Will President Moïse's assassination bring stability or unleash even more chaos in Haiti?

Jovenel Moïse with Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau in Lima, Peru, April 14, 2018. Photo by Peru's Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

His presidency was tumultuous, but he had weathered so many crises that Jovenel Moïse at times looked invincible. Perhaps he even came to believe that he could not be removed from power despite the fact that, in the post-1986 “Baby Doc” era, only two Haitian presidents—René Préval between February 7, 1996 and February 7, 2001 and Michel Martelly between May 2011 and February 2016—have been able to complete their terms in office.

In a February 2021 speech, Moïse proudly declared that he symbolised the end of this cycle, whereby presidents have been ousted, either by coups d’etat or political assassinations. His message was that, in the new era, nobody would be able to imprison, exile, or assassinate him; that Haitian heads of state would no longer suffer such tragic fates; his was a brand of bravado that has caused Haitians to ironically nickname him “Apredye,” or “After-God”:

Around 1:00 am on July 7, however, history proved him wrong in the most brutal and unforgiving fashion, when a group of unidentified individuals assassinated Moïse and also shot his wife, First Lady Martine Moïse, at their home in Pelerin, on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince. She has since been hospitalised and there are plans to airlift her out of Haiti for medical treatment.

Who's in charge?

Moïse's former ad interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, confirmed that the president had been assassinated.

At the moment, however, it is unclear who currently holds political power in Haiti. Just two days before his murder, Moïse had nominated his seventh prime minister, so citizens are confused as to whether the newly nominated Ariel Henry or the departed ad interim Claude Joseph momentarily succeeds Moïse as head of state:

I have appointed Citizen Ariel Henry to the post of Prime Minister. He will have to form an open government including the vital forces of the Nation, resolve the glaring problem of insecurity and support the CEP [the country's Provisional Electoral Council] in carrying out the general elections and the referendum.

Nevertheless, Joseph took centre stage, calling the murder a “heinous, inhuman and barbaric act” and adding, in an attempt to show stability to both Haitians and the world:

The country’s security situation is under the control of the National Police of Haiti and the Armed Forces of Haiti. Democracy and the republic will win.

A fraught term in office

Democracy, however, has not appeared to be winning for quite some time under Moïse's leadership. The 53-year-old businessman-turned-politician had been at Haiti's helm since February 2017, after his predecessor, Michel Martelly, stepped down following a long and contested electoral process.

The very next year, in July 2018, people took the streets to protest against increased gas and food prices. Public anger was further fuelled by corruption allegations against President Moïse through Haiti's involvement in PetroCaribe, a regional Venezuela-led energy initiative through which billions of dollars were allegedly embezzled.

By February 2019—33 years after the country broke the stranglehold of more than two decades of dictatorship—there was widespread social unrest, with citizens calling for “tabula rasa” (a clean slate).

Moïse, however, refused to step down. Instead, he put in place a committee to facilitate dialogue as a way to handle the country's deepening socio-economic crisis. He went through several prime ministers in an attempt to stabilise the nation, but his problems were much more deep-rooted: endemic corruption and resulting instability, lack of public faith in the Haitian National Police which has failed to deal with the problem of armed gangs, and the legacy of a United Nations peacekeeping presence marred by rape scandals and a crippling cholera outbreak following Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.

By November 2019, inflation was hovering at around 20 per cent, the country had been without a ratified prime minister since March, and violent civil protests had the country locked down for more than eight weeks while calls for Moïse's resignation continued.

Haiti's opposition has consistently maintained that Moïse's presidential term should have ended on February 7, 2021, five years after Martelly stepped down, but Moïse has been hanging on—even amidst reports of a foiled assassination plot this year—saying he had one more year since he didn't take office until 2017. The political impasse led to Moïse ruling by decree for over a year now, since Haiti has not yet held legislative elections.

First political assassination since the ‘Baby Doc’ era

The killing came just five months after the speech in which President Moïse claimed his political invincibility, making him the first sitting president to be assassinated in Haiti’s modern political history, though in the post-Duvalier era, other heads of state came close.

On the morning of June 20, 1988, for instance, Leslie Manigat, who had been sworn into power by the Haitian military four months earlier, was unceremoniously stripped of his power at his private residence by military strongman, Henri Namphy, but was allowed to flee into exile. Later that year, on September 17, rebel army officers arrested then-president Prosper Avril in a coup attempt that was soon aborted.

On September 30, 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, was overthrown by the military. He, too, was able to flee to Venezuela and then to the United States, where he spent three years in exile. He returned to power on October 15, 1994, via Operation Uphold Democracy, following the United Nations Security Council's adoption of Resolution 940, which authorised a multinational force to restore the legitimately elected president.

In February 2004, Aristide again had to leave office after being elected for the second time in December 2000. Aristide went to spend seven years in exile in South Africa before returning to Haiti in March 2011.

Could Moïse's death bring peace and development?

President Moïse shouldered all the blame for his government's inability to address the country’s rampant insecurity, poverty, gang violence and structural inequality. His regime has even been accused of spreading gang violence to intimidate his political opponents and Haitian civil society.

Now, his death stands poised to prove whether or not he was simply a scapegoat for all the country's issues. Will history vindicate him by revealing that the real obstacles to change and democracy are—as Moïse liked to label them–the “oligarchs” (the country's wealthy and predatory elite)? For now, the post-Moïse era is hinged on uncertainty and doubt.

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