Interview with Department of State Press Contacts: Haitian Elections: Completion of 2015 Electoral Process

Kenneth H. Merten
Special Coordinator for Haiti and Deputy Assistant Secretary 
Via Teleconference
June 16, 2016

MR CROOK: Hi. Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State. We are very fortunate to have with us Deputy Assistant Secretary Kenneth Merten, who serves as the Haiti Special Coordinator and is the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. This call is on the record. First we will allow DAS Merten to make some opening remarks. And then we will move to your questions. Just a couple of operational details. There is no cue for questions on this line. And so I’ll go through our list and just ask each person who RSVP’d if they have a question, and then we will keep going down the list. Then if there is time, we’ll go back to the start. I will hand it over to our speaker for his remarks, and then we’ll look to your questions.

DAS MERTEN: Hi. Thanks, everybody, for joining us today. I appreciate your interest in Haiti. I am just going to give opening remarks. My opening statement – some of this – may not be new to most of you. I am happy to take some questions afterward. I think, as you know, the United States has been interested in seeing a democratic transfer of power in Haiti happen as soon as possible. I think this is really critical to Haiti’s long-term stability. Elected officials are needed at all levels of government – including the presidency, in particular, the presidency – and that means local officials, to parliamentarians, and the president. Although the elections are a Haitian-led process that we have been invited to support, we are disappointed that the Provisional Electoral Council decided to rerun the presidential elections from the first round. In our analysis, this will very likely increase the time and increase the resources needed to complete the 2015 electoral process and then, most likely, further delay the installation of a constitutionally elected president. As it stands today, it is not likely that a new president will be seated in Haiti before February 7, 2017. And that is a year later than was originally scheduled. So, once again, this delays the democratic future of the Haitian people.


DAS MERTEN: Can I go ahead? Are you guys good? OK.

DAS MERTEN: The accord that was signed on February 5 between the legislative and executive officials in Haiti established a roadmap to provide institutional continuity and an enabling environment to complete the Haiti electoral process. We note with concern that the revised electoral calendar provides no date for installation of a democratically elected president. Continual delays in the electoral process run counter to the intent of the accord that was signed by President Martelly and Provisional President Privert. Continual delays in the process are damaging for Haiti. And in our analysis, temporary political solutions do not replace the need for the seating of a democratically elected president in Haiti. Stability in Haiti in our analysis can only be achieved through the democratic process of elections and not through devising political solutions.

As a key partner and friend of the Haitian people, the role of the United States has been to support and strengthen democratic institutions and processes in Haiti in a manner consistent with the terms and spirit of the Inter American Democratic Charter. This includes adherence to regular election cycles for citizens to elect their own leaders and express their will toward a collective vision like the vast majority of other countries in our hemisphere that are now governed by democratically elected leaders.

As also called for in the February accord, we encourage the Provisional Electoral Council to quickly implement the technical fixes designed to improve the transparency and fairness of the upcoming elections, with an aim towards restoring public confidence in the entire process. The United States welcomes steps towards peaceful, credible, and transparent elections in Haiti, as we always have.

The longer it takes for Haiti to have a democratically elected president, the longer it will take for the United States to consider renewed partnerships to help Haiti confront its mounting economic (excuse me), climatic, and health challenges. We look forward to the prompt seating of a democratically elected president in Haiti who can work with the U.S. and Haiti’s other partners – international partners – international partners on addressing the many challenges that Haiti faces. The prompt installation of a democratically elected president is very much in the interests of the Haitian people.

And with that, I’m happy to take some questions.

MR CROOK: Thank you, DAS Merten. If I could just remind people to put your phones on mute if you are not speaking. So now we will begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Again, we don’t have a way to moderate this on the computer. So I’m just going to go down the list of RSVPs. And so feel free to pass if you don’t have a question. So I’ll start with Al Jazeera.

MS JORDAN: Hi, this is Rosiland Jordan from Al Jazeera English. Thank you for doing the call. My first question or, actually, two questions: Is Jocelerme Privert illegally in power? And, if so, should he step aside right now and allow the prime minister to be the caretaker leader until these new elections can be scheduled?

DAS MERTEN: You know, I think that is a decision and a conclusion that the Haitians need to come to on their own. As you know, we welcome the signing of the February 5 accord because it did give a roadmap, a way forward, and it seemed to calm down the passions amongst certain groups in Haiti at the time who appeared to be on course for trying to disrupt the elections. But I think that, you know, our goal has always been to see a president installed, according to the Haitian constitution, according to Haitian law. And, in our view, that fact will obviate the need for all these other questions. Part of the reason we say we don’t like to see political solutions is because it does invite questions of “is this or is this not legal,” “does this person or does this person not have the authority to do that,” and that’s why we have always supported the electoral process taking place as envisioned in the Haitian constitution and Haitian electoral law.

MR CROOK: Thank you. And is someone from AP here to ask a question?

Inaudible [VOA talking on top of others]

DAS MERTEN: Sorry, got AP first.

[VOA continuing question]

MR CROOK: Excuse me. We are going to have AP ask the next question.

DAS MERTEN: Sorry, sorry. Hello?

[VOA continuing question]

MR CROOK: Excuse me. Is AP there to ask a question please?

[VOA continuing question]

MR CROOK: Excuse me. Can I interrupt again?

[VOA continuing question]

MR CROOK: OK. So this is Joe again. And again, we are going down the list. So the next question goes to AP. Please wait for your turn before you ask a question. It will come to you shortly down the list. We are doing this by who RSVP’d and when. So the next question goes to AP. Thank you.

MR MCFADDEN: OK. This is David McFadden from AP. Is the U.S. willing to recognize Privert as the legitimate president until which time Parliament is able to get a quorum and make a decision on whether they will extend Privert’s term or choose somebody else?

DAS MERTEN: You know, again, I think the important thing is – and this is why we have been, all along – so, you know, so much, really, working so hard with our Haitian partners to see the electoral process run its course on time. Because these kind of questions, the fact that you are even asking these kind of questions about, you know, who is in charge in Haiti, who has the authority to do what, are just very unhelpful. And this is not a discussion, to be quite frank, that we should be having, and that we should be taking about. We should be all talking about ways that we can help Haiti continue to develop and Haiti to provide economic opportunities for people, and for Haiti to complete an electoral process so people feel confident that the person that they voted for is actually the person and the people who are leading them. So, I mean, I am not going to go into what happens if x or y happens. That’s a hypothetical kind of situation. I think we would certainly encourage the Haitian Parliament to – and all actors in Haiti – to ensure that constitutional order, that the organs of State, function as outlined in the constitution. And that’s really what we want to see.

MR CROOK: OK. Thank you.

MR MCFADDEN: OK. Fair enough. I am just curious if, as of this moment, the U.S. recognizes Privert as the president, if they have to deal with him, or do they look upon him as the previous interim president?

DAS MERTEN: I mean, as of right now, 3:14 Eastern Daylight Time, I would have to say I would recognize him as the Interim President of Haiti. But, you know, again, we are hoping that the Haitian authorities, the Parliament, will act soon to clarify that.

MR CROOK: OK. Thank you. We are going to move on to NPR. Is anyone from NPR available? OK. Thank you. Now we will move on to Nike, with VOA. Nike you have a question?

MR JEAN-PIERRE: Hello this is Jean-Pierre from VOA Creole Service.

MR CROOK: It is still not your turn, Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre, hold on.

[VOA continuing question]

MR CROOK: Jean Pierre, can you hear me?

[VOA continuing question]

MR CROOK: Jean Pierre. This is Joe, again. Again, please wait your turn before asking a question. We are actually going to hold off on your question until the end so that he can answer in Creole. You understand?

MR JEAN-PIERRE: Thank you. I appreciate that.

MR CROOK: OK. Thank you. Next, we are going to go to Reuters.

MR MOHAMMED: Let’s see. It is Arshad Mohammed. Thanks for inaudible on the call. Can you walk us through, assuming that they do, in fact, redo the elections, can you walk us through the process from here to the date of the installation of a president in early 2017?

DAS MERTEN: Well, as we understand it, and again, I want to emphasize, that this is a Haitian process and not a process that we are in charge of. This is a process that’s being established and run by the Provisional Electoral Council and the Haitian government. But, as I understand it, they have produced a roadmap in which the first round of presidential elections would take place in October and, I believe October 17, I believe is the date that they have chosen. I could be wrong about that date. October 9, excuse me. Then, there will be, votes will be counted and, as I understand it, they will determine who will be the top two finishers. And then in January, on January 8, there will be the second round of presidential elections. And the top two vote-getters will face off with each other and a new president, I guess, would be installed on February 7. But that is not entirely clear. It’s not in the declaration that they made. And there is some language in that, I believe, which says something about the presidential electoral process running its course in April of 2017. Again, not being a legal scholar, I’m not really sure what that means. But it is concerning that this is, well – indicates that this could be well over a year since the president was really supposed to have been installed. So that is my understanding. And it could be incomplete – could very well be incomplete – of where we are and the process forward, moving forward.

MR MOHAMMED: One other question. Is U.S. assistance to Haiti going to be reduced – I am not saying curtailed or deliberately cut – but because of the lack of a government that, you know, a duly elected government and so on? Or is it likely that aid will drop, not because the United States doesn’t want to provide it but because it feels that it does not have the interlocutors on the other side with the correct authorities to accept it?

DAS MERTEN: Well I think there are already impacts you can see. I think some of the things we find most worrisome is that, from what we understand, a lot of private sector – both foreign and domestic – investment has been put on hold because people just simply don’t know if we are going to face another year of uncertainty and political troubles or not and if, in fact, that uncertainty is going to continue on after this electoral cycle. So that, in itself, I think is very, very troubling. There is an opportunity cost to this delay in seating a president. And that is very, very troubling. In terms of the United States and our assistance, I think the important thing to remember is that, you know, our development and economic and security assistance in Haiti are in aid of things that we believe the Haitian people want and that previous governments have articulated that they want, but also things that are in the United States’ interest. I mean, it is in our interest to, for example, support, as we have done, an effective police force, an independent civilian police force in Haiti. And, it is in our interest, and in the Haitian people’s interest as well to support, you know, the improvement in public health, that we have seen over the past several years in Haiti. It is in our interest, as a neighbor and a friend of Haiti, to see people in Haiti living healthier, better lives. So I think those things, our hope is that we will be able to continue to do those programs. But, you know, there are already international financial institutions who, as I understand it, are not able to process or take certain steps, process new loans or take certain steps, without a fully democratic government in place. And, again, that is an example of the opportunity cost here.

MR CROOK: OK. Thank you. Our next question will go to Miami Herald. OK. If no one is there from Miami Herald is there, we’ll go to AFP.

MS BARON: Hi, Mr. Merten. I am Amélie Baron from AFP. I have two questions. Direct questions will be linked to the former one. Will the U.S. finance or help Haiti financing the coming elections? And the second question is that you said that it is important at each level in Haiti to have, as I told, legitimate people in place. Why the U.S. and also other international partners did not express their concern on this thing because elections, especially the local elections, were not held on time, as scheduled in 2011. So why did the U.S. not express concern earlier?

DAS MERTEN: Sorry, if I can just clarify your question. You’re talking about which elections not being held on time? The parliamentary elections?

MS BARON: Well, the mayor ones. The mayor inaudible starting in 2011 by, you know, how do we call that in English, let’s say provisional mayor in 2011 and 2012?

DAS MERTEN: Ah, yeah, OK. I get it. No, I get it. I see what you are saying. Well first, on your first question, I mean, you know, I have said several times in previous interviews that the U.S. will have to examine its further support for another round of presidential elections in Haiti. You know, we, I think, it is safe to say, the American taxpayer was quite generous in underwriting the Haitian elections to the tune of $33 million, through various different actors to support the elections in Haiti. That’s a lot of money, I think by any standard. And, you know, whether we are able to continue to fund the next round of presidential elections is something that we are looking at now. As I have said before, there are opportunity costs to this kind of thing happening, and so we’re still in the process of looking at what we can do. But I think we’ve said, the Haitians obviously get to make, and it is appropriate, will make their own choice about elections, but we also get to make our choices about how the U.S. taxpayers’ money is spent on elections on Haiti.

And regarding the other officials, I think we’ve always supported the rule of law and support of the constitutional order in Haiti. You know, I think our focus, obviously, is on the national figures that we deal with diplomatically on a regular basis, and that is the president, the prime ministers, the ministers, but also the members of Parliament. That is not to say that we are not interested or aren’t concerned about the mayors. We are. It is just that we are, we spend, and are more familiar with dealing with those other actors.

MR CROOK: OK. Thank you. And then the … I think we have time for one more question. And so, Jean-Pierre, thanks for your patience. Please go ahead.

MR JEAN-PIERRE: No problem. Thank you. I appreciate that. Mr. Merten, my question is two parts. We can answer shortly. The first is about the recognition. Does the United States recognize Mr. Privert as an interim president or provisional president since his 120-day-mandate are lapsed, are done? And second one is about the calendar. The CEP – not the CEP – the president, the Parliament, now they agree on modifying the calendar so the election can finish at the end of this year. So everything is done regarding election the end of this year. Is that, are you ready to help to give any financial aid to those elections?

DAS MERTEN: OK. Let me answer in English first. And then I will answer in Creole. Again, on the whole recognition thing, we really want the National Assembly to take the action they need to take to clear the subject up. I don’t think it is appropriate for us to talk about whether we, you know, recognize person x or person y as being in charge in Haiti. This is a decision that the Parliament – the National Assembly – needs to take the action necessary to ensure the continuance of governance in Haiti. Somebody needs to be governing Haiti. And that’s what we really want to see happening, and I think the UN Secretary General Spokesman just issued a statement today, which I would encourage you all to look at. I think it is an excellent statement and something that I think we agree with.

[DAS Merten answers in Creole]

MR JEAN-PIERRE: And regarding the calendar, being modified to the end of the year? And any assistance for those elections.

DAS MERTEN: So, on the electoral calendar, I haven’t seen that, that there is a modified electoral calendar out there. As you know, our wish has always been to see a president seated as soon as possible. So, again, it is not our decision, but if that happens, the sooner the better. And, again, on the money situation, that is not a determination that I get to make. That’s something that we have to deliberate here, in the Executive Branch, but also our Congress has views which we need to take into account as well. So I don’t think it is something that I can give you an answer for now. And I can answer it in Creole now if you wish.

[DAS Merten answers in Creole]

MR JEAN-PIERRE: Merci beaucoup. Thank you.

MR CROOK: That concludes our time for questions. DAS Merten, do you have any final words?

DAS MERTEN: I don’t. I think the question of the day is this question about: Is the National Assembly going to take action? And again, it’s really not up to us to decide who is in power and, you know, who is the president of Haiti. It is the Haitian authorities whose job it is to do that, and we really can’t urge them in strong enough terms to really sit down and iron this out as soon as possible. Haiti needs to be governed. The Haitian people deserve to be governed, and deserve to understand on what basis they’re being governed. And I will just give one final plug for our position: this is exactly to avoid situations like this, and questions like you are asking me now. This is why we always have supported sticking to a timetable and having an elected president in power that the Haitian people feel comfortable with, that they have elected, making decisions on their well-being. So, anyway, thank you all for your interest, and it has been a great pleasure talking to you. Hope to do it again soon.