Illustration Credit: Bob Englehart, Cagle Cartoons
Early on Wednesday morning, President of Haiti Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his home in the wealthy enclave of Pétion-Ville, on the eastern outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Early reports claimed that a crew of Spanish-speaking assailants had identified themselves as agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) over a loudspeaker before beginning the assault; police say that they have currently identified more than two dozen individuals alleged to have been involved in the plot against Moïse—including 26 Colombians and two U.S. citizens of Haitian descent—and detained at least 17. (Among the apprehended Colombian nationals are at least six retired military servicemen, according to Colombian Minister of National Defense Diego Molano.) Authorities have reported that at least four alleged “mercenaries” have been killed by security forces, while at least four additional Colombian suspects have reportedly been apprehended by civilian vigilantes.
According to Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste newspaper, Moïse—a former agricultural entrepreneur and the political successor of former president Michel Martelly—was shot upwards of 12 times and died at the scene; although his three children are reported to be safe, his wife and First Lady Martine Moïse suffered serious injuries, and was airlifted to a Miami hospital on Wednesday. Occurring only days after Moïse had designated Ariel Henry as the country’s new prime minister, the assassination is expected to plunge the impoverished Caribbean nation of 11.4 million into further political and social instability. With long-delayed presidential elections on the horizon, Moïse’s death has raised fears of a violent power struggle between supporters of Henry and backers of Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister who has effectively declared himself Haiti’s de facto president. Joseph, who claims to have secured the loyalty of police and the armed forces, has declared an “état de siège,” suspending rights to assembly and demonstration, granting security forces broad powers, and effectively imposing martial law on the country; Henry, meanwhile—set to be installed as Prime Minister as early as next week—has claimed to be Haiti’s rightful interim political leader. Addressing the nation on Wednesday, Joseph appealed for calm and reassured Haitians that the situation was “under control”; perhaps anxiously recalling the events of 1991—when a military coup d’état against the recently-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide prompted a refugee crisis that resulted in thousands of Haitians fleeing by boat to Florida—U.S. officials have tentatively recognized Joseph’s claim to authority.
Moïse’s tenure as president was characterized by growing instability, corruption allegations, escalating levels of criminal violence (especially kidnappings), and political disputes related to his extended period in office. (Moïse, elected in November 2016, assumed the presidency in early 2017, and thus maintained that his five-year term would not expire until February 2022; critics and opposition leaders, however, insisted that his term should have expired in February 2021, given the delays that disrupted normal electoral proceedings in 2015.) Moïse, who had ruled Haiti by decree since early 2020 after dissolving parliament and declining to hold further legislative elections, had also pushed for a constitutional referendum that, critics allege, would have strengthened the power of the presidency, weakened Haiti’s independent judiciary, and potentially enabled Moïse to win a currently unconstitutional second consecutive term. (The referendum was delayed multiple times due to COVID-19 and widespread security concerns and is currently scheduled to be held concurrently with presidential elections in September.) Moïse’s government had also recently been hobbled by a corruption scandal related to Petrocaribe, the oil-lending agreement signed between 16 countries in the Caribbean and Central America and Venezuela under the late President Hugo Chávez. In 2019, a report on government corruption alleged that almost USD $4 billion of funds distributed by Petrocaribe had been embezzled and misreported in Haiti between 2008 and 2016. The misappropriated funds had been earmarked for hundreds of social development projects, desperately needed in a country still reeling from the aftershocks of the 2010 earthquake that killed over 200,000 people, and where some 60 percent of the population earn less than the equivalent of USD $2 per day.
Due to endemic poverty, corruption, and a centuries-long legacy of foreign exploitation and intervention, Haiti has long been subject to intermittent periods of mass protests and street violence; recently, many districts in Port-au-Prince have come under the de facto control of self-proclaimed revolutionary gangs that have positioned themselves in opposition to the government and Haitian bourgeoisie. Earlier this year, Moïse claimed to be the target of a coup attempt, leading him to order the arrest of 23 people, including a supreme court magistrate and senior police official. His opponents, however, have accused his government of only exacerbating Haiti’s political violence by enlisting criminal gangs to intimidate opponents. Moïse’s assassination has provoked an outpouring of expressions of concern from across the Western Hemisphere and the world. President of Colombia Iván Duque, called on the Organization of American States (OAS) to send an urgent mission to “protect the democratic order in Haiti,” while the OAS Secretariat issued a statement calling the assassination a “criminal act” that was an affront to other democratic nations; the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, meanwhile, has called for an emergency meeting of the body’s Security Council.