On July 7th, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in Port-au-Prince in the National Palace. His wife was shot multiple times but ultimately survived the attack. Moïse was elected President in 2016, and despite the Haitian constitution’s 5-year term limit, his term was extended to 2022. This extension came after Moise delayed the 2019 presidential elections and declared himself the nation’s valid ruler, despite the majority of the Haitian population opposing and protesting Moise’s power grab. Throughout his time in office, Moïse ruled with a clenched fist, suppressing opposition and taking hard measures against political enemies, while letting gangs rule the streets of Haitian cities. Still, his death brings a lot of uncertainty into Haiti’s political landscape.
Local and international authorities believe that President Moïse was assassinated by a group of 28 private mercenaries, most of whom are suspected to be Colombian nationals with prior service in the Colombian military. A Haitian-American who had done security work for the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince was also allegedly among the attackers. According to Haitian and Colombian authorities, there appeared to be no ulterior motive beyond financial reward for the mercenaries, as they were allegedly hired by four different companies. This attack was not the first to be carried out against President Moïse. In February of this year, Moïse claimed that there had been an alleged coup attempt against him, and 23 people were arrested in the aftermath.
This was not a coup attempt, but rather a targeted assassination. The plot was most likely carried out by a private group or by rogue members of the Haitian government. Usually, coups are carefully planned by a specific political or military group, which openly states its demands and makes itself known. In this case, the perpetrators were highly disorganized, had no political affiliation, and the alleged employers of the mercenaries have not come forward. Haitian police recently arrested physician and Florida resident Christian Emmanuel Sanon, somehow tying him to a plot to make himself President. A claim made by Caracol News in Colombia, that the former interim Prime Minister, Claude Joseph, was the mastermind of the assassination, has been debunked.
History of Shattered Democratic Hopes
This raises the following questions: How did we get here, and how can Haiti get out of this mess? Haiti was the “first Black-led republic” in history after gaining independence from colonial France in 1804. Haiti was also the first country to organize a successful slave revolt and to legally abolish slavery. Haiti’s geopolitical position in the Western hemisphere was a key in ending the slave trade in the 19th century. The nation’s tradition of standing up for democratic, liberal, and republican values is, therefore, quite rich.
Since then, however, the situation has shifted. As former Haitian ruler Jean-Claude Duvalier once said, “it is the destiny of the people of Haiti to suffer.” During the 20th century, Haiti was sanctioned, embargoed, invaded, and occupied a number of times. Many of Haiti’s democratically-elected rulers, like the Duvaliers, Namphy, and Aristide, were forced into exile due to violent rebellions, assassination attempts, or coups. Countless prime ministers have also resigned due to corruption scandals or human rights abuses.
1991: A Turning Point
In 1991, a military coup was orchestrated by Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras to successfully overthrow the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was the first democratically-elected president in Haitian history. The George Bush administration, with the help of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN), responded by imposing an embargo on Haiti, seeing as it had supported Aristide’s presidency. Bill Clinton, Bush’s successor, tightened sanctions in 1992 and 1993 and imposed a naval blockade. These policies have had devastating effects on Haiti’s economy, slowing down its growth, making it lag further behind its Caribbean neighbours.
Subsequently, a legally binding resolution was passed through the UN Security Council, authorizing the Haitian military regime to be removed. US troops promptly removed dictator Cedras from power, replacing him with Aristide. Aristide was democratically elected and successful in bringing about reforms in civilian-military relations, poverty alleviation, education, and healthcare. Still, Aristide has been accused of committing widespread human rights abuses.
In a sick twist of irony, Aristide was once again deposed from power through a coup by right-wing paramilitary groups in 2004, a coup that was allegedly supported by the US and Canada. Aristide was left without US military support and forced into exile. Since then, democratic governments in Haiti have been volatile and short-lived.
The crushing earthquake of 2010, which caused about $8 billion in damages and killed at least 223,000 people, also contributed to Haiti’s difficulties with organizing a stable and democratic government. Martelly, President Moïse’s predecessor, had ties to the 1991 coup and right-wing fascist groups and quickly reinstated the country’s military after the earthquake. Martelly was also accused of corruption, including the charge that he accepted millions of dollars from foreign construction companies to develop parts of Haiti. In the last ten years since Martelly was elected to the presidency, Haiti has had 12 prime ministers, with the average prime minister lasting a mere ten months. Like in many fragile democracies in the Americas, presidents in Haiti also very rarely run for re-election. The majority resign, get arrested, flee, or get overthrown or killed.
The upcoming election on September 26th will help determine Haiti’s fate as either a rising liberal democracy or as a rapidly-decaying one. In the meantime, Ariel Henry now serves as both the interim president and prime minister and is said to be Haiti’s best chance at a democratic transition. Haitian authorities have approached the United States and the United Nations for a ground intervention that would protect civilians and critical infrastructure, including government facilities. Some steps have been taken by international organizations towards stabilization.
In mid-2019, the UN Security Council created the Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH). Helen La Lime, UN’s Special Envoy to Haiti and BINUH chief, has engaged in conciliated efforts to facilitate new elections. A total of 1,200 BINUH staff have been dedicated to this stabilization process. The non-coup was also strongly condemned by the OAS General Secretariat on July 7th. The Inter-American Committee on Human Rights (IACHR), a member agency of the OAS, has also called for new elections and the preservation of the rule of law. Colombia, an OAS Member State with close ties to the US and Canada, the OAS’s largest backers, has urged the OAS to send a special mission to “protect the democratic order” in Haiti. The US and Canada have worked in lockstep with the OAS and promoted similar measures, initiating talks and deploring the ensuing chaos.
What Canada and the US Should Do
The interim Haitian government has not followed the guidelines established by the UN and OAS. Rather, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph declared a “stage of siege”, imposed martial law, and closed Haiti’s borders and main airport. While Joseph has since resigned, his measures are still in place. Canada and the United States should continue supporting UN and OAS missions and activities for Haiti and should facilitate inter-party dialogue and negotiation for new democratic elections in Haiti. The rule of law should be restored, and a public and transparent investigation launched into the assassination and whether it had any ties to political figures, foreign nationals, and entities. As soon as national elections are called and justice is restored, Canada and the US, through the OAS and the UN, should monitor the elections, and ensure a peaceful transition of power.
For now, public pressure should be kept on the interim government, aid and development should be sent to local communities through proper channels, and those fleeing from violence should be welcomed into the asylum-seeking process. In addition, the financial assets and activities of suspected perpetrators of the attack and other organized crimes should be monitored or even suspended. While respecting national sovereignty and international law, these measures will help Haiti transition out of this period of instability and perhaps realize its long-hoped dreams of liberal democracy, stability, political liberty, and prosperity.