On a Wednesday morning WhatsApp call, I asked Monique Clesca, a writer and civil society activist based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, if it was quiet on the streets outside.
“It’s more than quiet. I haven’t heard this kind of quiet since the immediate seconds after the earthquake,” she said, referring to Haiti’s 2010 catastrophe. “Not one car has passed, not one motorcycle. If anybody has walked by, I haven’t heard them.”
The quiet is not calm. Haitians today are waiting nervously and uncertainly for answers following the shocking assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. The president was shot dead by unknown attackers in his bedroom around 1 a.m. local time on Wednesday morning; his wife, who was also shot, is reportedly in critical condition and being flown to Miami for treatment. While there have been no additional reports of unrest yet, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince closed due to the “ongoing security situation” and the neighboring Dominican Republic, which has a bloody and contentious history with Haiti, shut its border.
The first question is who did it. So far, there’s little indication and not many good theories. The fact that the attackers were able to reach a head of state and his wife inside their presumably well-guarded private residence suggests a professional job. “Obviously it was somebody with money and somebody with connections,” said Clesca. Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, in his statement announcing the assassination, said some of them were heard speaking Spanish, which would suggest foreign mercenaries. The Miami Herald also reports that on videos taken in the neighborhood, a man is heard speaking English in an American accent claiming to be part of a “DEA operation.” Make of that what you will. (The Biden administration denies any DEA involvement.)
Moïse certainly had no lack of enemies. The 53-year-old former banana exporter, who took office in 2017, faced mass protests throughout almost his entire tenure. These were originally sparked by the revelation of the Petrocaribe scandal, in which he and other officials are alleged to have embezzled as much as $2 billion in funds from a program meant to provide Haiti with subsidized oil from Venezuela. The funds had been intended to rebuild the infrastructure and agricultural sector of a country still reeling from a series of natural and man-made calamities including the earthquake, hurricanes, and a cholera epidemic introduced by U.N. peacekeepers.
That original corruption scandal had turned into one of democratic legitimacy: Moïse had been ruling by decree since dissolving most of Parliament in 2020, and local and parliamentary elections have not been held since then. There are only 10 elected officials in the whole country, all senators. His own term theoretically ended in February of this year, but he said he should hold office until February 2022, since his own inauguration had been delayed.
At the time of his death, he was in the process of organizing a constitutional referendum in September—it had been delayed twice because of the pandemic—which would strengthen the power of the presidency. Constitutional referenda are barred by Haiti’s 1987 constitution, and the opposition accused Moïse of trying to make himself a dictator.
Amid the power vacuum and political chaos, the country is facing an acute malnutrition crisis, and it has barely even begun vaccinating its population amid a worsening COVID-19 outbreak. There’s been an alarming spike in gang violence and kidnappings in Port-au-Prince, with rival armed groups fighting for control of territory, forcing thousands to flee. Last month, one of the most powerful gang leaders, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, declared a “revolution” against Haiti’s government and the economic elite, through critics say gang leaders like Cherizier are actually terrorizing Moïse’s opponents and in a tacit alliance with the government.
No matter who was behind the assassination, the next question becomes who is actually leading Haiti right now. When I asked Clesca that question, she laughed and said, “I don’t think anyone knows that.” According to the constitution, the president of the Supreme Court is supposed to take charge in the event of the president’s death, but the president of the Supreme Court died of COVID-19 last month. The country’s prime minister might be expected to take charge at a time like this—but further complicating matters, Moïse named a new interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, just two days ago, replacing Claude Joseph, who had only been in that office since April.
Henry has been on the radio claiming to be in power today. He is a respected neurosurgeon who led the country’s cholera response, but given the circumstances of his appointment, the fact that he hadn’t been sworn in yet, and the fact that there’s effectively no Parliament right now to approve him, his legitimacy is questionable. (For what it’s worth, Wikipedia currently lists Joseph as acting president, with no sourcing.)
And so, Haiti is in uncharted waters. While the country has abundant experience of political turmoil, assassinations have been rare. The last time a presidential assassination happened was in 1915, when President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was killed, which prompted U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to order U.S. Marines to invade the country to protect U.S. business interests. The occupation would last almost 20 years. U.S. troops were also sent to Haiti in 1994 to remove the junta that had overthrown democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and then again in 2004 to remove Aristide after he was overthrown in another coup. Aristide accused the U.S. of being behind his ouster, which the Bush administration denied.
Given this history, many Haitians are likely keeping one eye on Washington after Wednesday’s events. White House press secretary Jen Psaki condemned the killing as a “horrific crime” on CNN on Wednesday and said, “We stand ready and stand by them to provide any assistance that’s needed.” When I asked if this could include military operations, the Pentagon referred me to the White House National Security Council, which did not respond.
Even as his rule became increasingly autocratic and the security situation in Haiti continued to deteriorate, “the international community came down on the side of Moïse, which only empowered him more,” says Robert Maguire, a professor of international affairs and Haiti expert at George Washington University. “There was widespread Haitian opposition, but only recently has the U.S. gotten on board.”
For the Trump administration, and some Republicans in Congress, this was a matter of outside geopolitical scorekeeping: Haiti had broken with other governments in the region to take the U.S. line condemning Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The Biden administration has in recent weeks called for an end of “one-man rule by decree” and for new elections to be held this year, although it seemed doubtful that the country would be able to organize credible elections in the coming months, even before Moïse was killed. “Nobody in Haiti except for those supporting the government believes that elections can be legitimate,” says Maguire.
Right now, the first task of those leading Haiti is to establish credibility, says Marlene Daut, a professor of African diaspora studies who focuses on Haitian history at the University of Virginia. “There needs to be an investigation on multiple levels to figure out who did this,” she says. “The key to what happens next is if the interim government will have any legitimacy, not to mention the people who planned this—what’s their next move? Ultimately, the Haitian people need to have a say in what happens next. It can’t just be more of the same: elite men taking power and keeping power.”
I asked Clesca what the international community could do to help Haiti in its latest crisis.
“Certainly not invade us,” she said. “Certainly not send us troops. Let us deal with the issue and find solutions rather than impose one on us. It’s our mess, but let us resolve our mess.”