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Catherine Buteau, a 33-year-old marketing and communications specialist in Montreal, woke up on February 7 to a lot of missed calls on her phone. His relatives in Haiti called him desperately. His father, mother and aunt had been torn from their beds in Port-au-Prince in the middle of the night.

“No one knew what was going on, just that they were taken away,” she told me. “At first, not understanding what is going on, I thought of the worst.”

Later that day, Ms. Buteau learned that her parents and aunt were among eighteen people who had been arrested and accused of attempting a coup against Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Since that day, she has worked 24 hours a day with a lawyer in Haiti to try to get her parents out of prison.

Were they plotting a coup or trying to restore democracy?

Jake Johnston, a Haiti scholar at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told me the answer depends on when you think the president’s term is over. Opposition leaders say it ended on February 7, four years after his inauguration in 2017. They openly planned to swear in a parallel government to force him to relinquish power. But supporters of Mr. Moïse say he has another year left in his tenure, as a contested election delayed him from taking office.

“That’s where a lot of it comes down: legitimacy,” said Johnston.

Some coups are evident, such as the recent military takeover in Myanmar. Others are more obscure. What constitutes a coup d’etat is too often in the eye of the beholder.

Coups are increasingly rare, according to John Chin, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who tracks illegal takeovers. The 1960s saw dozens of coups around the world each year. More recently, there have only been one or two a year. But accusations coup plots have not disappeared. Indeed, even leaders of democracies – like Donald Trump in the United States and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel – have cried out for a coup to delegitimize opponents by describing their conduct as illegal and undemocratic, Mr. Chin told me.

Whether something is considered a coup has practical implications. In 2009, when Honduran special forces escorted President Manuel Zelaya from his home in pajamas at gunpoint and on a plane flight out of the country, the US State Department refrained from calling it a “military coup” because it would have meant helping the Honduran army.

And, in 2019, when Bolivian President Evo Morales, an icon of the left, was forced to flee to Mexico just weeks after being declared the winner of a fourth term, US officials rejected the term “coup State ”and called it an expression of“ democratic will ”.

If a government is unpopular enough, its overthrow is called a revolution. Nowhere is this more evident than in Haiti, a nation founded when enslaved and free peoples revolted against their French colonial masters, winning independence in 1804. Few historians would call it a coup d’etat. State.

But popular revolts are easier to produce than popular governments. Haiti endured a number of brutal dictators, including François Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc”, in the 1950s and 1960s and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, “Baby Doc”, who reigned from 1971 to 1986. There were many plots to eliminate Papa Doc, who survived relying on a feared militia, the Tontons Macoute. Haiti is an example of how failed coups, or even failed coups, can strengthen a leader’s grip on power by providing a pretext for cracking down on opponents.

Haitians only had their first free democratic election in 1990, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide won in a landslide, only to be deposed twice in military coups. Once a country catches a case of coups, it can be difficult to heal. Each leader afterwards is less sure.

Ms. Buteau’s parents do not seem to be the type to plot. They were not soldiers. His father, Louis Buteau, is an agronomist who worked for years at the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture. Her mother, Dr. Marie Antoinette Gautier, is a well-known surgeon at Eliazar Germain Hospital who has already opened a clinic inside their home for people in their neighborhood. Dr Gautier also ran for President in 2015 as a candidate from afar.

“My mother is very vocal,” Ms. Buteau told me. Raised by a widowed nurse with seven children, Dr. Gautier entered medicine, while her sister, Marie Louise Gauthier, joined the national police.

“These are people who have dedicated their lives to public service in Haiti,” said Ms. Buteau.

They sounded like the kind of educated and civic Haitians who risked raising their hands on the political situation and emigrating to the United States, France or Canada. But Ms. Buteau’s parents did not want to leave Haiti.

They stayed even when Mr. Buteau was shot dead by thieves outside a bank a few years ago, then a wave of kidnappings swept across the country, capturing a distant cousin for ransom . Yet the last time Ms. Buteau spoke to her parents, they were angry about the deteriorating political situation. The past year has been marked by growing protests against the president, who has governed by decree since the dissolution of parliament in January 2020.

The legitimacy enjoyed by Mr. Moïse stems from his 2016 election. But political legitimacy becomes murky when large numbers of people have been kicked off electoral rolls and when elections are known to be rigged.

Only about 20% of Haitians went to the elections which brought Mr. Moïse to power. Simply holding an election is not enough – the public must perceive that the vote is free and fair for the winner to have moral strength. It’s a warning to the United States, where Republicans are busy trying to get people off electoral rolls and where some Democrats believe trying to convince Trump supporters that President Biden has won is futile. fairly.

The issue of the end of the president’s term should have been resolved by a constitutional court. But the justice system in Haiti is not functioning as it should, thanks to the president. So Mr Moïse has planned another year in power, even rolling out plans for an openly unconstitutional referendum in April that would strengthen his grip on power. While a consensus has formed in Haiti that certain political reforms are necessary to avoid a cyclical deadlock, the current Constitution specifically prohibits amendments by referendum.

After the attack on Capitol Hill on January 6, Americans don’t have much credibility to lecture other countries about elections, if we ever had them to begin with. In the past, Americans have blatantly meddled in Haitian politics in ways that have not produced good results in the long run. It is not for us to resolve the crisis in Haiti.

US taxes should also not pay for Mr. Moïse’s unconstitutional referendum. And Haitian leaders should not be allowed to park their money in US banks if there is reason to believe it was stolen as part of corrupt schemes or collected through kidnapping networks involving the state security forces. This is what the Magnitsky Law is for.

Many people in Haiti believe the Trump administration struck a deal with Mr. Moïse: if he supported the US case against Venezuela, then Washington would look away from the human rights violations in Haiti. . But things got so bad there that not even the Trump administration was able to stay silent. In December, the Treasury Department sanctioned two former officials of Mr. Moïse’s government and a notorious gang leader for their alleged role in a 2018 massacre in which at least 71 Haitians were killed, apparently for refusing to surrender. side with the president against the opposition. .

More needs to be done to empower those who have committed atrocities. It’s hard to imagine free and fair elections in Haiti as long as these killers are free. Yet the State Department initially supported Mr. Moïse’s view that he still has one year in office, a statement that some say gave him the confidence to arrest those close to Ms. Buteau, even so a spokesperson also called on him to adhere to the spirit of the Constitution. . Other voices in the US government spoke forcefully about the situation in Haiti.

Mr. Moïse’s government released a videotape showing “evidence” of a coup, which featured a recording of a conversation between Ms. Buteau’s aunt, the Inspector General of the National Police, and the head of security at the presidential palace. The government says the tapes prove Ms Buteau’s aunt tried to bribe the security chief to arrest Mr Moïse so that a new provisional president – a Supreme Court judge who was also arrested – can be sworn in.

Was this really proof of a coup? Not likely. The video named the coup mastermind as Dan Whitman, an American who was the spokesperson for the US Embassy in Haiti 20 years ago. Upon arriving at his home in Washington, Mr. Whitman told me that the allegation “could not be more bizarre and more false.”

Mr. Whitman, who retired from the State Department in 2009, told me he had not been to Haiti for two decades. He had lost track of what was going on there until a Haitian radio reporter called him to ask for a comment on the alleged plot. He has since heard a rumor that someone pretending to be him called opposition figures in Haiti and gave orders that paved the way for the February 7 arrests.

“I’m disgusted,” he told me. “I am scared. But I am not surprised. This kind of thing happens all the time in small, vulnerable countries. “

The Biden administration must find ways to speak out for fair elections in Haiti without trying to decide the outcome. In a draft letter to Congress, Frantz G. Verret, former chairman of Haiti’s electoral commission, asked for help in calling a meeting between the opposition and the president. He compared it to “roadside assistance” to revive Haitian democracy.

This is the kind of assistance that should be provided by the United States. After all, it is the Haitian people who must decide whether their president is legitimate or not, and whether the foiled coup in Haiti was really a coup.

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