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The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse at his home threatens to exacerbate Haiti’s already rampant problems.
“Everything that could go wrong seems to be going wrong,” says Robert Fatton, an expert on Haitian politics at the University of Virginia, and a native of Haiti himself.
The Western portion of the island of Hispaniola, Haiti is perched in the Caribbean just 600 miles southeast of Florida. It threw off French rule with a successful revolt, becoming the first Black-led republic in 1804.
The United States has a long history of intervention there: It occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The U.S. has sent in the Marines twice in the past three decades to restore order, under President Bill Clinton and then again under President George W. Bush.
Even before Moïse’s assassination early Wednesday, Haiti was in crisis: Political instability, the lasting effects of a devastating earthquake and a cholera epidemic, foreign political meddling, and gang violence have all taken their toll.
“You have this situation where the institutions are not working, where the economy is stagnated … the politics has been extremely volatile. The current government has been challenged by the population. There have been massive accusations of corruption,” Fatton says. “So you name it, in terms of instability and institutional decay, you have it at the moment in Haiti.”
The country was facing a constitutional crisis
François Pierre-Louis, an expert on Haitian politics at Queens College at the City University of New York, said he wasn’t that surprised to learn of Moïse’s killing.
Moïse had stripped rival political parties, businesspeople and prominent families of power. “He made a lot of enemies. [The attack] could have come from anywhere. And he alienated too many people,” Pierre-Louis, who is originally from Haiti, told NPR.
Moïse took office in 2017 after a protracted and contested election. He had never before held political office; he was a businessman who had grown rich as a fruit exporter.
The opposition said his term in office should have ended in February, but Moïse said that because it took a year for him to officially take office, his term should be extended into 2022.
The 53-year-old president had been ruling by decree for more than a year when he was killed, after dissolving Parliament and failing to hold legislative elections.
On July 1, the United Nations Security Council issued a statement expressing “deep concern regarding deteriorating political, security and humanitarian conditions in Haiti.”
Moïse also proposed a referendum on changes to Haiti’s constitution.
Among other things, the U.N. explained, Moïse’s desired constitutional changes would allow the president to run for two consecutive five-year terms without a pause currently stipulated. It also would effectively abolish the Haitian Senate and establish a vice president who reports to the president, instead of a prime minister. It urged free and fair elections sometime in 2021, when they are scheduled.
But not everyone thinks that’s even possible right now. “Many civil society organizations in Haiti — and I think rightly so — claim that you can’t have elections in the current climate, which is one of very high instability and insecurity,” Fatton says.
It’s still struggling to recover from a crippling earthquake
In 2010, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake whose main shock rattled the ground for nearly 30 seconds. At least 220,000 people are estimated to have died, and some 1.5 million people were displaced. “About 300,000 were injured, and large parts of the country were buried under tons of twisted metal and concrete,” as NPR reported.
The earthquake destroyed Haiti’s infrastructure. And that infrastructure has yet to be really rebuilt.
“People are still traumatized by the earthquake. They lost family members,” says Pierre-Louis. “They couldn’t rebuild because they have no income. And then you have generations of people that have disappeared.”
A devastating cholera outbreak
That earthquake was followed by another deadly force: cholera.
As NPR’s Jason Beaubien reported in 2016, “U.N. peacekeepers inadvertently brought cholera to Haiti in 2010 just after the crippling earthquake. The outbreak, which is still ongoing, has sickened nearly 800,000 people and killed nearly 9,000. Prior to 2010 cholera had not been reported in Haiti in decades.”
The U.N. apologized for its role in the cholera outbreak in 2016. Still, as Pierre-Louis notes: “People were not compensated for the loss of their family members who were breadwinners.”
Gangs run rampant
Gangs have become a scourge in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. A recent U.N. report said 5,000 people had been displaced by gang violence just in the first 10 days of June.
“The violence has left several people dead, or injured, as rival gangs battle to exert control over populous areas such as Martissant, Cité-Soleil and Bel Air. Hundreds of homes and small businesses have also been burned,” according to the U.N. Several police stations have also been attacked by armed assailants.
Certain areas of Port-au-Prince aren’t even accessible because gangs are controlling them, Fatton says, reflecting the government’s incapacity to govern. “And those areas are very close, actually, to the seats of power, to the presidential palace, to the Legislative Assembly,” he says.
Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
Haiti has yet to administer vaccine doses as COVID rises
Haiti is the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean, and is among the poorest countries in the world, according to the World Bank.
Nearly half the population needs immediate food assistance, according to the U.N. World Food Programme.
Hurricane Matthew struck the country in 2016, further damaging the country’s economy. More than 90 percent of Haiti’s population is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters, according to the World Bank.
The country has seen a recent resurgence of COVID-19. It also is one of the few countries that has yet to administer a dose of the vaccine, Reuters reports.
“It’s a climate of insecurity,” Fatton says.
There’s a power struggle
It’s not yet clear who is responsible for assassinating Moïse. But Pierre-Louis believes one possible narrative in his killing is the fight between Moïse’s incoming elite and the old elite.
“He was trying to dispossess of several people in Haiti who are well known for a long time as business-people in Haiti,” he says. “You always have this in Haiti, where when a person becomes president, that’s how the person tries to accumulate wealth: by using state resources, by using other means to dispossess others that already have wealth and power.”
Still, Fatton says that an assassination is a new phenomenon in modern Haitian politics. While independent Haiti’s first ruler was assassinated in 1806, such violence has not been typical in the country’s modern era.
“This was a very brutal and shocking event,” Fatton says.