Moïse that he has a moral duty to serve all of Haiti.
“Today, you are the one who has the huge honor and the moral duty to serve all Haitians, women or men,” Langlois said. “You are the president of all Haitians without distinctions.”