The Assassination of Haiti’s President By Edwidge Danticat

Jovenel Moïse’s family deserves justice for his horrific killing. So do all of the Haitian families who suffered during his rule.

During the final moments of his life, the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was as abandoned and unprotected as Haiti’s most vulnerable citizens. Moïse was shot dead, in the early-morning hours of July 7th, in the bedroom of his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince. According to Haitian officials, he was assassinated by a band of foreign mercenaries, among them two Haitian Americans and twenty-six Colombian nationals, who authorities claim were recruited by a Florida-based Haitian pastor plotting to replace Moïse as President. The assailants apparently gained access to Moïse’s residence by declaring that they were part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency operation. (A spokesperson for the U.S State Department denied any D.E.A. involvement, though it was later revealed that one of the Haitian Americans was once a D.E.A. informant. The agency has said he was not acting on its behalf.) No casualties have been reported among the Presidential guard, known as the General Security Unit of the National Palace, or any other security agents whom one would expect to defend the premises. Moïse’s wife, Martine, was the only other person wounded in the attack. She is currently recovering from gunshot wounds at a South Florida hospital.

Moïse came to power after a contentious two-round election cycle, in 2015 and 2016, with sharply depressed turnout. In a country of eleven million people, he received only around six hundred thousand votes. His Presidency was marked by nationwide anti-corruption protests over misappropriated and embezzled funds from Venezuela’s oil-purchasing program, Petrocaribe. Even the length of his term was heavily contested. Moïse held no legislative elections in 2019, so parliament was dissolved in early 2020, and he began ruling by decree. He believed that the current version of the constitution made Haiti ungovernable, and wanted to reform the statutes through a highly unpopular referendum, which was postponed in June and then rescheduled to take place at the same time as legislative and Presidential elections that he planned to hold in September. The new constitution would add more powers to the Presidency, including by eliminating the current prohibition against consecutive Presidential terms, one of the country’s key safeguards against dictatorship.

Moïse was unknown to most Haitians until he was handpicked by his predecessor, Michel Martelly, the konpa singer known as Sweet Micky, who came to power, in 2011, through another set of elections mired in fraud. Moïse at the time was a banana exporter (with the nickname Nèg Bannann, or Banana Man), and he was sold as a self-made, successful rural entrepreneur from outside of Haiti’s political class. In fact, Agritans, Moïse’s banana company, had received millions of dollars from Martelly’s government—funds which, according to Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes, were among those embezzled from Petrocaribe. (A lawyer representing Agritans has denied the allegations.)

As President, Moïse’s initial flagship program was his Caravan of Change initiative, which was launched in May of 2017. The caravan—a convoy of workers and a fleet of heavy construction machinery and materials—was meant to travel around the country to provide electricity, build roads, schools, and hospitals, and reduce food insecurity by increasing agricultural production. But it was run like a Presidential passion project, with little transparency around its budget and little in the way of actual results. Last year, the journalist Snayder Pierre Louis visited the caravan’s inaugural site, in the Artibonite Valley, which is considered “Haiti’s bread basket.” The President had promised to build miles of roads and irrigation canals so that farmers in the area could produce more food to help feed the rest of the country. In fact, the poorly cleaned canals led to drier, less farmable lands and fewer crops. “Three years after the project began, the trail of broken promises is painfully visible to the naked eye,” Pierre Louis wrote. Jacques Sauveur Jean, a former senator from Moïse’s Tèt Kale (Bald Head) Party, told Pierre Louis that the Caravan of Change was “one of the most important sources of corruption in Haiti.”

The Artibonite Valley is one of many parts of the country that were seized by heavily armed criminal gangs during Moïse’s tenure. There are close to a hundred gangs active in Haiti. According to Pierre Espérance, the executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defense Network, they control more than half of the country. Turf wars, murders, rapes, and kidnappings have recently led to the displacement of more than eighteen thousand people. Seeking refuge, some sleep in public parks and squares while others crowd into churches and gymnasiums, even as coronavirus cases have remained on the rise. During Moïse’s time in office, gangs carried out thirteen massacres in poor opposition neighborhoods. The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and the Haitian Observatory for Crimes Against Humanity studied three and defined them as crimes against humanity.

Several of the massacres took place in Bel Air, the oldest district in Port-au-Prince, where my family landed in the nineteen-forties, after migrating from the mountains of Léogâne. I lived in Bel Air with my aunt and uncle for eight years, beginning at the age of four, and I continued to visit them there after I moved to the United States. My uncle, a minister, had a church, a school, and, briefly, a medical clinic in Bel Air. But he was forced to flee the neighborhood in 2004, at the age of eighty-one, after soldiers with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti and Haitian riot police climbed onto the roof of his church and killed some of his neighbors during one of their deadly raids against young men, some of whom had joined gangs and some of whom had not.

A year ago, nine of the most powerful gangs in Port-au-Prince formed a federation called G9 Family and Allies. Led by a former police officer named Jimmy (Barbecue) Chérizier, G9 recently rebranded as a revolutionary force. Having watched these groups’ evolution over the years, I hope that whatever version of Haiti emerges in Moïse’s wake offers much more appealing opportunities to poor and socially marginalized young men than to work as bodies and guns for hire for gang leaders, politicians, business people, oligarchs, and nefarious international forces, all of whom consider them ultimately disposable—a condition that they and the late President apparently shared.

A week before Moïse’s assassination, another massacre took place in Port-au-Prince. At least fifteen people were killed, including Diego Charles, a radio journalist, and Antoinette Duclaire, a vocal government critic. Just thirty-three years old, Duclaire was among a younger generation of activists, known as Petrochallengers, who are fiercely advocating for Haitian-led solutions to the country’s problems. Earlier this week, I spoke, via WhatsApp, with Vélina Elysée Charlier, Duclaire’s fellow-Petrochallenger and a member of the anti-corruption group Nou Pap Dòmi. She told me that she sees Moïse’s assassination as a denial of government accountability. “We, Haitians, have been robbed of the right to find justice and closure,” she said. “Jovenel was silenced. We will never have answers from him on Petrocaribe and the many massacres. That is a big blow to our fight against corruption and impunity.”

At the head of Haiti’s government for the moment is Claude Joseph, who was serving as Haiti’s interim Prime Minister at the time of Moïse’s death. But others are vying for power. Just two days before the assassination, Moïse had chosen a replacement for Joseph, a neurosurgeon and former Interior Minister named Ariel Henry, who has claimed that he should be in charge. The leader of Haiti’s Senate, Joseph Lambert—one of the few remaining elected officials in the country—got his colleagues to back a plan for him to become President. (Last week, a spokesman for the Biden Administration called Claude Joseph the “incumbent” leader. The U.S. has since sent delegates to work with all parties on brokering a deal.)

Joseph, meanwhile, has vowed to get justice for Moïse and his family. When it comes to criminal inquiries, Haitians are accustomed to hearing the same mantra from officials: L’enquête se poursuit—the investigation continues. (“As they always do, judicial authorities will announce investigations that lead nowhere. We are used to that,” Jacques Desrosiers, the head of the Haitian Journalists Association, said, after the massacre that killed Duclaire and Charles, who was his colleague.) In Moïse’s case, Joseph and Haiti’s national-police chief, Léon Charles, have acted with unprecedented swiftness. Joseph declared a fifteen-day “state of siege” in the country, similar to a period of martial law. Authorities launched an international manhunt in their own back yard, and in less than twenty-four hours killed or apprehended highly trained professional killers, parading them before cameras for all the world to see. They also arrested the supposed mastermind behind the entire operation, a sixty-three-year-old pastor who once filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy but who now apparently flies in private planes with a small army of mercenaries for his personal protection—commandos whom he then, according to the police, ordered to go kill the President so that he, Christian Emmanuel Sanon, sent by God, could save Haiti. (On Thursday morning, the Times reported that Sanon and other subjects of interest in the investigation had met during the past year to discuss Haiti’s future.)

“Who’s writing this script?” my filmmaker friend in New York asked as we, like so many of our Haitian and diaspora friends and family, pored over each new twist and development, and debated every detail. “The only part I believe is that the President is dead,” a pregnant friend in Port-au-Prince said. She is very worried about the country she’s bringing her child into. Others, like the Petrochallenger Charlier, simply feel numb. “The population is emotionless, indifferent,” she told me. “We’re so used to people dying.” Of course, Moïse’s family, like all Haitian families, deserves justice for the appalling crime that took his life and left Martine Moïse wounded. I hope that they will get justice. As so many I’ve recently spoken to in Haiti have put it, if the President was not safe in his own home, then no one is safe. L’enquête se poursuit.


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