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Unrest and exhaustion last month in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP via Getty.

President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti claims he survived a coup attempt on Sunday. Leading opposition figures say there was no coup attempt — and that Moïse is no longer president.

Why it matters: Haiti’s prolonged political crisis is coming to a head over the question of whether Moïse’s term ended on Sunday or will end on Feb. 7, 2022. This is just the latest flashpoint in a cycle of delayed elections, public frustration and fraying political legitimacy in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Flashback: Moïse’s mentor and predecessor, Michel Martelly, left office in February 2016 without an elected successor after the results of a 2015 election were annulled. Moïse, a businessman with no prior political experience, was elected in November 2016 and took office in February 2017.

  • The opposition argues that, electoral delays aside, the clock on the current five-year presidential term started on Feb. 7, 2016.
  • Moïse says it began when he took office — a position backed by the Organization of American States, the UN and, as of Friday, the U.S. State Department.

Driving the news: Moïse appeared on Facebook Live on Sunday to announce the arrests of 23 people, including a supreme court justice, whom he accused of plotting to overthrow and kill him.

  • The opposition did indeed hope to oust Moïse, but dismisses the idea it intended to do so violently. Whether Moïse’s claims were more than political theater remains unclear, at least from Washington.
  • “The situation remains murky and we await the results of the police investigation,” a State Department spokesperson told Axios.
  • Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), meanwhile, said the arrests simply showed Moïse had “escalated his anti-democratic campaign.”
  • A day earlier, Levin had signed onto a letter urging Secretary of State Tony Blinken to back calls for an immediate political transition in Haiti. The letter, penned by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), revealed a schism between Democrats on the issue.

Between the lines: The State Department spokesperson today reiterated the U.S. position that Moïse’s term would end in 2022 while calling on Moïse to schedule elections and all sides to proceed peacefully.

State of play: Moïse has been ruling by decree since February 2020 after failing to hold parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019.

  • Now he says he’ll hold a constitutional referendum in April followed by legislative and presidential elections later this year — a timeline Georges Fauriol of the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls “suspiciously short.”
  • “There are health issues, there are security issues, and the machinery of democracy is for all intents and purposes nonexistent,” Fauriol says, citing incomplete voter rolls and the lack of an independent electoral commission.
  • Even if the elections are held, the legitimacy of the outcomes will likely be immediately challenged, he adds.

The bottom line: Sunday also marked the anniversary of dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier fleeing Port-Au-Prince in 1986, heralding the restoration of democracy.

  • During his Facebook address, Moïse declared, "I am not a dictator." The fact that such a statement needed to be made underscores the fragility of Haitian democracy 35 years later.

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Why it matters: As vaccine rates have flattened across the country, business leaders have the power to impact their employees’ decisions. Many corporate leaders had been looking for stronger federal guidance to lean on.