‘Cherie , I’m in danger.’ On 8 July I woke up to a WhatsApp voice message from my Haitian friend M. She was hiding under the bed, the phone pressed close against her face. ‘All these men have invaded, men with weapons. We don’t know what to do.’ Before dawn the previous day, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, his body reportedly riddled with a dozen bullets and his left eye gouged out. Two of the suspected assailants fled to Jalouzi, the densely packed Port-au-Prince neighbourhood where M. lives. The gunfights – with the suspects, police, vigilantes and others – went on for hours. By Friday, three suspects were dead, seventeen arrested and eight at large, according to the police. They were allegedly mercenaries, most of them Colombian, two Haitian-American.
Who ordered the hit and why? Moïse’s had many enemies, and many of them had access to guns or to people willing to use them. Leave aside the Colombian mercenaries and the South Florida pastor who, according to the Haitian police, helped recruit them. Moïse’s presidential guard didn’t do much, if anything, to stop the attack. They may have been complicit. Only Moïse and his wife, Martine, were shot; she is said to be convalescing in Florida. The judge who declared Moïse dead said he hadn’t been able to interview anyone who admitted to being on the scene.
Moïse moved quicky from obscure plantain farmer to the most despised man in Haiti. His company Agritrans SA created Haiti’s first agricultural free trade zone, earning him millions of dollars of investment and the nickname ‘Banana Man’. In a country where more than half the population live in rural areas, it also gave him political clout. The election that brought him to power was a protracted mess. Scheduled for 2015, it was repeatedly put off and finally scrapped after widespread fraud allegations and massive protests. A new ballot was postponed after Hurricane Matthew. By the time Moïse was inaugurated in 2017, the imbroglio had lasted nearly a year and a half. Turnout was around 20 per cent.
His victory was secured by the endorsement of the outgoing president, Michel Martelly, who was constitutionally barred from seeking two consecutive terms. The idea might have been that Moïse would keep Martelly’s seat warm, and protect him from corruption charges relating to the mismanagement of earthquake aid and funds from the Venezuelan PetroCaribe programme. Then Martelly could run again in 2021. But Moïse soon had plenty of his own malfeasance to take care of. More than five hundred people have been killed in at least a dozen massacres since 2018, mostly in poor neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince. A judicial investigation implicated him in the mismanagement of two billion dollars of aid money. He refused to step down when his term ended in February, spuriously claiming the constitution entitled him to another year in office. (At the time of his death he was planning a referendum to permit consecutive presidential terms.) Those who disagreed too vocally with his interpretation of the law were arrested or kidnapped. Many of the journalists and activists I knew when I lived in Haiti ten years ago have fled. Since June, violence has displaced more than fourteen thousand people in Port-au-Prince. The week before Moïse’s assassination, fifteen civilians were gunned down by unknown assailants for unknown reasons. The victims included the activist Antoinette Duclair and the journalist Diego Charles. Both were 33.
It’s too soon to assess the lasting damage of Moïse’s presidency, but his immediate legacy is a power vacuum of his own making. Like François Duvalier, Moïse enjoyed eviscerating institutions; but when Duvalier came to power in 1957, Haiti’s institutions were comparatively robust. The constitution of 1987 describes the line of succession should the president be unexpectedly prevented from fulfilling his duties, but most of the offices it lists are currently vacant or contested. The interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, seems to have taken charge for now. Eight senators, a majority of the ten parliamentarians remaining in office (there should be thirty senators and 119 deputies), have thrown their support behind Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon whom Moïse named as prime minister on 5 July. They declared that the senate leader, Joseph Lambert, should become provisional president, but his investiture, scheduled for 9 July, was inexplicably postponed.
‘The message to the people of Haiti is this is a tragic tragedy,’ the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on 7 July. ‘And we stand ready and stand by them to provide any assistance that’s needed.’ The immediate reaction of Haiti’s northern neighbour was to fret over whether to send in the Marines or assemble another UN peacekeeping force. Hours after the assassination, the Washington Post called for ‘swift and muscular intervention’. A clip surfaced of Joe Biden in 1994 arguing against the Clinton administration’s proposed humanitarian action in Haiti. If the country ‘just quietly sunk [sic] into the Caribbean’, he said, ‘or rose up three hundred feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interest’. Americans have forgotten, if they ever knew, the most enduring contributions of Minustah, the last peacekeeping force in Haiti (2004-17): cholera, which killed at least ten thousand Haitians; and hundreds of petits Minustah, children resulting from the peacekeepers’ rape and sexual exploitation of Haitian women and girls, some of them barely into their teens.
The clunky acronym and white vehicles gave Minustah a multilateral gloss, but US taxpayers footed most of the bill. American intervention, military or political, has been more straightforwardly damaging to Haitian democracy. To outsiders the country may seem in desperate need of new elections; calling for them has been more or less the extent of the Biden administration’s Haiti policy. But hasty elections imposed by donor states are at the root of Haiti’s present malaise. And chronic US meddling in its presidential elections may well be the reason that many Haitians don’t bother to vote in them.
Haiti’s first democratically elected (and wildly popular) president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in a CIA-backed coup in September 1991, less than nine months after he took office. Bill Clinton restored Aristide to the National Palace three years later, accompanied by twenty thousand US Marines to quash the paramilitaries who were terrorising Aristide’s supporters. In return, Aristide was forced to adopt a variety of neoliberal reforms, such as lowering tariffs on imports of American rice, that undermined his platform and popular support. ‘It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it hasn’t worked,’ Clinton admitted after the earthquake in 2010 (he had recently been appointed UN special envoy to Haiti). ‘I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did.’
The apology came too late, and Clinton failed to pass on the lesson. In January 2011, Hillary Clinton – then secretary of state – met the outgoing Haitian president, René Préval (a socialist like Aristide, though far less charismatic). The candidate from Préval’s party, Jude Célestin, had got through to the second round of the presidential election ahead of the US government’s preferred candidate, Martelly. Billions of dollars of post-quake aid were on the line. Préval had already been offered a plane off the island and the Organisation of American States was ready to scupper his chances by crying fraud on the election, although it didn’t allow its evidence to be scrutinised. What do you know? Célestin was soon out of the running and Martelly went on to win the second round in March 2011.
Like many Haitians, my friend M. was indifferent to Moïse at the start of his term, but came to loathe him. In July 2018, he buckled to pressure from the IMF to hike fuel prices, which set off the first major protests and reprisals. The government quickly backed down on fuel prices, but popular anger remained. Soon everyone was asking where the PetroCaribe money had gone (it was supposed to pay for infrastructure, agriculture, sanitation and so on), and the earthquake money too.
By the autumn of 2018 Haiti seemed back to normal. I booked tickets to visit in November. The day before I was due to fly was a holiday to commemorate the routing of Napoleon’s soldiers at the Battle of Vertières in 1803 – the last major battle of the Haitian Revolution. There were demonstrations, which isn’t unusual. When my flight was cancelled because the runway at Cap-Haïtien had been shut down, my Haitian friends assured me the trouble would soon blow over. But only a few days later they were insisting I cancel my trip, even though the runway at Port-au-Prince had reopened. Haitians with means flew to Miami or Montreal to wait out the storm; everyone else battened down the hatches.
Two and a half years later, the storm still hasn’t passed. For weeks at a time the streets have been completely empty because the opposition has declared peyi lok, a general strike. For long periods people have been terrified to go out, not only because of Covid but in case they were kidnapped or caught a stray bullet. When people don’t go out, M. doesn’t do any business at the stall where she sells sandals and secondhand clothing, and when she doesn’t do any business, the rent doesn’t get paid, her family struggles to eat and her sister, who’s training to be a nurse, can’t afford the tuition fees. M. trained as a nurse too, and was devastated when she couldn’t find a job. She never wanted to be a commerçante. But ‘chita pa bay’, she says. ‘Sitting around won’t get you anything.’
Maybe this time will be different. Perhaps the Biden administration will refrain from anything ‘swift and muscular’. The Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, formed in January, is a coalition of trade unions, human rights organisations, religious leaders and others. They urge the US to listen to civil society, support a transition period long enough to restore Haiti’s electoral infrastructure and rebuild the judiciary so it can credibly rule on elections. To ignore the crisis or to press for a quick electoral fix, as the US has done, is deeply unhelpful, not least because of America’s role in causing Haiti’s problems.
‘A lot of people are going to the American embassy to ask for asylum,’ M. wrote to me on 9 July. ‘They say if you know someone you can do it. Should I go?’ I explained that to have any chance at all in that game you need to demonstrate a credible fear of persecution because of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Being Haitian, despite the events of the past few years, isn’t enough.
Listen to Pooja Bhatia discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.