Haitian president assassinated in night raid, shaking fragile nation
The first explosions sounded after 1 a.m., shattering the calm in the neighborhood that housed President Jovenel Moïse and several of Haiti’s wealthiest citizens.
Locals immediately feared two of the terrors that ravaged the nation – gang violence or an earthquake – but by dawn a much different reality had emerged: the president was dead.
A group of unknown assailants stormed Mr. Moïse’s residence early Wednesday, shooting him and injuring his wife, Martine Moïse, in what authorities described as a well-planned operation that included “foreigners” who spoke Spanish.
In a nationwide television broadcast, the nation’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, called for calm and introduced himself as the new head of government, announcing that he and his fellow ministers had declared a “state of siege.” And placed Haiti under a form of martial law.
But the assassination left a political vacuum that deepened the unrest and violence that has plagued Haiti for months, threatening to topple one of the world’s most troubled nations into anarchy.
In recent months, protesters have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of Mr. Moïse in February, five years after his election, what they saw as the end of his term.
Armed gangs have taken greater control of the streets, terrorizing poor neighborhoods and driving thousands to flee, even kidnapping schoolchildren and church pastors in the midst of their services. Poverty and hunger are on the rise, with many members of the government accusing them of getting rich without providing the population with the most basic services.
In an interview, Mr Joseph told the New York Times that he now controls the country, but it was unclear how much legitimacy he had, or how long it could last. A new prime minister was due to replace Mr Joseph this week – he would have been the sixth to hold the post during Mr. Moïse’s tenure. The head of the country’s highest court, who could have helped restore order, died of Covid-19 in June.
“We are in total confusion,” said Jacky Lumarque, rector of Quisqueya University, a large private university in Port-au-Prince. “We have two prime ministers. We can’t say which one is more legitimate than the other.
“This is the first time that we see that the state is so weak,” he added.
Haiti’s Ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, told a press conference that the murder of the country’s president was carried out “by well-trained professionals, killers, commandos”.
He said the attackers presented themselves as agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, but that they were “bogus DEAs” and “professional killers”. He said he based his assessment on security camera footage of the attack.
Mr Moïse’s wife survived and was “stable, but in critical condition,” Mr Edmond said. He said plans were underway to bring him to Miami for medical treatment.
President Biden said Wednesday he was “shocked and saddened” by the assassination and shooting of the president’s wife. “We condemn this heinous act,” Biden said in a statement.
Mr. Moïse had retained the post, arguing that he had only held the post for four years of the five-year term. In the first year after his election, an interim president took over as the country investigated allegations of fraud. Many Haitians – including constitutional scholars and legal experts – have argued that his five-year term began when he was elected and has since expired. But the United States and the Organization of American States backed Mr. Moïse.
While the United States and other countries have long provided Haiti with much-needed aid and financial assistance, including help recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010, Western powers have also exerted an overwhelming influence on the political destiny of the country. The United States occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, and a series of coups in the 20th and 21st centuries were supported by Western powers.
France, in particular, has had a long and difficult relationship with Haiti. Over two centuries ago, Haitians fought to shake off the yoke of colonial France and end one of the most brutal slave colonies in the world, which had brought great wealth to France.
What began as a slave uprising at the turn of the 18th century eventually led to the meteoric defeat of Napoleon’s forces in 1803. While many in Haiti’s professional class study in France, others harbor anti-sentiment. French. The first visit by a French president only took place in 2010.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a declaration that he was “shocked” by the murder of Mr. Moïse. “All light must be shed on this crime, which occurs in a very degraded political and security climate,” said Mr. Le Drian. He urged “all actors in Haitian political life” to observe “calm and restraint”.
In Haiti, experts warned, the political vacuum left by the murder of Mr. Moïse could fuel a new round of violence. As the population struggled to assess the situation, the normally crowded streets of the capital remained grim empty.
Banks and stores have been closed; vacant university classrooms; the ti machann – or market women – who normally line the shoulders of roads selling their wares were conspicuously absent.
Queues formed as some people attempted to stock up on water – which is normally bought by the container in poorer areas – in case they found themselves squatting for a long time. Many more gathered at the house, calling friends and family to check their safety and ask for updates. In some bourgeois neighborhoods, people gathered on the sidewalks, sharing their fears for the future of the country.
“Things are tough and ugly now,” said Jenny Joseph, a university student from the suburb of Carrefour. “For the next few days, things will be crazy in Haiti. “
Under the declaration of martial law, police and security personnel can enter homes, control traffic, and take special security measures and “all general measures that allow the arrest of murderers” for 15 days. . The decree also prohibits meetings intended to incite disorder.
However, it is not clear whether Mr. Joseph has the power to do so, or even the power to rule the country following the death of President Moïse. The country has two constitutions, neither of which requires the interim prime minister to take over. The first, published in 1987, says the country’s oldest judge should intervene. In 2012, however, it was amended to say that if there is a vacancy in the last year of a president’s term, Parliament should vote for a provisional president. .
Unfortunately, the Constitution was amended in one of the country’s official languages, French, but not in the other, Creole. So at present the country has two constitutions.
“It is a very serious situation,” said Georges Michel, a Haitian historian who helped draft the 1987 Constitution.
Currently, Haiti does not have a functioning parliament. Mr. Moïse’s government has not called an election, even after the mandate of the entire lower house expired more than a year ago. Only 10 of the 30 seats in Haiti’s Senate are currently filled.
Mr. Moïse had struggled to allay the growing public anger at the idea of remaining in power.
After Mr. Moïse did not step down in February, when many members of the opposition deemed his term over, thousands of Haitians took to the streets in grand marches, demanding his resignation. The government responded by arresting 23 people, including a senior judge and a senior police officer, who the president said attempted to kill him and overthrow the government.
Mr. Moïse counted on a high level of protection, traveling regularly with more than a dozen armored vehicles and police guards. There are often around 100 presidential guard officers around the president’s home, former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said.
There had been no specific warning of the night attack, Ambassador Edmond said.
It was not clear if the assassins were still in Haiti, he said. Because the country’s airport was closed on Wednesday, he said, they could have crossed the border to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, or escaped by sea.
Mr. Edmond said he had been in contact with the White House, the State Department and the US ambassador to Haiti, and called on the US for help.
The support, he said, would help “to ensure that Haiti does not sink further into a spiral of violence”, and more specifically, “to ensure that the Haitian police have the necessary means. to bring the situation under control ”.
Due to its chronic instability, Haiti has a large diaspora, with some of the largest communities based in the United States, Canada, France, and the Dominican Republic. Generally politically divided, Haitians abroad followed the news of Mr. Moïse’s murder united in shock and despair, said Léonie Hermantin, a leader of the Haitian community in Miami.
“Even for those of us who weren’t necessarily supporting him, this is not what we envisioned as the result of regime change,” she said.
“The diaspora is united in its sadness,” she added. “There is no one celebrating.”
Frances Robles, Lara Jakes, Maria Abi-Habib, Harold Isaac and Dieu-Nalio Chery contributed reporting.