What lies ahead for Haiti after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse?

By Ben Cohen* – The Toronto Star 

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, 53, was assassinated at his private home Wednesday in a “highly co-ordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group,” according to interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph. The assailants remain unidentified.

Moïse was a former banana producer who served as president for more than four years. His wife, Martine Moïse, was injured in the attack and remains hospitalized.

The Star spoke with experts on Haitian affairs about what transpired, the events that led up to the assassination and how it might affect Haiti, as well as Canadian involvement in the country.

What happened?

“Moïse was not a recognized elected Haitian president,” said Jean Saint-Vil, a Haitian-Canadian activist and special adviser on research and innovation at McGill University. “Most people who analyze what’s happened in Haiti in the last decade recognize that the country has lost its independence to foreign-sponsored intervention. We’ve been having sham elections controlled by foreign, occupying powers since 2004.”

Kevin Edmonds, an assistant professor of Caribbean studies at the University of Toronto who teaches Haiti’s modern history of political violence and foreign intervention, added that Moïse was a “very controversial and increasingly unpopular president” who was elected with a “historically weak mandate” — less than 10 per cent of the eligible population voted for him.

Edmonds said Moïse also used “sustained violence and repression to squash protests against his rule since 2018.”

Nothing is yet known about who Moïse’s killers are or their motivation, only theories based on scant information. Saint-Vil said it’s likely that the Haitian public and “mere mortals” like him will never truly know.

“Right now, there are a number of pieces of the story which are coming out of Haiti,” said Edmonds. “The story is that the assassins spoke both English and Spanish, announced that they were from the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) and were equipped with high-calibre weapons.”

Edmonds said an attack like this on a Haitian leader is not unprecedented. Mercenaries, both Haitian and foreign, have removed “much more popular presidents” before, such as Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, who went into exile in the U.S. in 1991 following a coup, returned to power in 1994, and was then exiled again in 2004 after another coup backed by France, the U.S. and Canada.

“The killing was what I think has taken most people by surprise,” said Edmonds, adding that major speculation now surrounds the apparent ineffectiveness of Moïse’s security team. “Moïse has been fighting a large segment of Haiti since 2018, and knows the risks and security needed.”

“My first thought was, how could they go in there and (shoot) two people without anyone else getting wounded?” said Saint-Vil. “It doesn’t make sense. (Moïse) had many Blackwater U.S. soldiers supposedly protecting him, and this still happened.”

Edmonds said Moïse had been burning a lot of bridges within his circle, as well as the Haitian elite and his international supporters, such as the U.S. and Canada, with his “increasingly authoritarian tendencies.”

“There has been speculation that gangs or protesters organized this,” said Edmonds. “But it was a highly co-ordinated attack beyond the capabilities of the protesters — although the gangs do have a lot of police and paramilitaries involved.”

What was the political situation that led up to this?

“This assassination comes on the heels of a number of massacres that have taken place in the past year in Haiti,” said Saint-Vil. “Haitians have been living with a lot of anxiety on a regular basis.”

Saint-Vil described roving gangs, ostensibly “protected by the regime” but whose sponsors are unknown, who create havoc and displace Haitians from their homes. Saint-Vil said these gangs must be receiving financial support, as they are often “dressed in rags but carrying $7,000 guns.”

Saint-Vil said the prevailing theory is that these gangs displace people to disrupt voting and perpetuate “sham elections.”

As well, Moïse had been dealing with a series of crises, which Edmonds said were “largely of his making.”

Moïse “had a weak mandate out of an election that was regarded as illegitimate, a corruption crisis related to the theft of $2 billion in foreign aid from Venezuela, an expired lower house and senate — so no checks and balances — and scandals relating to police acting as mercenaries who killed political opponents in civil society,” said Edmonds.

Edmonds said Moïse was also looking to revise the constitution to allow him to run again. It forbids a second consecutive term, which Edmonds said could help ensure a smooth turnover between political opponents — in theory.

Moïse also issued two national security decrees that labelled protesters as terrorists, which Edmonds said carried severe penalties for anyone in violation, and created a new Haitian Intelligence Agency to “help squash domestic discontent.”

“To add to all of this, according to the Haitian constitution, Moïse’s term was supposed to end in February, so technically this all could have been avoided if Moise followed the advice of Haitian legal analysts and popular pro-democracy supporters,” said Edmonds.

Edmonds said the current political climate of Haiti that allowed Moïse to amass and abuse power was birthed by a “series of harmful political interventions by the U.S.A. and Canada, coming out of the 2010 earthquake.” (Financially, since the earthquake, Canada provided $1.5 billion to Haiti, as well as providing assistance through 2,000 army, navy and air force personnel in the aftermath.)

“Moïse’s predecessor, Michel Martelly, was put in power in a deeply flawed election in which 15 political parties were banned, and he won with 16 per cent of popular support. Canada helped to legitimize this election, as well as the 2016 election which brought Moïse to power in 2017.”

Saint-Vil said ultimately the people of Haiti came to recognize Moïse as a “foreign-imposed puppet.”

“I can’t say we had any connection” to Moïse, said Saint-Vil. “That’s the tragedy. A people who are so dedicated to democracy haven’t had the opportunity to have their own chosen leader.”

What is the potential fallout?

Edmonds said it’s likely the interim prime minister will take over the role of president until the next elections, which Edmonds said will probably be rescheduled beyond 2021.

Until the election, the interim PM essentially represents the continued Moïse administration, and will likely face the same widespread opposition.

“If the protesters see this as an opening, the protests will likely escalate and grow to try and force earlier elections and push for a movement candidate, which hasn’t emerged so far,” said Edmonds. “The likely response to this is that the gang violence will once again continue, as it has largely been used as a political weapon to attack the communities where the protests originate from. This can intensify the cycle of violence.”

What, if anything, will Canada do? Should it do anything?

“I hope (Canada and the U.S.) don’t do anything,” said Saint-Vil. “I hope they get out. There’s this folly in Canada, that these moments should be used as opportunities to exert influence internationally. I think that’s short-sighted.”

Saint-Vil said Canada’s image in Haiti is tarnished by the 2004 coup, which he called “a brazen act, and the most racist type of imperialism.”

“Canada has played a huge role in laying the foundation for this crisis,” said Edmonds. “Canada was not interested in consolidating or nurturing democracy in Haiti because the demands of the ‘populist left,’ who would likely take power, would implement policies at odds with Canada’s economic and wider geopolitical interests.”

Edmonds said if Canada wants to help, it should “finally recognize Haitians as legitimate refugee claimants, instead of keeping them in limbo as disposable labour as they have been during COVID-19” and oppose any intervention by military forces.

“Canada has a terrible track record in Haiti, and has a chance to turn it around by supporting elections without playing favourites,” said Edmonds. “Respect the will of the Haitian people, even if it conflicts with the interests of Canadian mining, manufacturing, banking and oil and gas industries.”


*Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Winner (Team) — Canadian Association of Journalists Data Journalism Award for collaborative Tainted Water investigation (2020)