The United States renewed support Thursday for Haiti holding overdue elections but said it did not back a constitutional referendum after US lawmakers warned that voting this year would only bring more turmoil.
Amid soaring violence and kidnappings, President Jovenel Moise has been ruling the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation by decree after legislative elections due in 2018 were delayed and following disputes on when his own term ends.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that elections set for September would "restore the legislature's role in Haitian democracy."
"Presidential elections scheduled for the fall of this year are necessary to transfer power peacefully and on a timely basis from one democratically elected leader to another," Price told reporters.
But he voiced opposition to a June referendum championed by Moise that would consolidate powers around the presidency.
"We've emphasized to the government of Haiti that the US government will not provide financial support for a constitutional referendum," he said.
A group of US lawmakers this week urged the United States to ensure that no US money supports the referendum, pointing to statements of support for the vote by the United Nations and Organization of American States.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the lawmakers of his Democratic Party led by Representative Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for a broader reevaluation of policy on Haiti which it warned was ill-equipped to vote in September.
"While elections will clearly be needed in the near future to restore democratic order, we remain deeply concerned that any electoral process held under the current administration will fail to be free, fair or credible and that continued US insistence on elections at all costs will only make this outcome more likely," they wrote.
They called for a "Haiti-led process for change," warning that a troubled election would "only further undermine faith in democratic governance, waste scarce resources and perpetuate a cycle of political instability and violence."
Haiti's embassy in Washington denounced the letter as a call "for regime change to replace the democratically elected president."
"We are committed to hold credible and legitimate elections that will stand up to international scrutiny. We know what is at stake," it wrote.