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Understanding More about Haiti and the Assassination of President Jovenel Moïse

SIS professor Scott Freeman discusses the circumstances leading up to and the implications of the Haitian president's assassination.

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Haitian President Jovenel Moïse on stage at the Miramar Cultural Center in Florida in 2018. He spoke to a capacity audience about Haiti's progress during his first year in office. Photo Credit: Gregory Reed / Shutterstock.com

On July 7, 2021, Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by a group of armed people; his wife, Martine Moïse, was critically injured. Haitian authorities have detained suspects in connection to the assassination, closed the country’s borders, and imposed martial law. We spoke with SIS professor Scott Freeman, whose research focuses on Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to learn more about the circumstances leading up to and the implications of the assassination.

Haiti was in the midst of political unrest even before Moïse was assassinated. What fueled this unrest?
The unrest was fueled by the corruption and violence perpetrated by Moïse’s presidency. It started in large part with the #kotkobpetwokaribea (Where is the Petro Caribe money?) movement, which was a popular movement that sought to uncover the disappeared funds that came to Haiti via Venezuela’s Petro Caribe oil program. Since then, there’s been a remarkable, popular, and largely peaceful movement calling out government corruption that resulted in a government-issued report implicating Moïse and his predecessor, Michel Martelly, in the misuse of approximately $2 billion in state funds. People took to the streets and brought the country to a standstill demanding reforms from the kleptocratic government.
Following these uprisings, the Moïse regime used authoritarian tactics and gang alliances to squash the popular protests and critics. Attacks and killings of the press have been rampant. Violence has been used against peaceful protesters. Targeted killings and massacres have focused on areas of anti-government protest. Much of this has been carried out by gangs. Moïse has used gangs—almost as a new form of private army—to eliminate dissidents and maintain power. The rising and indiscriminate gang shootings and kidnappings have led thousands to flee the more humble neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince in search of safety. Ultimately, the violence, killing, and instability of the past years were directly fostered by the Moïse administration.
Right now, it’s not exactly clear what’s going on with Haiti’s leadership. The current acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, has said that he is now the head of the country’s government. Meanwhile, Moïse planned to install Ariel Henry as prime minister on the day he was assassinated. What is the line of succession in Haiti’s government supposed to be? What are the possible implications of this leadership uncertainty?
The issue here is not just succession but the institutional context in which that succession takes place. Moïse had carved away the government, letting legislative terms expire without elections and leaving reportedly only about 10 senators in office. His own term arguably ended in February, leaving him ruling by decree. He had hoped to push through a referendum by September that would alter the constitution and consolidate power in the presidency, granting the executive branch further powers. So Moïse was ruling by decree, had sabotaged the legislature, and planned to get even more power. And after systematically weakening all of these institutions to shore up power, he was assassinated.
According to the 1987 constitution, the next in line should be the head of the Supreme Court, while the 2011 modification names the prime minister. But the head of the Supreme Court died due to COVID-19, so this leaves the two potential prime ministers in the running: one who was on the cusp of being sworn in and the other who was on the cusp of losing power.
The president was killed right before Claude Joseph was to be replaced. Since then, Joseph has named himself president and declared a “state of siege” that relies on martial law. He has further garnered the endorsement of the UN. All this occurs in the context of intentional institutional weakening, so the power of other state institutions to check and balance the executive are largely absent, which is what makes all of this so concerning.
3. Moïse’s killing has taken place at a time in which Haiti is experiencing much instability after the effects of the devastating earthquake in 2010 and the cholera outbreak of 2010-2019, as well as ongoing gang violence and coronavirus transmissions. Should international actors step in to aid the country in the wake of these stacked crises? And, if so, what should such aid look like?
If this means any sort of military presence or intervention, then no. As Bob Maguire and I argued in our volume, Who Owns Haiti?: People, Power, and Sovereignty, Haiti has consistently been under the watch and machinations of foreign powers, to the point that its sovereignty has been chipped away. The continued interventions in elections, peacekeeping, and governance have not produced stability or peace but have ensured that the decisionmakers for Haiti continue to be elites accountable not to Haitian citizens but to foreign powers. In a very real sense, the current context was brought about by the continued role of international actors in Haiti. It’s important to remember, for example, that the cholera outbreak was caused by UN peacekeepers in Haiti. Throughout their tenure, UN peacekeepers stationed in Haiti committed rampant acts of sexual violence. US interventions throughout Haiti’s history, like the occupation in the early 20th century, have used the language of stability to hide policies of economic extraction. And the widely critiqued 2010 earthquake response, led by foreign agencies and NGOs, was one that privileged the role of international actors who failed to engage Haitians in decision-making and execution. Clearly then, such interventionism has not brought about any sort of positive change in Haiti.
In contrast with this interventionism, there are already existing Haitian social movements like NouPapDomi and civil society organizations like Réseau National de Défense des Droits de l’Homme (RNDDH) that have called for political change. They and other popular sectors constituted by the Haitian citizenry, not foreign powers, should be the ones leading the way.
According to several news outlets, a US citizen has been arrested in connection with the assassination, and at least one other detainee may also be a Haitian American. How do you think this revelation may impact US-Haiti relations?
I think that in Haiti there’s already a great deal of critical perspectives on the US. From the US occupation from 1915 to 1934 to its involvement in elections and the tacit support of the Moïse regime, Haitians to whom I speak see the US as a constant meddler in Haitian politics. Ultimately, I doubt the involvement of a US citizen will change the critical perspective that many Haitian people have on the US’s role in Haitian affairs.