How the assassination of the Haitian president follows years of unrest

The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti in a brazen attack on his private residence on Wednesday deepened the turmoil in the Caribbean nation and heightened fears of more widespread political violence.

Acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph said the president had been “cowardly assassinated”, called on the country to “stay calm” and sought to reassure Haitians and the world that the police and military were in control. .

But Mr. Joseph’s words did little to allay fears of possible chaos.

“There is no longer a Parliament, the Senate has been missing for a long time, there is no longer a president of the Court of Cassation,” said Didier Le Bret, former French ambassador to Haiti, adding about Mr. Joseph: “Everything will rest on him. . “

The assassination of Mr. Moïse is the culmination of years of instability in the country, long gripped by lawlessness and violence. Haiti, once a slave colony known for the brutality of its masters, gained independence from France after the slaves revolted and defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces in 1803. But over the next two centuries Haiti has struggled to emerge from cycles of dictatorships and coups that have kept the country impoverished and struggling to provide basic services to much of its population.

For nearly three decades, the country suffered under the dictatorship of François Duvalier, says Papa Doc, then his son, Jean-Claude, known as Baby Doc. A priest from a poor neighborhood, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, became the first democratically elected president in 1990. But in less than a year, he was overthrown by a coup, then returned to power in 1994 with help. thousands of American soldiers.

Mr. Aristide was re-elected in 2000, but again forced into retirement after another armed uprising and went into exile. He called this a “kidnapping” orchestrated by international actors, including the American and French governments.

When a devastating earthquake razed much of the country in 2010, the disaster was seen as an opportunity to resuscitate dilapidated infrastructure and start afresh, strengthening the government’s capacity to rebuild. More than $ 9 billion in humanitarian aid and donations have poured in, bolstered by an additional estimated $ 2 billion in cheap oil supplies and loans from Venezuela’s powerful ally. International humanitarian organizations have rushed to help manage the recovery.

But the money hasn’t put Haiti on a new path – and many experts believe the country’s situation is worse since reconstruction began. A cholera outbreak soon after the earthquake that killed at least 10,000 Haitians was linked to the arrival of infected United Nations peacekeepers, who did not admit their involvement until years later but denied any legal responsibility , protected by international treaties granting diplomatic immunity to the organization.

Michel Martelly, a former popular singer who became president in 2011, has been accused of widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds intended for reconstruction.

Reports from court-appointed Haitian auditors have revealed in detail that much of the $ 2 billion loaned to the country by Venezuela has been embezzled or wasted in eight years. Before entering politics, President Moïse, then a little-known fruit exporter, was implicated in one of the reports for his participation in a plan to siphon off funds intended for road repair.

In the years that followed, persistent economic malaise, rising crime and corruption led to protests from Haitians weary of their government and demanding the resignation of Mr. Martelly. But he retained power and, after one term, called on Mr. Moïse to succeed him in the 2015 elections.

Mr. Moïse’s candidacy for power was tainted from the start. His campaign has been accused of fraud and corruption and he seized power 14 months after voters went to the polls, after an electoral tribunal found no evidence of widespread electoral irregularities. He took office in 2017 amid an indictment of corruption linked to Venezuelan aid.

Over the following years, Mr. Moïse used his control of the justice system to dismiss the charges and undermine the opposition, which never accepted their electoral victory. The result was an increasingly crippled government that became completely stranded in early 2020, just as the country faced the coronavirus pandemic.

A disagreement between Mr. Moïse and the opposition over the start of his presidential term turned into a real political crisis, leaving the country without a parliament or a new election date. As the crisis dragged on, Mr. Moïse began to rule through unpopular decrees, further undermining the legitimacy of his government. Protests against his reign accelerated.

The political stalemate has severely undermined the country’s already weak health system as cases of the coronavirus spread. Haiti remains the only country in the Western Hemisphere not to receive any vaccine against Covid-19, as it is now struggling to cope with the latest peak in infections. Although official coronavirus deaths remain relatively low due to the limited number of tests, aid workers have said hospitals are overwhelmed.

The power vacuum in Haiti is increasingly filled by organized crime leaders, who have taken control of parts of the capital over the past year, instilling a reign of terror. Kidnappings, looting and gang-associated violence have left parts of the country ungovernable, leaving many Haitians afraid to even leave their homes and forcing some aid organizations, many of whom in the country depend on for their survival, to cut back. activities.

Rights organizations have linked an upsurge in gang violence to the country’s political deadlock, accusing prominent politicians of working with organized crime to intimidate opponents and settle scores in the absence of a government operational.

Last month, one of Haiti’s foremost gang leaders publicly declared war on the country’s traditional elites, calling on citizens to plunder established businesses.

“It’s your money that is in banks, stores, supermarkets and concessions,” gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, better known by his alias Barbecue, said in a video message on social media. “Go get what is rightfully yours. “

Harold Isaac contributed reporting.