Two weeks have passed since the assassination of Jovenel Moïse in his bedroom at his private residence. Ariel Henry, a humble neurosurgeon and a minister who has shifted imperturbably from right to moderate left and back over the years, has been installed as Haiti’s latest in a long series of easily forgotten acting presidents. Moïse’s widow, Martine Moïse, reportedly critically injured in the attack, has returned from a Miami hospital to Haiti, where she participated in memorial ceremonies for her husband wearing a plain black dress and a splint on her right arm. There have been persistent rumors that Moïse wanted his wife to run for president after his term ended.
Even writing these words, I still can’t believe Moïse was killed, and with such spectacular fanfare in such an intimate setting. I’ve driven past his house on the hill many times. There’s so much security, so many walls. Cameras, too, I’m sure, though I never have seen them. You drive by steadily, not even opening your window and craning your neck to figure out what’s what because any security guy you happen to see there looks dead serious.
Yet where were they on the night of? The accounts I’ve read suggest they were not on duty. None of them were injured in the assault. Calls that Moïse made from the house to several high-level security officials seem to show—if they are authentic—that the president knew his life was in danger. “Where are you?” he asked a high-level security official, according to the Miami Herald. “I need your assistance, now. Come quick; come save my life.” He could hear the same shooting outside the residence that his neighbors heard. Until he couldn’t.
Indeed, new reports seem to show that police were on-site before the legendary Colombian commandos, now detained by those same police, arrived on the scene. Early reports said that the president was dead before the Colombians arrived. The Colombians still remain in Haitian detention, however.
Implausibly, other reports have the killers in the presidential bedroom with Moïse in their sights, still seeking to affirm the president’s identity with someone on the other end of a phone call. Hard to imagine, though, that killers of the caliber alleged would not be completely familiar with the president’s image and face as part of their training before entering the president’s house. What did they ask on that alleged phone call? Wait, is the target tall, thin, with a shaved head, big eyes, long neck? Did they ask, in the middle of the night in the dark bedroom, whether Moïse had an identifying birthmark? Did they ask to see a photo and compare it to their trembling target? The stories being spread by security officials and those around them are not always believable.
Three police officers have been arrested, and the chief of the president’s palace security guard is being held in solitary. Haitian authorities have admitted that members of the police may have been involved at some level in the assassination. (Sometimes the narrative feels like an Amazon Prime series.) But not a single high security official has resigned in the wake of negligence of their duty to protect the president. Worse yet, the same police are also the main institution investigating the assassination.
Perhaps the Haitian investigators, working with the FBI, are moving closer to a serious and real identification of the people who pulled the trigger—but finding those who ordered the killing is much more important and is going to be harder, especially if indeed the police or others among the investigating team were involved. Some suspects may die in custody; those who are being held incommunicado and in isolation are particularly vulnerable, and international human rights organizations should be demanding that they have access to doctors, attorneys, and phone calls.
The political battle that took place last week around succession to the presidency is part and parcel of the murk surrounding Moïse’s killing, and, although a new head of state has been installed, that battle is still ongoing. The same figures are at work behind the scenes in both situations: The presidency is the hoped-for prize for the killers of the president. Which is to say that the presidency was the thing that Moïse had that someone wanted: the powers of the Haitian presidency.
It bears repeating that in Haiti, the presidency is a business, not a duty. It’s about profit, not governance. The office is the spigot from which all good things flow. It gives you access to things like the moneys from the Hugo Chávez Haiti PetroCaribe account. It gives you the ability to offer up customs contracts and port access and other government goodies to cronies and cousins. You take a cut or a fee. It gives you a security team that you can order around at will. And it’s especially valuable once you have eliminated almost all other government officials, as Moïse had done, so you and the men who run you don’t have to split the loot with anyone else.
But the presidency is also dangerous, because if it is perceived, as it appears to have been in Moïse’s case, that you might be getting ready to double-cross your old friends, you stand to lose everything, even your life. Et voilà. Other than a Haitian who wants control of the presidency, the only other marginally plausible type of suspect would be a major drug trafficker, but even Moïse would not be so flushed with power, so arrogant, or so stupid as to cross a cartel. And, just to add to the murk and mystery, a Haitian intellectual auteur of the crime might also easily be a drug trafficker and affiliated with the cartels. “The killers,” one Haitian commentator said, “come from the same sector that’s now fighting for political power.”
All these factors seem to have been forgotten in the rush by the international community—and the Biden administration—to put someone into a position of power to manage the situation. And note: The person they’ve installed is not just any empty suit. Henry was the last prime minister appointed by Jovenel Moïse—who, let’s not forget, was an unpopular president who waltzed the Haitian nation to the very brink of anarchy with nary a thought of, nary an action to ease the everyday suffering of the population.
Here are some things that must be addressed by any government hoping to lead Haiti out of the morass of chaos and killing. The series of massacres in poor neighborhoods perceived as opposition strongholds and the ongoing takeover of important access points to the capital city by the gangs that are controlled by shadowy figures—figures that, although hidden, any Haitian can name with a degree of probable accuracy. The assassinations, too, of Antoinette Duclaire (rights advocate and progressive opposition leader), Diego Charles (journalist), Monferrier Dorval (head of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association), Micah Saieh (businessman), Frantz Adrien Bony (journalist), Ernst Pady (pediatrician), Edlyne Mentor (nurse), and so many others murdered with total impunity in the violent streets over which Moïse presided like a baleful dementor. A government that is an extension of Moïse’s—as Ariel Henry’s certainly is—is not a government that can address all this.
So many members of Henry’s new cabinet are former Moïse appointees. Former Moïse prime minister Claude Joseph, who for about two deep breaths was acting head of state last week, is now foreign minister; it bears recalling that as PM he was head of the Supreme Council of the National Police (CSPN), and so had responsibility himself for the late president’s security. The new minister of justice, perhaps the most important position in the new government, is the old minister of justice whom Moise named to that position one year ago, and was also a member of CSPN. This is “stability”—brought to you by the US, OAS, UN, and other foreign influencers in Haiti. No new ideas, no new figures, no new policies, no justice.
Announcing the installation of Henry, the US Embassy in Haiti tweeted: “The United States, together with the international community, urges Haiti’s political and civil society leaders to continue to work together to advance a broad and inclusive dialogue that responds to the needs of the Haitian people and lays the groundwork for long-term stability and prosperity.” Fine words, and one hopes they also constitute a signal to the real democratic sector in Haiti that the United States has taken note, finally, of its existence. But when civil society demonstrated by the thousands against the rule of impunity in Haiti this year—massing repeatedly and at considerable risk to their own safety—the Biden administration said nothing. And continued its support for Moïse and for elections to be conducted under his rule in spite of conditions of extreme violence. The best that can be hoped of Ariel Henry’s administration is that it will be a brief transition in a series of transitions to genuine democracy.
No one denies that the international community is a major player in Haitian politics. Beginning in the days before the assassination, many Haitian politicians and businessmen were canvassing Washington lobbyists with the goal of eliciting support from the United States for various future presidential candidates, according to reporting by The New York Times. After Moïse was killed, these efforts became more frenetic.
But Haitians who are allied with the democratic movement in the country are using other means to make change there.
“What we’re asking is for a little humility, a little modesty from the international community,” says Magali Comeau Denis, a coordinator of the Commission to Seek a Haitian Solution to the Crisis (CRSH), which for more than four months has been organizing major groups in Haitian society that represent farmers, various religious entities, labor, human rights groups, women, students, and professionals, as well private-sector interests, political factions, and the Haitian diaspora, with a view toward offering an interim solution to the crisis and toward presenting a program that might really address the severe problems Haitians face in their daily lives. Denis’s colleague on the commission Monica Clesca, a retired international development and communications expert, adds that, to counter activities like Washington lobbying, the commission is “building alliances so we can be stronger and inexorable. We want to call out the international community for interference, and stake our ground, which is Haiti.”
The commission’s proposed program for Haiti seems so obvious, so clear, so necessary. First on their list: justice for those killed during Moïse’s presidency and that of his predecessor, Michel Martelly, and of course the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the attack on Moïse and his wife. Second: justice in the various corruption scandals that erupted during the Moïse years, especially the looting of the PetroCaribe accounts. Also high on the list, establishing security in the streets and disarming and reintegrating gang members back into Haitian society. The CRSH has also suggested setting up a committee of politicians and civil society groups to propose nominations for the posts of interim president and prime minister. Discussions have not proceeded entirely smoothly, but then democracy is not an easy road.
Which is perhaps why Washington is so afraid of it.