By Andre Paultre and Sarah Marsh
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti emerged from the brutal and dynastic Duvalier dictatorship to democracy 35 years ago. Now, many Haitians fear a return to autocracy as President Jovenel Moise has been steadily amassing power.
The banana exporter-turned-politician has been governing by decree for more than a year since the Caribbean nation failed to hold elections in late 2019 due to political gridlock and violent unrest.
In this time, Moise has passed dozens of decrees, some of which implemented reforms considered long overdue, like an update to the penal code. Others, though, are deeply controversial - including an order designating certain types of street protests as terrorism, and the creation of an intelligence agency accountable only to the president.
"I don't see how there is anyone, after God, who has more power than me in the country," Moise said in a speech last year.
Now Moise hopes a referendum in June will approve a new constitution that would strengthen the power of the executive.
Moise says he wants to end the political instability that has plagued Haiti, hampering development in the poorest country in the Americas. He has vowed not to benefit from the changes, and says he will not stand for a second term at presidential elections set for September.
But the opposition, rights experts and many Haitians say they fear Moise is paving the way for his political camp - the Tet Kale party and its allies - to retain power indefinitely.
Thousands have been taking to the streets nationwide in a new wave of anti-government protests, chanting 'No to dictatorship! and calling for Moise's immediate resignation and a transition government.
The protests have shut down schools and businesses, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in a country where two-thirds of the population make less than $2 per day and gang violence has surged lately.
"This country cannot live any more in dictatorship, murders and repression," said Kelly Bastien, a former opposition senator, taking part in a protest. "Respect for the constitution! Down with dictatorship! Down with decrees!"
Moise's critics say his administration are using gangs to intimidate citizens, pointing to massacres in opposition-dominated neighborhoods.
Moise denies those charges. His supporters emphasize that he was democratically elected and accuse the opposition of deliberately stirring up unrest and using gang violence themselves to create chaos.
Neighboring countries have warned the situation could worsen as the referendum and presidential election approach, threatening the stability of the Caribbean.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti but has a gross domestic product per capita six times greater, said last month it would build a wall to keep out trouble.
And, with Haitian Americans making up a large diaspora in the United States and Haiti just 700 miles (1,125 km) off Florida, the issue is attracting scrutiny in Washington.
"It's something that we are very actively looking at," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a congressional hearing this month, adding that he shared concerns over "some of the authoritarian and undemocratic actions that we've seen."
Haiti became the first independent state of Latin America and the Caribbean in the early 19th century and first Black-led Republic when it threw off French colonial rule. It should be a beacon of freedom, historians say.
Instead, the toll of the war for independence and successive foreign interventions, as well as natural catastrophes like a major 2010 earthquake have contributed to instability, weak institutions and a blighted economy dependent on aid.
Nearly half of Haitians will need emergency humanitarian assistance this year, similar to the needs in war-torn African countries, according to the United Nations.
Fresh political turmoil erupted last month with a dispute over when Moise's term ended that resulted in the president denouncing a coup attempt and replacing three Supreme Court judges.
Moise told the UN Security council that the opposition's "policy of chaos" had forced the government to "take off the gloves."
The United Nations has denounced the erosion of the separation of powers under Moise. The UN, Haiti's Western donors, and Caribbean neighbors have urged Moise to fulfill his promise of holding legislative and presidential elections this year.
The opposition in Haiti accuses the United States - Haiti's top foreign donor - of being lenient towards Moise, given his support for its foreign policy. His administration broke ranks with the Caribbean community (Caricom) to oppose Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
But Haitian officials and several Western diplomats told Reuters the situation was complex.
Moise won his mandate with 56% of the vote in 2016.
Members of the fractured opposition knew they could not win elections so sought to weaponize civil society discontent and foment unrest to gain power, they said. Opposition leaders have refused dialogue unless Moise offers to resign.
Fears of a return to dictatorship were overblown, the diplomats said.
"He's made some worrying moves but there's still freedom of press, with people accusing Moise of all sorts on the airwaves, and dozens of political parties with different views," said one diplomat.
HOW TO FIX HAITI?
Haitians across the political spectrum agree the country needs an overhaul, including an update of the 1987 constitution that many say contains too many checks and balances in reaction to the Duvalier dictatorship.
Moise's reform would allow the president to serve two consecutive terms, eliminate the role of prime minister and the senate, lower the age limit for electoral office, streamline the election cycle and allow the large diaspora to vote.
Western diplomats said these changes would help improve governability and broaden political participation.
Critics, including opposition and civil society leaders who say they were not consulted by the government, argue that the reform goes too far and is being conducted without broad input.
"A constitution is too important to be changed in the middle of a crisis by a criticized government," said activist Emmanuela Douyon of the Nou Pap Domi (We Aren't Sleeping) anti-corruption civil society group.
She said the legitimacy of the referendum was threatened by a patchy roll-out of new biometric ID cards, needed for voting, and the ongoing insecurity, which could hamper turnout.
Elections Minister Mathias Pierre said the opposition had a habit of trying to delegitimize elections and the more democratic way forward would be to engage in the process.
Pierre said Moise was taking measures to ensure elections could be held safely, like declaring a state of emergency in the most gang-ridden neighborhoods, and had invited the Organization of American States to send electoral observers.
While the political battle rages, ordinary Haitians are struggling to survive. Mimose, 42, who declined to give her last name for fear of retaliation, is one of many street vendors whose work has been disrupted by the unrest.
"The authorities need to unite to allow the population to survive," said the mother-of-four. "As long as we are in this crisis, nothing will work."
(Reporting by Andre Paultre in Port-au-Prince and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O'Brien)