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Everything you need to know about Haiti’s crisis and President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination

Following months of unrest, citizens of Haiti woke up on Wednesday (July 7) to news that their President Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated by “well-trained professionals” that included foreigners. Moïse was 53 years old. 

Haiti President Jovenel Moïse Getty Images for Concordia Summi

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

Following months of unrest, citizens of Haiti woke up on Wednesday (July 7) to news that their President Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated around 1.a.m. local time by individuals identified as “well-trained professionals” who included foreigners, the country’s acting Prime Minister, Claude Joseph, announced. Moïse was 53 years old.

The attack occurred at the now-late president’s private residence in Pétion-Ville, a city on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. His wife, Martine Marie Etienne Joseph, was also injured in the attack after being shot multiple times. Several outlets reported that she had since been airlifted to a hospital in Miami, Florida for further treatment. She is said to be in “stable but in critical condition,” but expected to survive.

Pétion-Ville deputy justice of the peace Carl Henry Destin told Haiti’s largest newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, that the politician’s body was riddled with “twelve holes…. Made with a large caliber weapon.” In addition, the president’s office and bedroom were allegedly vandalized. He was said to be found “lying on his back, blue pants, a white shirt smeared with blood, his mouth open, his left eye blown out.” The Post reported that their only daughter Jomarlie Jovenel Moïse was home at the time but hid in her brother’s bedroom.

By late Wednesday, Haiti’s Chief of Police Leon Charles revealed during a televised briefing that four suspected killers had been fatally shot by police, while two more had been detained following what the country’s communication secretary, Frantz Exantus, said appeared to be a hostage-taking situation. In addition, three police officers held captive by the suspected gunmen were freed later that same evening. “We blocked [the suspects] en route as they left the scene of the crime,” Charles said at the time. “Since then, we have been battling with them. They will be killed or apprehended.”

According to the Haitian ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, the raid “was carried out by foreign mercenaries and professional killers—well-orchestrated.” They were said to be speaking English and Spanish. (The country’s official language is Creole and French.) As the tragic news spread, reports and video footage circulating the internet claimed that the suspects purportedly posed as U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. However, those allegations were rejected by State Department spokesperson Ned Price, who called the allegations “absolutely false.” The suspects have yet to be identified, nor have authorities cited any evidence linking them to Moïse’s killing. “But since the investigation has just been opened, we prefer to wait on legal authorities to have a better assessment of the situation,” Edmond added. “We don’t know for sure, with real certainty, who’s behind this.” The ambassador strongly believes the killers were assisted given the vehicle they drove to the president’s home.

In a statement to Associated Press, the prime minister called for a worldwide investigation into the assassination, asserting that the elections scheduled for later this year should resume without pause and pledged to work with the deceased president’s allies and opponents to bring about justice. “We need every single one to move the country forward,” Joseph added. Borders, including that of the Dominican Republic, has since closed. The Toussaint Louverture International Airport, Haiti’s main airport in the capital, has also been shut down in the aftermath of the attack.

Joseph ensured the people of the Caribbean island that police and military officials were in control of security. However, Haiti’s leadership now hangs in the balance as Joseph, who early on claimed authority, but was not confirmed by parliament, declared a “state of siege throughout the whole country.” He is also set to be replaced with a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, in the coming week, The New York Times reported. Henry was appointed by Moïse right before his murder and is said to be in hiding currently.

Haiti’s Supreme Court Judge René Sylvestre, who would have traditionally been next in line of power died Wednesday, June 23 after testing positive for Coronavirus, Judge Jean Wilner Morin, the president of the national association of Haitian judges, told CNN.

Public figures worldwide have denounced the assassination, including U.S. President Joe Biden, who, in a statement on Twitter, wrote that he was “shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the attack on First Lady Martine Moïse of Haiti.” He also condemned “this heinous act.” He added, “And stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti.”

In a statement to The Times, former President Michel Martelly, a widely known “bad boy” musician turned politician, whom Moïse succeeded in the November 2016 elections, called the assassination “a hard blow for our country and for Haitian democracy, which is struggling to find its way.”

Adequate leadership is something Haiti has long fought to maintain since its days under the ruthless dictatorship of the Duvalier Dynasty, which consisted of father François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The father-son duo ruled the country from 1957 to 1971, and then from 1971, Jean-Claude succeeded following his father’s death. However, he was ultimately overthrown by an uprising in what would be the final year of his term in February 1986.

A similar narrative echoed out in the months leading up to Moïse’s untimely demise. The island of a little over 11 million people had already seen a spike in gang violence, including kidnappings of young schoolchildren and even church pastors primarily in the capital, which displaced more than 14,700 people. Subsequently, locals have been cautioned to stay away from specific areas as criminal activity intensified. In addition to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the country also still grappling with the aftermath of the 2010 7.0 earthquake that killed between 220,000-300,000 people; injured hundreds of thousands more, and left millions without shelter. Moreover, 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. At the same time, many activists and critics have accused its now dead leader of being divisive, and staying in power longer than he should have and ignoring his duties.

Born on June 26, 1968 in Trou du Nord, Nord-Est, Haiti; the slain politician was the son of merchant Etienne Moïse and seamstress Lucia Bruno, according to his bio on Caribbean Elections. He later moved to Port-au-Prince when he was 6 and studied at the Don Durélin National School, the Lycée Toussaint Louverture, and the Cultural Center of the Collège Canado-Haïtien. He later studied political science at Université Quisqueya, according to his bio. Moïse had hopes of becoming a successful businessman.

After marrying his classmate and the now-former first lady in 1996, the pair relocated to Port-de-Paix, where Moïse established several business ventures, including JOMAR Auto Parts. The entrepreneur also helped create Haiti’s first agricultural free trade zone, a 25-acre banana plantation in Nord-Est, which employed 3,000 farmers. Shortly after, he partnered with Illinois-based company Culligan Water to distribute water to various areas in the country. Other dealings included the establishment of solar power in under-resourced areas.

In 2015, former president Martelly handpicked Moïse specifically to reign over his newly founded political party, the Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK), the creole phrase meaning the Haitian “Bald Headed” party. Prior to being selected, Moïse had been a former chamber of commerce leader.

During his campaign, the politician championed issues such as bio-ecological agriculture and policies formerly pursued by his predecessor, including universal education and health care, energy reform, and the creation of jobs — just to name a few. However, many were unfamiliar with the rookie politician and simply knew him as “the banana man.”

In interviews, Moïse would lean heavily into his upbringing, growing up on a large sugar plantation in hopes to gain support from residents of the country primarily made up of a rural population. He was once quoted saying, “Since I was a child, I was always wondering why people were living in such conditions while enormous lands were empty.” He added, “I believe agriculture is the key to change for this country.”

His journey to presidency, however, was paved with controversy from its very beginning. Elections were held in October 2015, and Moïse garnered 32.8 percent of the votes while competing against 54 other candidates. The win pinned him against second-place finisher Jude Célestin, who later accused the elections of fraud amid violent protests. The results from that election were consequently annulled in June 2016, and a second runoff was scheduled for later that year. Meanwhile, Jocelerme Privert had been serving as acting president until a new election could be held. In November 2016, election officials said Moïse dominated. He was sworn in office in February 2017.

The politician spent most of his time waging political wars against his opponents and failed to hold elections on all levels throughout his presidency, leaving vacant spots in the country’s government. Elections were supposed to be held in 2018, but Moïse claimed the country was too unstable to have a fair election. Meanwhile, he faced allegations of corruption as many of the oppositions accused him of trying to consolidate power and prolong his term in office.

As the civil unrest in the country worsened around March 2021, many called for the U.S.-backed politician to step down, citing a law that claimed a president’s term starts the day he is elected rather than when he takes office. However, Moïse declined to resign, maintaining that his five-year term would end in 2022. He also did little to ease tensions between him and the people he swore to govern in good faith, and remained silent as violence escalated and many lived in fear. For more than a year, the former banana executive ran the country on decree — a style traditionally used by dictators, though he routinely denied the title.

It’s not surprising that he gained plenty of enemies in the process. In February 2021, as concerns over Moïse’s term length grew, BBC reported that nearly two dozen people were arrested, including a top judge and a senior police office, in an attempt to kill the politician and overthrow the government. Cash and weapons, including assault rifles, machine guns, and machetes, were seized as the arrests were made. In a statement captured by the outlet, Moïse thanked his head of security. “The goal of these people was to make an attempt on my life. That plan was aborted,” he added.

Meanwhile, the late president’s failure to uphold his duties, including assigning government positions, has already shown to be damaging. The country that once gained its independence from the French and became the first Black-led republic to do so in 1804 now has no leader. And it’s unclear who can approve replacements and who will officially supersede Moïse. CNN reported that the Haitian Armed Forces and National Police have been deployed to the streets for now.

In the wake of Moïse’s death, the country’s future remains uncertain, and more mayhem is to be expected. In the meantime, the nation has set a two-week mourning period to honor the fallen politician. CNN reported that it is scheduled to begin on Thursday (July 9) and will end on July 22. As of late, Moïse is survived by his wife and their three adult children, daughter Jomarlie Moïse, and sons Joverlein Moïse and Jovenel Junior Moïse.

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