On Friday, Haiti buried its assassinated president, Jovenel Moïse, at a funeral itself marred by unrest, with shots fired outside. The truth about his killing may have gone to the grave with him. Much remains uncertain, and a senior government minister has suggested that the “big fishes” behind it are still at large.
But the more important question is what the future holds for a desperately poor, unequal and troubled country. The murder is the latest iteration of a long-running political crisis, in which Haitian elites and foreign powers call the shots while ordinary people suffer. It is a bitter paradox that the people of the world’s first black republic, born of a successful slave revolt, have rarely had a chance to seize their destiny since.
The country was immiserated by France’s demand for compensation for its settlers and slave owners, a debt only paid off in 1947. In 1915, the US invaded after the then president was killed, supposedly to bring stability, but effectively ruled the country for almost two decades and ensured that its own interests were served there. Even the UN peacekeepers who came to help after the 2010 earthquake were responsible for a cholera epidemic and sexual abuse and exploitation. Far from strengthening Haiti’s governance, aid has in many cases undermined it, often being channelled to outside entities rather than state institutions.
Social and political turmoil, as well as Covid, have worsened poverty and inequality. Thousands have been displaced this summer due to escalating violence by gangs that operate more like paramilitary groups. Now the country has no president. The then prime minister, Claude Joseph, initially claimed the mantle of leader; but Ariel Henry, whom Moïse had just appointed to replace Mr Joseph, was sworn in as prime minister after foreign powers, including the US, urged him to form a government. The Biden administration has now appointed a special envoy to Haiti.
Dr Henry was selected by a president who came to power in contested elections, and whose term had already run out, according to legal experts and opponents. Moïse claimed it ended next February. For the past year, he had ruled by decree because no elections had been held for the lower house when members’ terms expired; only 10 of 30 senators remain in the upper house for the same reason. He was attempting to rewrite the constitution, granting the president immunity for any crime committed while in office.
The US ignored the warnings of his growing authoritarianism. Now it has given Dr Henry the nod: like so many former leaders, his authority is derived primarily from foreign rather than domestic sources, to the anger of many in Haiti. “Nobody can decide for us who should be our leader,” said Monique Clesca, a leading pro-democracy advocate.
Civil society groups had pushed for Moïse to step down and for elections to be postponed pending a national dialogue, which could discuss ways to get the country’s institutions and services functioning again, and the creation of a new election commission. Now they say that a truly representative transitional government is needed to get to grips with Haiti’s priorities and re-engage a public that in many cases sees politics largely as a battle between men who ignore their needs while siphoning off cash.
Whether that breathing space is possible when so many are jostling for power, and politics is conducted in large part through violence, is a reasonable question. But the search for long-term, sustainable solutions has too often been jettisoned for short-term fixes that promise at best temporary stability. Moïse’s assassination should have shown the limitations of that approach to all those with a hand in Haiti’s affairs.