What Next for Haiti?

What Next for Haiti?

The announced arrests didn’t solve the murder of Jovenel Moïse. Nor do they address the deeper problems of a country where the presidency has become a business, not a duty.

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There is emerging in the US and European media what we might call the “deepening spiral” narrative in the wake of the repugnant assassination of Jovenel Moïse in Haiti. The news bulletins open frequently with this phrase or others like it. Here’s the New York Times front-page news story on July 8 about the killing: “The assassination left a political void that deepened the turmoil and violence that have gripped Haiti for months….”

Most mainstream media commentary on the assassination of the Haitian president in the early hours of July 7 has included many of the old racist tropes about Haiti: if not outright calling the country “ungovernable,” at least hinting that it is so, with comments about its inherently tragic cycle of chaos and crisis. Meanwhile, these same explainers and anchors always somehow neglect to mention—in their introduction to the Haiti experts they “interview” for two minutes—the sick dance the international community and especially the United States has engaged in with Haitian governance since these tropes first found their willing audience.

Let’s look at what really has happened in Haiti in the past few days—and in the past few years.

The assassination has—obviously—eliminated Jovenel Moïse, a ruler who failed to control “turmoil and violence” during his over-extended time in office—and may indeed have encouraged it. As one Haitian who knew Moïse during his presidency reminded me: “He threatened dozens of people and killed another handful, and has been driving many people up the wall for years.” Much of the violence unfolding now has its roots in the huge piles of money that were shoveled into Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, most of it going either to contractors and NGOs from donor countries or to entities run by the usual suspects in the Haitian business mafia and elite.

Moïse, his predecessor Michel Martelly, and their cohort were reportedly deep drinkers at the trough of corruption that absorbed most of the remaining moneys. The same holds true of the fund that accrued from Petrocaribe, the petroleum discount program Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez established in Haiti under earlier governments. Once Martelly was in power, more than $2 billion in Petrocaribe funds vanished, with Moïse, not yet president, playing a part. A 656-page Haitian Appeals court report implicated Martelly, Moïse, and Laurent Lamothe, Martelly’s prime Mminister. No one involved in these crimes was ever called to account by the two successive governments of Martelly and Moïse—like officials around the world, these two chose not to look into their own alleged corruption.

Since Moïse’s death, the smooth, English-speaking Lamothe has been offering himself up on major mainstream US media as the voice of reason and calm in Haiti. “Would you like to be president?” one American interviewer asked him, while Moïse’s body was barely cold. “Ah,” Lamothe answered, smiling genially. “So many have asked me that.”

Just for the record, this is the man whom—along with his friends—the court report accused of “forfeiture, extortion, and embezzlement of public funds.”

So let’s not pretend Moïse was a statesmanlike figure whose presence on the scene will be sorely missed. He was not a politician who tried manfully to steer an unwieldy, ungovernable ship of state. In reality, he was a former banana distributor, a volatile and unlikely leader handpicked by Martelly because of his familiarity with corruption, a president who naturally chose the easiest if not the most elegant solutions to the many thorny problems that confronted him. If a problem was too difficult, he ignored it: education, sanitation, the ongoing earthquake cleanup, Covid, health care, the dying economy. Also security, in the form of the numerous gangs that have been ruling Port-au-Prince’s streets for two years and more. So many kidnappings and killings, so few arrests. In March, when Moïse’s government did send in the police to oust a gang from control of Village de Dieu, a huge seaside shantytown, the small, incompetent contingent was routed and a handful of officers brutally murdered on the scene. Their killers, many of whom were captured on videotape disseminated almost synchronously on social media, have also not been brought to justice.

Moïse was the king of misrule, a master of disaster. Almost as if it were the task he’d been given, he led the quest to destroy the country’s institutions, one after another: the legislature, which by the end of his regime had only 10 senators remaining, the rest term-limited out a year ago, with the president scheduling no further legislative elections; the municipal government network—he called no elections for mayors after they also termed out, instead appointing new ones from his coterie; and the judicial system, from which he fired judges for his own reasons, including several on the supreme court. His work done, Moïse let the street gangs mete out what justice, law, and order the regime required, including assassination of its perceived enemies.

Hard to deepen that spiral.

But the United States is doing its best. The Biden administration seems to have decided almost immediately in the wake of the assassination to support Prime Minister Claude Joseph as acting president to take Haiti to elections, although there is no clear succession to the presidency for a prime minister under Haitian law. Moïse appointed Joseph in April and, in his penultimate act as president, fired him on July 5 (but, interestingly, Joseph didn’t find time between the morning of July 5 and the dark night of July 6-7 to leave office). Having fired Joseph, Moïse (illegally) appointed another prime minister to succeed him, also on that same fateful day, in his last presidential act. So there is another prime minister waiting in the wings: Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon. And neurosurgeon Henry is likely to remain, though he has declared himself the legitimate interim ruler of Haiti.

Another figure, Joseph Lambert, a former supporter of Moïse’s party and the president of Haitian senate, with its 10 remaining senators—a Haitian style minyan—has been (illegally) named by that remnant as provisional president of Haiti, with the neurosurgeon as his prime minister, thus two votes for Henry as part of a new government, either heading it as president, as he himself has suggested, or playing second fiddle to Lambert’s presidency. Anyway, that makes three acting presidents in Haiti right now, none of them constitutionally valid, in part because the constitutional successor to Moïse was chief justice of the Supreme Court, who died recently of Covid.

Maybe riding Joseph to elections is the only decision the Americans are capable of making, because elections are a reflexive reaction for them, as is accepting whatever cockamamie plan for governance the usual suspects present them with.

The Biden administration, like so many American governments before it, doesn’t seem to care what kind of election takes place in Haiti, as long as the carefully crafted result is a person whom the United States can understand, who speaks the same language (both figuratively and literally), a person, that is, who protects the interests of the usual suspects, Haiti’s import-export business mafia, who, along with Haiti’s older elite, have been the go-to advisers for the Americans for more than three decades and who are now deeply entwined with money laundering and drug trafficking, as well as the daily tsunami of corruption. That’s why people like Martelly and Reginald Boulos, for decades a serious player in the business mafia, have been hiring American lobbyists and making springtime visits to Washington to test the support they might have there. Lamothe is also interested.

They all want to be president, and don’t be fooled: It’s not because of their deep patriotism or their desire to help the Haitian people emerge from beneath the quagmire of corrupt regimes under which they’ve had to struggle to survive. It’s because it’s easier to tap the coffers of the country and to suck dry various bureaucracies (customs, the port, the banks, and other centers where money trades hands) when you hold all the reins of political power and firepower in your hand. In Haiti, the presidency has become a business, not a duty.

These, then, are the kinds of people who are thought capable of keeping Haiti “stable,” or stable enough so that Haitians don’t flee the country in droves, becoming the kind of Caribbean immigrants that Florida doesn’t like. But there has been no stability under Martelly and Moïse, and Haitians have left in droves, fleeing in the past years not directly to Florida on boats, as they used to, but to South America and more specifically to Brazil, on planes, where they land and then follow a long trail north, often to the US border and internment camps.

One question that seems relevant to all this is who actually ordered the killing of Moïse. Most of what you are about to read is informed speculation with conclusions founded on political logic. It’s also what Haitians are mulling over as they brood on what went down, and try to understand what may come next.

Here we go, then.

One: The person who ends up in power after an assassination of a head of state often may have had something to do with the assassination. That’s how coups usually work. Most people who are fired, as Prime Minister Joseph was, don’t have their boss killed in the following hours, but… Anyway, it’s wise not to see Joseph as a simple appointee of Moïse’s—or now, with Moïse gone, as his own boss. There was a lot riding on the continuation of the despotic power that Moïse put together for the executive in Haiti, but not a lot riding on Moïse himself remaining in charge. When Moïse fired Joseph, it’s possible that some faction in Moïse’s coterie or some rival for power became highly concerned about the president’s next moves. Would Moïse, sitting on top of a powder keg of his own creation, perhaps turn his back on elections, declare a state of siege, and go on ruling indefinitely, thus blocking all those around him who had presidential aspirations?

Two: A professional hit team demands an exit strategy before signing on to an execution, especially the assassination of a president. But the “team” of Colombian mercenaries the Haitian government is hunting down right now simply fled the president’s residence—not seemingly in much of a hurry—and then tried to hide in the shantytowns and in the empty Taiwanese embassy. Why? Why were they still in Haiti even for one single hour after the killing? Commandos and surgical strikes and SWAT teams don’t work that way. Also, some members of this “highly professional squad” had been in Haiti for weeks, even months, before Moïse was killed, living here and there. One of them, in a final call via cell phone to his sister in Colombia, assured her, from the midst of a gun battle with the Haitian police, that the team had rushed to the rescue of their “very important” client, but had gotten there too late. She didn’t hear more from him about this, because he was killed by the police in the next few minutes.

It remains to be seen whether he and the other two suspects killed by the police—as well as the other 25 men supposedly involved in Moïse’s killing—actually had anything to do with it, or whether the hunt for them, and their jailing and interrogation, is a distraction, while the real killers cover their tracks and make their escape.

Three: Why were no security people or guards hurt during the home invasion and assassination at the presidential residence—if indeed any of the president’s concentric circles of protection were even present at the time? Where was Moïse’s much-touted “palace guard”? The Haitian government’s prosecutor, Bedford Charles, has asked Dmitri Herard, head of Moïse’s guard (who is reportedly a subject of a US law enforcement probe related to arms trafficking), along with the president’s security coordinator and two other Haitian law enforcement figures, to come in for questioning in the next few days.

“If you are responsible for the security of the president, where were you? What did you do to avoid this fate for the president?” Charles asked, rhetorically, after visiting the crime scene, and noting that only the president and his wife were attacked during the assault. Charles has also demanded that the president’s security coordinator provide him with a list of all the security officers who should have been present at the residence on that night. So far he has not received that list, about which he has said: “I must have it.”

The Colombians captured by the police have reportedly claimed that they were hired as security for the president and others long before the events of the night of July 6. They’ve also allegedly said they arrived at the president’s house on that night to find him dead and his wife injured, and further reports and footage from video cameras, and the call to the sister, seem to confirm that they arrived about an hour after the president died. The extent of the president’s injuries, 12 gunshot wounds to various parts of the body, also do not sound like the precision work of a team of highly trained mercenaries; those who have seen photos of the disfigured corpse are calling it torture.

Four: The Haitian National Police has not swept the city for killers, kidnappers, or rapists in years. Very few police investigations have led to arrests or captures. This year alone has seen the killings of the head of the Haitian bar association; a well-known rights advocate and opposition leader along with her friend, a journalist; a nurse; and a pediatrician—all killed in separate incidents. And that is hardly the full list of victims. But there have been no arrests, no prosecutions. Since Moïse and his predecessor took over in Haiti, there have been repeated massacres in opposition strongholds. Yet law enforcement has not jumped to find those responsible; indeed they never have found them—and for the most part have not even tried.

But now, suddenly, within the space of 48 hours, the police have identified and picked up 17 of the president’s presumed professional assassins, killing three along the way. Five more are still at large. This newfound efficiency defies belief, because… it’s probably a complete lie.

In all likelihood, Moïse was not killed by a highly trained foreign commando unit but by powerful local figures we have not yet reckoned with, shadowy background operators working for some dominant but nervous group that Moïse’s continuing rule seemed to threaten. Hence the extent of the president’s injuries, which speak of personal animus. Hence the sudden vanishing of his security team. Hence the continued presence in the country of the Colombians. Hence perhaps, the ongoing rule of the fired prime minister. Because they didn’t do the murder, the Colombians didn’t feel they had to leave Haiti, and they didn’t realize they were going to be blamed. Once they saw what was coming, they dispersed and fled, but not very far.

As one Haitian news outlet wrote in its editorial, “Moïse…a de facto president discredited by actions that saved a clan of both legal and illegal bandits, had no further ability to realize elections in 2021 that would continue to protect the interests of those who run the system. Thus, his sponsors had to get rid of this cumbersome president, so they concocted a ‘scenario abracadabrant’ that offered up ‘very professional mercenaries’ who in the end got themselves arrested and killed like little inoffensive lambs.”

The most important question, as always, is what comes next for the Haitian people. Will their representatives among leaders of grassroots groups and civil society organizations even be brought into the conversation by the US mission that arrived in Haiti on Sunday to discuss the situation with leaders there? So far, the only announced invitees to these discussions are the three battling self-declared acting presidents of Haiti. Long before Moïse was killed, progressive groups were calling for an interim consensus government to take over from him and lead Haiti to elections, because no responsible adult could see a way for the Moïse faction, which had led Haiti into the current dangerous impasse, to organize credible elections during which people would actually go to vote, without fear.

Here’s what life is like right now for the Haitian people: Just as before under Moïse, there continues to be very little in the way of free education, and school fees—on average about $75 per year in a country where the median annual income for a family is less than $800—eat up a big chunk of Haitian families’ available resources. Covid is spiking, and there are few programs to get free masks to people—and none of those are government-run. There are no vaccines available; the government has not managed to put together any Covid response. There are intermittent gas shortages and frequent blackouts. Sanitation is horrendous: Huge piles of garbage now tower over corners on what used to be the grandest boulevards. Clean water is hard to come by, and cholera always threatens to strike again as it did during the United Nation’s occupation of Haiti from 2004 to 2017. Social life and family life have been whittled away by insecurity: food insecurity, financial insecurity, employment insecurity, and security insecurity. However you measure it, the cost of living is way too high.

And then, there’s the violence everyone’s been living with. “Kidnappings and insecurity are so common that we don’t even report on it anymore,” says a founder of one grassroots group. “Who will go campaigning when security is not guaranteed? Who will go vote in highly populated areas where there is ongoing insecurity? We’re talking about a country where a president was killed in his bedroom…. Nothing has changed, the level of insecurity, state terrorism, impunity is higher.”

Though Joseph announced two weeks of official mourning for Moïse, there has not been anything like an outpouring of public grief for the dead president. Instead: silence, concern. “I have no tears for him,” said one person long associated with progressive movements in Haiti. What leaders of grassroots movements and the organizers of opposition coalitions are hoping is that this moment of emptiness at the top will give the United States and the rest of the international community a chance to step back and make room for the Haitian people in Haiti’s future, rather than clinging to the old belief that the best people in charge are those who’ve always been in charge, and the best leaders are the strongmen.

It doesn’t sit well either with Haitians that their government is requesting that United States and the United Nations send in troops to keep the peace, “after 24 hours of wild gun battles with suspects in the assassination of Haiti’s president,” according to The New York Times. The Times also asserted in its news story that this request is “a measure of how deeply shaken the nation has been by days of chaos and intrigue.”

Depends who you think the nation is. The days of chaos and intrigue started long before Moïse was killed. Twenty-four hours of gang gunfighting in Port-au-Prince were not unheard of in the weeks leading up to the assassination, yet no plea for US troops was issued by Moïse’s government. In fact, the hours of gun fights over the past few days have been extraordinary in that they are mostly between police and suspects in the assassination, not between outlaw gangs duking it out. The people are worried. But they’re no more deeply shaken by events since Moïse’s death than they were by those that preceded it.

A police car carries two dead men after a shooting on July 8, 2021, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Richard Pierrin / Getty Images)

“More than ever, this is the time to hit the pause button to analyze who is who in this macabre scenario,” says Monique Clesca, an organizer of the Commission to Find a Haitian Solution. “But this assassination does not change the essence of our struggle for social justice and for an end to corruption and impunity. It was so before Moise’s assassination and it remains so after it.”

There are plenty of intelligent, compassionate, flexible, and organized Haitian groups functioning at the grassroots level right now, groups that have shown themselves to be both widely popular as well as resilient. On July 6, 2018, three years to the day before Moïse was killed, Haitians in several groups put together peyi lok, a highly effective general strike by civil society, including students, teachers, labor, and artists, protesting a more than 30 percent gas price hike that had just been announced by the Moïse government. Moïse backed down. Soon after, the movement began to protest the loss of the Chávez petroleum funds, in another mass protest called Kotkàb PetroCaribe a?, or “Where is the Petrocaribe money?” This didn’t bring money back into the Haitian coffers, but like peyi lok, it brought the country to a halt and showed the power of popular organization in the streets.

Groups that led these protests are now calling for calm, solidarity, and “immediate and concerted initiatives to de-escalate the situation,” as one recent post-assassination statement read. Most of these civil society groups have a laundry list of items that are necessary for Haiti to achieve full democratic standing. One is the filing of state charges against the suspects in the Petrocaribe scandal. Another is justice concerning the massacres under Moïse and Martelly. All have agreed that Haitians’ living conditions must change and that there can be no more impunity for government officials, police, gang members, and others. All agree that security and the disarming of the gangs must be a top priority, and that gang members who have not committed violent crimes must be reintegrated into a working economy.

And of course the greatest prize of all: free and fair elections—presidential, legislative, and mayoral—to take place, they hope, under the authority of an interim, broad-based consensus civilian government in a secure atmosphere without threat or fear. It’s hard to imagine why this would be hard for the international community to support, except for their extreme mistrust of a volatile Haiti which is at least partly their own creation. It seems about time to dispel the myth that only outside expertise can save Haiti and to start out on a new path, even if it will be unpredictable and demanding.

There is, among members of the international community, considerable historic fear of a country that staged the world’s only successful full-on revolt of enslaved people against the domination of a world power—this was 1791–1804, and the superpower was France. Even today, revolutionary thinking and revolutionary emotion are buried only a few layers deep in many Haitians, from the elite down to the shantytown dweller. Meanwhile, though, Haitians want to live decent lives with futures for their kids that don’t include becoming a gang member and dying before their 30th birthday.

Because of the vexed history between the descendants of masters and the descendants of the enslaved, outsiders have always encouraged strife and internecine fighting among Haitians. And Haitians have been no slouches either at creating misunderstandings and chaos among outsiders. The international community has mistrusted the Haitian people, and vice versa, for so long that it can be difficult for either side to see a happy resolution of this harsh but by now central relationship. However, just as relationships built on mutual trust can work beautifully, so can relationships built on mutual distrust.

But for that to happen both sides have to recognize each other as equals. Soon the international community must learn this one truth in dealing with the world’s first Black republic. “I tell the others who want to occupy our space, kindly get your boots off our necks,” Clesca says. “This is a struggle for our second independence and for equality for all—US and UN troops can not help us. Rather, we need the solidarity of the world.”

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