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A neurosurgeon with a public health portfolio is Haiti’s newest prime minister

Haiti President Jovenel Moïse has tapped Ariel Henry, a former minister of interior and respected neurosurgeon who once charted the country’s public health response to the deadly cholera epidemic, as his latest prime minister.

But the de facto way in which Henry, 71, got the job — there has been no parliament since January 2020, and Moïse, ruling by decree, did not seek a political agreement for making the appointment — may not help tamp down Haiti’s increasingly volatile political and constitutional crisis. Nor may his selection — he is Moïse’s seventh prime minister — and that of a new cabinet be enough to address the mounting humanitarian crisis, prompted by a surging wave of violence by armed gangs.

Already behind an alarming spike in kidnappings, the gangs’ fights over territory and money have forced the displacement of thousands of Haitians from poor, working-class Port-au-Prince neighborhoods since last month. A recent report shared with a disarmament group working with the United Nations said in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area alone there are 162 criminal gangs with 3,000 members.

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“Is he a game changer? Is he the man of the moment to tackle threatened, vital national interests? Does he have the political clout to play the role of a neutral broker? Can he exercise leadership in a captured state?” said Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince based political analyst. “Most likely not. How can he maneuver a sinking ship while wearing a straitjacket? It’s an Illusion of hope.”

In a tweet, Moïse, announcing the appointment Monday, said Henry will have to form “an open government” capable of solving “the glaring problem of insecurity and support the [Provisional Electoral Council] for the realization of general elections and the referendum.”

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Haiti observers said what would have been ideal is for Henry’s ascension, even without a parliament to give its blessing, to come from a political accord between Moïse and the opposition and civil society, which have insisted that they cannot go to elections with him in office and no longer recognize him as president.

They argue that Moïse’s presidential term ended on Feb. 7 because of the Haitian constitution and because his first year was take up by an interim president after the election had to be rerun because of fraud. Moïse says his term ends on Feb. 7, 2022, because the presidency is five years, according to the same constitution. He’s been in office for four years and five months.

As Henry’s name circulated over the weekend as a replacement for interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who took over the job in April when the last de facto prime minister resigned in the wake of the mounting crime wave, opposition members demanding Moïse’s ouster said they were not consulted.

In a meeting with a five-member Organization of American States delegation over the country’s crisis, Moïse acknowledged that there was no official dialogue taking place with the opposition, but said he speaks to members of the political and private sector.


The new Henry government appears to have emerged out of those private conversations rather than a political dialogue, which some foreign diplomats and Haiti observers have insisted is key to Moïse’s being able to pull off elections before the end of the year that are “free, fair and credible.”

In its report, the OAS’ political mission urged Haiti to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet no later than mid-July. That prime minister, the report noted, should be someone who enjoys broad support of the Haitian people.

While Henry, who served in both the governments of former Presidents Michel Martelly and René Préval, comes from the opposition, the lack of a political agreement is a handicap.

Further complicating matters it that as a former interior minister, Henry requires a clean financial bill of health, known as a décharge, from parliament, certifying that as a former government minister he did not steal any public funds.

In a Council of Ministers meeting over the weekend, the outgoing cabinet voted to override the requirement and allow Moïse to issue a presidential order giving clearance to any ministers, including former prime ministers, who have received a favorable report from Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes but failed to get the approval of parliament.

This has not been well received by anti-corruption grassroots activists. They have been calling for former and current government officials involved in the alleged embezzlement of nearly $2 billion from the Venezuela PetroCaribe petroleum-import finance project to be brought to justice, including Moïse, whom they have accused of corruption. The president has denied the allegations.

“The decree granting full and complete décharge to the former prime ministers and ministers ... constitutes a flagrant violation of the Constitution,” opposition leader André Michel said. “The culprits will be judged and punished at the appropriate time.”

The outgoing government also approved a new electoral law for presidential, local and legislative elections, scheduled for September, again raising questions on how much of a difference Henry can make when one of the most important decisions of the next few months has been taken out of his control. The elections are scheduled to take place on the same day as a controversial constitutional referendum many Haitians say is illegal.

It was the passing of the last electoral law by presidential decree that allowed dozens of Haitians with criminal records to run for parliament in 2015 — when for the first time in recent memory, the law governing elections intentionally did not require potential candidates to present a police certificate indicating whether they have a criminal history.

In addition to steering the elections, Henry is also faced with a constitutional referendum that is scheduled to take place on the same day as the first round of voting in September.

One of Haiti’s leading neurosurgeons, Henry worked in France for 19 years before returning to Haiti. He was a member of the Social Democratic Party, Haitian Revolutionary Progressive Nationalist Party founded by his longtime friend and mentor Serge Gilles, and later joined the leftist Fusion of Haitian Social Democrats political party before leaving the party to join INITE, formed by former ministers and supporters of Préval.

His father, Pastor Elie S. Henry, was an elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church before his death in 2015 at age 89. His brother, Pastor Élie Henry, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Inter-America, made international headlines in December when he and his daughter, Irma, became the latest victims of Haiti’s kidnapping scourge after going missing on Dec. 24, 2020. They were released unharmed four days later.

Henry, who has a background in public health and trains future doctors in between surgeries, first came onto the larger political scene in the early 2000s as a leading figure in the opposition Democratic Convergence movement fighting to force then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power after the opposition accused him of committing fraud in the 2000 elections.

Along with the late Micha Gaillard, a university professor and firebrand political militant who died in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, Henry was a leading voice of the opposition on the international stage during the movement to oust Aristide.

In 2004, as Haiti erupted into spiraling violence with gangs loyal to Aristide preparing to face off with an armed rebel group seeking his ouster, Henry was among the leaders seeking a consensus for a transition government and new elections.

He later became one of the seven members of the U.S.-backed “council of sages” that chose Haiti’s new transition government led by Florida resident Gerard Latortue after painstaking deliberations.

After Préval came to power in 2006, Henry was an early supporter amid deep skepticism by the opposition that the former agronomist could not be trusted and would dismiss parliament in order to rule by decree. Henry later joined Préval’s cabinet as director general of the Ministry of Health.

In that role, he addressed ongoing physician strikes at the country’s largest public hospital, the General Hospital; worked with the U.S. on the public health response after the earthquake and brought financial order to the ministry, which allowed the U.S. government to provide some direct funding for programs.

When the catastrophic 2010 earthquake hit, Henry was among the first responders on the scene, rounding up justices of the peace to try to identify victims. The effort proved unsuccessful, however, after many of the responders left because they could not stand the scene of mangled bodies trapped in collapsed buildings.

Ten months later, Henry took the lead on Haiti’s response to the cholera epidemic after Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers contaminated river tributaries in the Artibonite Valley. Early on, he decided that it should be Haiti’s Health Ministry, and not the U.N., that should take the lead in responding to the fallout from the epidemic.

In 2015, as anti-government demonstrators, many of them Aristide loyalists, took to the streets in a new round of street protests demanding Martelly’s resignation, Henry was among the figures from the opposition tapped to join a new government borne out of a political agreement with some members of the opposition.

He was asked to join the new cabinet as minister of the interior, a key government function during elections, under another de facto prime minister, Evans Paul.

But when the first round of legislative elections on Aug. 9, 2015, was marred by violence, the head of Henry’s party, former Préval Justice Minister Paul Denis, demanded he resign. By then, however, Martelly had already announced that he was replacing Henry with Ardouin Zéphirin, a former departmental director who currently serves as a key confidante of Moïse’s.

Last year, as Haiti faced a new threat with the COVID-19 pandemic, Moïse named Henry to a scientific group to advise the government on how to respond. Among the recommendations was to ask the U.S. to put a halt to deportations of Haitians back to Haiti — advice the president and the government ignored.

This story was originally published July 05, 2021 5:26 PM.

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