Jovenel Moïse, who was shot in front of his family this week, made many enemies and few friends in four scandal-ridden years as Haiti’s president.
So many enemies that when a group of mercenaries posing as agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stormed the president’s private mansion in the early hours of Wednesday, it was not entirely clear which side his bodyguards were on. Haitian authorities have since ordered questioning of his security detail.
Video footage from witnesses circulating on the Internet appears to show the killers approaching the house under cover of darkness in a slow-moving convoy of vehicles. Some attackers walk between the cars brandishing submachine guns and shouting “DEA operation” and “don’t shoot” in English.
Once inside, the killers fired repeatedly at Moïse and his wife Martine. The president was hit 12 times and his left eye was put out, investigative magistrate Carl Henry Destin told Le Nouvelliste, a Haitian newspaper. Martine survived the attack with serious injuries and was flown to Florida for treatment.
The attack sparked international condemnation and consternation in Haiti despite the country’s endemic violence. “People are in the dark right now,” said a Port-au-Prince resident. “Whether you loved Moise or hated him, it’s the same reaction: a deep state of shock.”
Among the many unanswered questions are: who ordered the murder, why the bodyguards apparently showed no resistance, and what will happen next in Haiti, which was already in deep crisis even before the murder.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the US FBI and homeland security officials will be sent to Port-au-Prince as soon as possible at the request of the Haitian government to assess the situation and how we can help.
Although assassinations are common in the Caribbean nation and coups punctuate Haiti’s history, no president has been assassinated in office since a mob chopped up Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915.
That assassination sparked a 19-year occupation of Haiti by US troops, but Washington’s response was different this time. Psaki said Thursday that presidential elections scheduled for this year must go ahead.
In Haiti, authorities have been quick to emphasize the foreign identities of the president’s assassins. Police Chief Leon Charles said on Thursday that 26 of the 28-man killing squad were Colombian and two Americans of Haitian descent. Seventeen have been arrested and at least three killed. Others are on the run. It is unclear why the supposedly professional hitman failed to organize an outing.
There is a lot of speculation about who ordered the murder. Moise, a former banana exporter, had shown an increasingly authoritarian character in his last term, imprisoning opponents, ruling by decree, letting the terms of parliamentarians and mayors expire without new elections and requesting constitutional amendments that would have abolished the senate, giving him immunity from prosecution and paved the way for a second term.
Violent street protests erupted in 2018 over allegations that Moïse and his officials had made millions from a Venezuelan subsidized oil plan, something he has always denied.
“Moise had a lot of enemies,” said Laurent Dubois, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “You could speculate in many different directions. I imagine this could be traced back to an internal source, but it’s hard to say if we’ll ever really know.”
Equally obscure is what comes next in a country ravaged by political instability, worsening gang violence and acute poverty. Claude Joseph, Moïse’s sixth prime minister, acted quickly to maintain control after the assassination, issuing a state of emergency, holding a press conference and ordering the airport and local businesses to reopen after two days of quiet streets. However, Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon appointed by Moise to take over the office of prime minister two days before his death, claimed he was the legitimate leader.
Constitutional experts were bummed: Haiti has two possible legal formulas in the event of a presidential death, there is currently no sitting parliament to back a candidate, and the chief of the Supreme Court – a possible successor – died of the coronavirus last month.
For now, the US and the United Nations are dealing with Joseph; Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to him on Wednesday and state spokesman Ned Price repeatedly described Joseph as “the acting prime minister”.
Whoever takes over will face a serious challenge. In April, the Catholic Church warned that Haiti was “descending into hell” after seven of its clergy were kidnapped, and observers said security had deteriorated markedly from early June as gang violence increased.
“We need this government that has no legitimacy to accept a process of dialogue with all those who could form a government of national unity,” said Didier Le Bret, who served as French ambassador to Haiti from 2009-2013 and now works for a consultancy firm, ESL & Netwerk. “In Haiti, no election process is possible for months because none of the conditions can be met.”
Even before the assassination, UNICEF country representative Bruno Maes said Haiti was experiencing its worst humanitarian crisis in years due to violence by armed groups, acute fuel and food shortages and an increase in Covid cases. “The number of people in need of immediate humanitarian aid is 1.1 million,” he said. “We can’t use the main road south to reach people because armed gangs control it, so we have to use helicopters.”
International powers seem unwilling to intervene. A 13-year UN mission to Haiti ended in 2017 without bringing lasting stability, and critics said a Security Council statement this week was nothing more than wringing hands. With the US, the traditional arbiter, on the sidelines, some fear Haiti is in danger of drifting into violent anarchy.
“The poor people of Haiti have suffered enough,” said a local businessman. “People are dying, people are starving. People can’t take it anymore. Life is too painful.”