‘No one’s in charge’: Haiti faces violent new era after killing of president
Assassination of President Jovenel Moïse leaves impoverished Caribbean nation on brink of chaos
The assassination of Haiti’s president early on Wednesday marks the explosive climax of a spiralling political and security crisis – and threatens to open a violent new chapter in the Caribbean nation’s volatile history.
Jovenel Moïse was gunned down at his home in the capital, Port-au-Prince, with witnesses and government officials suggesting the attack was perpetrated by black-clad “mercenaries” posing as DEA agents. His wife, the first lady, Martine Moïse, was also reported to have been wounded in the attack.
“I’m just dumbfounded by the event,” said Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics professor from the University of Virginia. “I don’t understand how you just go inside the residence of the president, and you kill him – and then you leave. It’s all very strange. I’m not sure who is going to benefit from that …. We have no clue.”
“In modern times we haven’t had assassinations of presidents,” Fatton added. “We’ve had attempted coups and coups – but killing a president is different … It’s beyond anything we’ve seen in Haiti.”
Whoever was behind the raid, experts say Moïse’s killing bodes badly for the future of a profoundly impoverished nation already grappling with a battery of interlinked crises involving Covid-19, politics, the economy and organised crime.
“What we have now is complete uncertainty,” Fatton warned as the US president, Joe Biden, condemned what he called a “heinous act”.
Fatton said: “According to the Haitian constitution, the [interim] president should be the chief justice. But the chief justice died of Covid [last month] – so there is no one obviously in charge.”
The identity of Haiti’s prime minister was also unclear. Moïse had been due to install Ariel Henry as prime minister on Wednesday after dismissing his predecessor Claude Joseph. It was Joseph who in the event announced Moïse’s killing on Wednesday morning.
Fatton said: “We don’t have a parliament. We have a prime minister who is no longer prime minister. A chief justice who is dead. The police, which is falling apart. Gangs roaming the streets of Port-au-Prince. So there is no one really in charge … I think it’s going to lead to more chaos.”
Moïse, a banana exporting businessman with no political background, was elected in late 2016, using social media to depict himself as Haiti’s outsider “Nèg Bannann nan” (Banana Man). When he took office the following February some hoped the entrepreneur might bring a modicum of stability to the notoriously turbulent politics of one of the western hemisphere’s poorest nations – a deeply deprived country of 11 million inhabitants that is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake and subsequent cholera outbreak.
Instead, Haiti has fallen further into political and economic strife, with Moïse facing mounting public fury over corruption, incompetence, his alleged erosion of democracy, his failure to vaccinate the population against Covid, and a recent surge in often politically charged violence.
Moïse had been ruling by decree for more than a year and in February, as protests grew over what critics called his authoritarian bid to cling to power, he ordered 23 arrests, claiming he had foiled a plot to assassinate him and launch a coup. The last year has seen a surge in murders, kidnappings, and gang violence which some accused Moïse of encouraging.
“There is no place that is safe today in Haiti,” said Pierre Espérance, a prominent human rights activist whose group has counted 13 gang-related massacres in which 437 people were killed and 129 had disappeared since November 2018. “It is a very complicated situation,” Espérance said.
Fulton Armstrong, an American University Haiti specialist, said the soaring violence meant he was shocked, but not surprised by Moïse’s murder. “When you have these permissive escalations of violence, where innocent people get shot or killed or kidnapped, if there is no action, then one of these goons-for-hire that Haitian politicians use is going to take a shot,” said Armstrong, who was the CIA’s chief in Haiti during the 1990s. “These things have to have a denouement.”
Jake Johnston, a Haiti specialist from the Center for Economic and Policy Research thinktank, said he was also not entirely surprised by the “brazen” attack, which follows a spate of high-profile killings including those of a journalist and a human rights activist.
“This is a situation that has been building for some time,” Johnston said. “A huge part of this story is that when you have a situation where the police has failed to provide security to the population, anything becomes possible.”
Espérance said the palpable climate of fear and uncertainty in Port-au-Prince had intensified in the hours since the president’s assassination. “Everyone is staying home,” said the activist, who feared overseas actors might now seek to impose a political solution on Haiti, which has suffered repeated foreign interventions in the more than a century since a Haitian president was last assassinated – in July 1915. That killing, of the then president, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, triggered a US invasion and occupation that lasted until 1934.
Fatton said he could not rule out Haiti – which was subject to a controversial UN stabilisation mission between 2004 and 2017 – facing another such intervention if the security situation worsened after the president’s murder.
“All of it now is speculation. But what I think is pretty clear is that the situation is going to deteriorate very soon because you are going to have many claimants of power.”