Haiti Jovenel Moise murdered
Inauguration of Jovenel Moise in 2017. Photo: Igor Rugwiza/UN/MINUSTAH/Fotos Públicas

Haiti: the political and social chaos that culminated in the murder of Jovenel Moise

Haiti lives in a state of permanent crisis. Since the end of World War II, the country has suffered 23 coup attempts. Of these, only 8 have failed. Ariel Palacios goes through the main historical events that culminated in the assassination of the president

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Days ago Haiti was the place of the first murder of presidential in the Americas this century. The first assassination of a head of state during his mandate since the death of Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in 1961. The victim was President Jovenel Moise, the target of 12 shots fired by a group of suspected mercenaries who entered his home in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, early in the morning. The first lady, Martine Moise, was wounded but survived and was rushed to a hospital in Miami, U.S.

With this death, and as there are no vice-presidents in Haiti – the country’s command passed into the hands of Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who declared a state of siege. Coincidentally, Joseph was to be replaced the week of Moise’s death by a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, who was appointed by the president on Monday but had not yet been confirmed by parliament.

The Haitian constitution states that in the event of the death or resignation of the president, the prime minister stays in charge until a new president is elected. The other coincidence is that the country will soon have presidential elections in September. Prime Minister Joseph – to show backing from the barracks (always a crucial sector in Haiti’s turbulent history) – declared that the armed forces are in control of the situation.

Yet, Ariel Henry – the one who was going to be prime minister but wasn’t – said Joseph cannot remain in office. “I am already assembling my own cabinet,” Henry stated. Claude Joseph came the same political group as Moise. Ariel Henry is the opposition.

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Usually, in similar crises, political groups say that the best way out is to leave the interim presidency of the Republic in the hands of the Court’s chief. But the pandemic took care of further complicating Haitian politics since Judge René Sylvestre died of COVID-19 days ago. Nor could he take over as president of Parliament, as it was dissolved.

One of the candidates for the September elections is former President Michel Martelly, a former Haitian carnival star, who was Moise’s political godfather. Before coming to power, Moise was a successful businessman who entered politics as recently as 2015. He had several ventures. But, the most successful one, was the production of organic bananas, which earned him among Haitians the nickname “the banana man.”

He contested the February 2016 elections. Moise would have been the winner. But due to a hail of allegations of fraud new elections were held in November that year. He won another round at the polls and was sworn in in February 2017.

Presidential election in Haiti in 2016. Photo: Logan Abassi UN/MINUSTAH/Fotos Públicas

Moise started claiming that his term would end in February 2022 as the presidential term is five years. But, the opposition claimed that it is five years from the predecessor’s departure. That is, if Martelly had left in February 2016, his successor’s term would end in February 2021.

The country would have had parliamentary elections in 2018. But, Moise did not hold those elections and has ruled by decree since that time. In the last two years, Moise has suppressed popular protests with intense violence. By decree, he expanded the definition of “terrorism” to include all kinds of dissent.

Moise had called for a plebiscite to bring about constitutional reform that would allow him to strengthen presidential powers since the constituent would be made up of people chosen by him. Yet, the Haitian constitution prevents any kind of plebiscite to change the Magna Carta. The plebiscite was postponed due to social protests. But, it is scheduled to be held along with presidential and parliamentary elections in a handful of months.

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Moise defined himself as “Après Dieu”, that is, like the second after God. To complicate matters, Haiti is the only country on the continent in which not a single inhabitant has been vaccinated. But the lack of vaccines is not for financial reasons, since the country was included in the list of nations that would receive vaccines from the Covax facility. Yet, the planned delivery of vaccines never took place because surveys indicated that 80% to 90% of the population did not want to be vaccinated, especially with AstraZeneca, which had been specifically targeted by fake news in the country.

The government, in order not to go against the grain of popular superstitions, rejected the vaccines. Yet, Moise declared a health emergency as cases grew and changed his mind about the vaccines. But they would only begin to arrive gradually at the end of this July.

Haiti lives in a state of permanent crisis. This magnicide catches the country at a time of extreme weakness and with an unprecedented proportion of gangs vying for areas of the country, besides the pandemic, devastation caused by hurricanes, the chronic extreme poverty (60% of Haitians earn less than US$ 2 per day). And then there is the political-electoral crisis.

In recent months gang violence has escalated. Only in the capital, about a hundred gangs are disputing the territory of the impoverished city, even setting up barricades, forming virtual fiefdoms of crime. Analysts warn of the possible transformation of Haiti into a kind of “Somalia of the Americas,” that is, a virtual fracture of the country into regions commanded by various local bosses in a state of permanent conflict.

The Haitian police claim that 28 people took part in the murder (after which they left calmly in five vans). Of these, 26 were Colombians. For this reason, the Colombian Defence Minister, Diego Molano, declared that military personnel from the Colombian army reserve were involved in Moise’s killing. Yet, the Haitian police have not yet explained the group’s motives for assassinating the Haitian president. Experts maintain that the operation was very well prepared, something that requires time and money.

The beginning of the drama

The territory where Haiti now stands was the second spot on the continent set foot on by Christopher Columbus in 1492. With the help of the kind local indigenous people, called “Tainos”, he founded “La Natividad”. Columbus left 39 sailors in place as he continued his mission to explore that side of the Atlantic Ocean in search of the Indies. The sailors then began the enslavement and mistreatment of the Tainos people. The natives rebelled and killed the Spaniards. Thus began the Modern Era for this side of the island.

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The following centuries would continue to be marked by death. Subsequently conquered by the French, it was populated by hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans.

But in 1789 the French Revolution put an end to the monarchy in Paris and preached fraternity and freedom of men. These ideas reached Haiti. First to the whites. And days later, to the Afro-Haitians. In 1791, they began a rebellion that spread throughout the country. The former slave Toussaint Louverture became the general of the rebel forces.

In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent troops to regain control of the island. After victories and defeats, the Afro-Haitians won. In 1804 a former ally of Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclaimed independence. In this way, Haiti became the second country in the Americas to proclaim independence (after the U.S. in 1776) and to institute the republic as a form of government.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who proclaimed Haiti’s independence in 1804.

But the republic and dreams of democracy were short-lived, as Dessalines chose to copy his enemy Napoleon and proclaim himself emperor under the name Jaques 1. But in 1806 he was killed by a group of his former collaborators, including Henri Christophe, who also proclaimed himself king.

Henri 1st ruled with an economic policy of forced labor on the sugar cane plantations. That is to say, the country had expelled the French and put an end to slavery, but the monarch reimposed slavery for part of his subjects.

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At the same time, most of the population remained poor, Henri built six castles and eight palaces, created nobility, and distributed noble titles in the middle of the Caribbean. The country was sinking into poverty, but it had four princes, eight dukes, 22 counts, 40 barons, and 14 knights.

The republican system returned to Haiti with Henri’s death. But in 1847, General Faustin Soulouque was sworn in as president and two years later he declared himself emperor, under the name Faustin the 1st. He was crowned in a ceremony with all pomp since he had commissioned an imperial robe, crown, scepter, armillary sphere, and other accessories, as well as a throne like that used by Napoleon 1st.

General Faustin Soulouque, who took office as president in 1847 and declared himself emperor of Haiti two years later.

In 1858 the republic returned to Haiti. But despite the change of regime, authoritarianism remained. And, what’s more, instability, as few presidents managed to complete their terms. Some had their governments interrupted dramatically. This was the case of Vibrun Guillaume Sam, an autocrat who ruled briefly exercising cruel repression of the population. Five months after becoming president he ordered the shooting of 167 political prisoners. But, frightened by the enraged reaction of the population, he took refuge in the French Embassy.

However, a mob entered the building, grabbing Sam, throwing him over the embassy railing, made him fall into the street, where the population killed him by tearing off pieces of his body. Afterward, groups paraded through the streets, each carrying a part of Sam.

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Then, US President Woodrow Wilson, claiming that Haiti was in danger of being invaded by the German Empire (the world was in the midst of World War I, and the powerful German community on the island controlled 80% of Haiti’s international trade), decided to occupy the country. But World War I ended in 1918 and U.S. military intervention continued until 1934.

Debt to the ex-colonizers

One of the presidents, Jean-Pierre Boyer, in 1825, under pressure from France, resigned himself to signing an agreement whereby Haiti would pay compensation for the loss of property of French citizens due to independence (farms, enslaved people, etc.). The unusual treaty stipulated a payment of 150 million francs. Later, the debt was reduced to 90 million francs, equal to $21 billion today.

The debt with France was finally canceled in 1893. During this period, 80% of Haiti’s revenue was used to pay off the debt.

The dictatorial dynasty

In 1956 President Magloire was overthrown and the country plunged into a year that was chaotic even by Haiti’s traditionally chaotic standards. But in 1957, François Duvalier, a physician who had had success fighting epidemics, was elected. Duvalier had a reputation as “humane” for working for many years in the Haitian slums. There he received the nickname “Papa Doc” (Papa Doctor).

François Duvalier (Papa Doc) in 1969. Photo: Delfos/Shutterstock

In the early days, the population expected that Duvalier would be a humanist, a just administrator. But shortly after taking office, he created a rural militia, the “Sécurité Nationale” (National Security), its members were known by the nickname “Tonton Macoute” (Boogeyman). This militia, which spread terror for decades, had twice as many men as the armed forces.

Duvalierism was classified as a “fascism of underdevelopment countries” by several intellectuals. Others called it a “Papadocracy” and indicated that it was a “semi-feudal” government.

The regime became famous for its torture, especially in the basements of the presidential palace itself. The torture rooms were pragmatically painted brown to prevent the blood-spattered bodies from standing out too much on the walls. Duvalier’s men found a way out of this with the alternative of submerging opponents in large tubs of sulphuric acid.

Besides, Duvalier boosted the presence of voodoo, the Haitian religion of African origin. To impress the superstitious population he sported the same outfit as one of their beliefs, the “Baron Samedi”. This was one of the cruel “loas” (spirits) of Haitian voodoo, with jacket, tie, and top hat.

The 1957 elections, in which Duvalier was first elected, were clean, a first for order, and minimal fraud. But his re-election in 1961 was characterized by manipulation. The official result was 1,320,748 votes for Duvalier. Not a single vote against him. In fact, he was the one and only candidate.

When his government was criticized, Duvalier replied in his ominously soft, paused voice: “This is not a French, German or American democracy… This is not even a Latin American democracy… This is an African democracy.”

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In 1961, Duvalier – after reading about the inauguration of Brazil‘s planned city capital Brasilia – decided to make his own monumental city. The dictator’s egocentrism left no room for any name other than “Duvalierville”.

However, the city was never built. The funds for its completion disappeared into the pockets of the contractors and the government itself. The city turned into a huge concrete slum (after the fall of the Duvalliers in 1986, Duvalierville was renamed with the peculiar name of “Cabaret”).

Duvalier died in 1971. His successor was Jean-Claude Duvalier, his pudgy, pampered son, who at 19 became the youngest head of state on the planet. “Baby Doc“, as he was called, was only interested in luxury cars, including a Ferrari, with which he raced down the runway of the capital’s airport, the only asphalt area in the country.

Exiled former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka Baby Doc. Photo: Sipa/Shutterstock

Baby Doc, as president for life, married the long-limbed Michelle Bennett. “Michelle collects shoes and enemies,” people said ironically in the capital at the time. Michelle loved mink coats. But, that garment was impractical in the torrid heat of Haiti.

However, Baby Doc found a way out: he installed an expensive cooling system inside the presidential palace, where Michelle could wear her furs bought in Paris. The palace staff, meanwhile, had common cold.

And the economy went from bad to worse as hunger spread, generating persistent outbreaks of revolt that the Tonton Macoute could not prevent. Simultaneously, the government of U.S. President Ronald Reagan was sending millions of dollars annually to the Haitian government as “humanitarian aid”.

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The aim was to reinforce Haiti as an “anti-communist bastion” since it was only 80 kilometers (49 miles) from Cuba’s shores. But the money, instead of being used to reduce poverty (and minimize the chances of an uprising) was going into the pockets of the Duvaliers, the Bennetts, and the government advisers. One day, Washington stopped funding the dictator. And that was the beginning of the end.

In February 1986, after months of strikes in various areas of the economy, demonstrations repressed with bullets and torture of opponents, the dictator declared on national radio and TV that he was “firm as a monkey’s tail” and that “peace reigns in the country”. Afterward, he organized a lavish party. At the end of the event, he went off of the country, taking $120 million that he had looted from the Central Bank.

Father and son together are said to have shot, beheaded, or murdered 60,000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of other Haitians died of starvation and disease during the Duvalier dictatorship.

From 1986 to 1988 the country was ruled by a military junta to make the transition to democracy. In 1988 Leslie Manigat was elected. But he was overthrown three months later. In 1990 the Salesian priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president. He was overthrown by the military in 1991.

The dictatorship lasted until 1994, when Aristide returned to power, supported by the U.S. For a decade the country had regular elections, until 2004 when the country was plunged into rebellions in several regions. A transitional president requested UN intervention in Haiti. Thus, 7,000 men from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Jordan, and other countries were sent by the mission that became known by the acronym MINUSTAH. The country had new elections in 2006, 2011, and 2016. In between, in 2010 Haiti had a 7.0 size earthquake that devastated the capital, with massive destruction of households.

Translated by Isabela Fleischmann