The Death of Haiti’s President Summons Ghosts Old and New

The assassination of Haiti’s Jovenel Moïse was something anyone should have seen coming. Yet few did

The Death of Haiti’s President Summons Ghosts Old and New
Jovenel Moïse, the Haitian president slain on July 7 / Leigh Vogel / Getty Images for Concordia Summit

If you are on the back of a moto taxi hurtling down Route Canapé Vert in Port-au-Prince at dusk, you will see the sun sinking fiery into the bay, just beyond a slew of impoverished neighborhoods — Village de Dieu, La Saline, Cité Soleil — often written about (if at all) because of the various armed groups that hold the populations there under their thumbs, but which are in reality home to hundreds of thousands of struggling, deeply disadvantaged people with no connection to crime or violence. On your left you will see an undulation of mountains dotted with the modest abodes of others marginally less desperately poor, and the smell of Haiti — flowers, citrus, burning, sewage — will dance on your nostrils. When you reach Turgeau, the streets narrow, and you will be able to hear the melodious lilt of Haitian Creole and sinuous ebb of konpa music from radios on the street. You will pass a tall building that once housed Haiti’s state telephone company, looted by questionable government deals in the early 2000s. A few streets away once stood the Église Sacré-Coeur, where the dictator François Duvalier stole the coffin containing the body of his rival, Clement Jumelle, in 1959, and in front of which the progressive Palestinian-Haitian businessman Antoine Izméry was slain in 1993.

To the south, as you continue, will be the neighborhood of Pacot, where I once lived, a formerly chic and now decaying collection of brightly colored gingerbread houses where bougainvilleas fall in riotous sprays over high walls. Just beyond, covering the hills as the capital slumps further southward is the neighborhood of Martissant, where Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Pauline, and her husband, French Gen. Charles Leclerc, allegedly once lived (their former residence now within a 42-acre park dripping with vegetation and bright bird of paradise flowers) but that has now been carved up to fiefdoms of warring armed groups, its people hostage to their violence.

Eventually the buildings fall away, the sky opens up, and you find yourself on the Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince’s broad main square, with the heights of Bel Air, a culturally significant district also now blighted by violence, rising behind you. You stop in front of a fence where, until it collapsed during the capital’s devastating 2010 earthquake, the gleaming-white Palais National, designed by the architect Georges Baussan and completed in 1920, once sat glistening beneath a backdrop of mountains garlanded with clouds.

It was in the warren of offices behind where the palace had once stood, after night had already fallen on the Haitian capital and the lanes around the Champ de Mars danced to the orange, incandescent glow of the kerosene lamps that vendors used to illuminate their commerce, that I first met Jovenel Moïse, the Haitian president slain on July 7.

Tall, lanky, complex, flawed, authoritarian and stubborn, Moïse was a better communicator in person than when he addressed mass rallies in often bellicose terms, and he spoke to me for nearly an hour without notes about his vision for the country that night in March 2018. He talked about his desire to pave the country’s collapsing roads, to bring electricity to its far-flung and long-neglected communes, and the fact that he had been born in the small town of Trou-du-Nord, in the north of country and had served as president of the chamber of commerce in the country’s Northwest Department. In his view, Haiti had “a kind of cleavage. You have urban zones, rural zones, people in the town and people in the country … We want to move Haiti beyond being the republic of nongovernmental organizations. … They cannot replace the state.”

He had been in office for about a year then and had come to the presidency as the candidate of the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK), formed by his predecessor Michel Martelly, a singer who went by the stage name Sweet Micky and who served as Haiti’s president from 2011 to 2016. Martelly had been elected in a controversial ballot during which some saw outgoing president René Préval as trying to rig the vote in favor of his chosen successor, former government official Jude Célestin, while others saw the hand of the United States, particularly then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in pushing Martelly over the top. (Ironically, Préval’s own 2006 victory was achieved without the necessity of a second round against former president Leslie Manigat also with the help of outside pressure.)

The election of mulatto Martelly, a right-wing populist in a country often riven by divides of class and color and who, in the words of the late Haitian diplomat Guy Alexandre, was “backed by former Duvalierists and the youth of the popular classes,” represented a wholesale rejection of Haiti’s traditional political system, or so some voters in the impoverished Port-au-Prince neighborhood of St. Martin seemed to think, telling me shortly after Martelly’s election that “everyone” in the area had voted for him. Martelly’s five years in power, though, were marked by bitter clashes with Haiti’s opposition and increasingly brazen examples of alleged corruption involving the PHTK itself as well as Martelly’s family.

The first round of Moïse’s election was derailed by allegations of fraud and an opposition that vowed to kill voters — “machetes and stones in hand” — at the polls. He eventually won 56% of the vote in a crowded field in a November 2016 contest marked by feeble participation and overseen by an interim president and political rival, former Sen. Jocelerme Privert. Moïse entered office promising an aggressive infrastructure program to help revive Haiti’s economy, still struggling from the 2010 earthquake. Many foreign commentators said that Moïse was “unknown” before throwing his hat in the ring for the presidency. But what they really meant was he was unknown to them, the people for whom Port-au-Prince is a stand-in for a country of more than 11 million people. Involved in agribusiness in the country’s north (and later accused of having made his fortune through suspect means), Moïse had served as president of the region’s chamber of commerce and had appeared on programs such as Tele Métropole’s “Le Point” as early as 2014.

Haiti’s political opposition — made up largely of a series of shambolic and violent opportunists who have made their living off political instability for two decades — never accepted his victory. Even before Moïse took office, André Michel, an attorney and professional political agitator affiliated with the Secteur Démocratique et Populaire (which is neither democratic nor popular), said the opposition would “destroy the country” if Moïse became president. Such pronouncements were typical.

Over the next four years, helped along by the PHTK and sometimes by Moïse himself, they did just that.

A few months after Moïse took power, a Haitian Senate commission reported evidence of widespread fraud and misuse of funds stemming from Haiti’s participation in the Venezuelan low-cost oil program known as Petrocaribe, which occurred before Moïse had taken office. A subsequent report by Haiti’s Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes claimed that firms linked to Moïse when he was a private citizen took part in the embezzlement scheme. For many, this was the beginning of the end of his presidency.

“When Jovenel came along, he was a good speaker, and his presence on the scene meant you would get to know him better than the opponents,” said Johnson Deshommes, a young activist who initially supported Moïse but turned against the president when he “realized that the PHTK clan were still the ones controlling things.” Deshommes added, “He kept promising things even when he couldn’t deliver; no one in the Petrocaribe affair was arrested.”

By summer 2018, things began spiraling downward. Massive protests rocked the capital as protesters demanded to know what had happened to the missing Petrocaribe money. In November 2018, a group of gunmen raided the capital’s slum of La Saline in an attack the United Nations said left at least 26 people dead, while a report by the Haitian human rights group Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH) put the death toll at 71.

Three of those allegedly involved in the attack — former police officer Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, Ministry of Interior functionary Fednel Monchery and former West Department delegate Joseph Pierre Richard Duplan — would be sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for their alleged roles in the killings. Chérizier would subsequently hold a press conference announcing the formation of the G9 an fanmi e alye, an alliance of armed groups around the city that many saw as the government’s bludgeon against its rivals. Though Chérizier has frequently been pegged as a Moïse loyalist, especially in the foreign press, he has said himself that he had been a supporter of Jude Célestin and even worked as a bodyguard for a parliamentary candidate from Célestin’s political party. It was all very murky.

The use of armed gangs, often made up of the quite young, as a political modus operandi is perhaps the most lasting legacy of the 2001 to 2004 government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose Fanmi Lavalas party pioneered (if that is the right word) the practice during which the gangs were referred to as chimere, after a mythical fire-breathing demon. The practice has since metastasized throughout Haiti’s body politic so that almost every political current in the country has its cadre of gunmen (referred to as baz, or base, in Creole) and the gang leaders themselves have grown ever-more powerful, gradually approaching an equilibrium with their patrons in the country’s economic and political elite.

“For a long time we have had different mafias here controlling economic and political life, and presidents, senators and deputies exist in this criminal milieu,” says Michel Soukar, a Haitian author whose works include “La dernière nuit de Cincinnatus Leconte,” a fictionalized account of the explosion that claimed the life of another Haitian president in 1912.

By May 2019, rather than allow a vote on Moïse’s designate for interim prime minister, a group of opposition senators led by Antonio “Don Kato” Cheramy, a rapper-turned-politician, destroyed the meeting room in Haiti’s parliament. After Moïse nominated a Ministry of Finance official for the same post four months later, opposition politicians, again led by Don Kato, once more vandalized the parliamentary meeting hall, leading a group of shrieking partisans into the chamber in what now resembles the attempted putsch at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. A violent dissident group within the police calling itself the Fantôme 509 also began roiling armed demonstrations against the government, and, stretching from 2018 into 2019, the opposition was enforcing peyi lòk — a terrifying armed strike that brought all commerce and activity in the capital to a halt for weeks and that, in the words of Soukar, “failed to overthrow Jovenel Moïse but succeeded in overthrowing Haiti.”

Moïse, meanwhile, railed against what he charged was the “capture” of Haiti’s state by corrupt oligarchs and political operators (some of whose help he was happy to accept during his own 2016 campaign) — many of them mulattos — and government-aligned magistrates issued a slew of arrest warrants, including against wealthy businessman Dimitri Vorbe, whom Moïse accused of illicitly profiting from government energy contracts under the Préval administration in the mid-2000s and who subsequently fled to Miami.

When I met Moïse for the second and last time in November 2019, his mood had darkened considerably.

“Haiti is not divided but torn,” he said to me, as he sat on a white and gold chair between four large Haitian flags. “We need a national agreement where each Haitian can talk to one another, where we can talk about an inclusive solution. … The state in Haiti is being held hostage by a group of people [and] we have to free that captured state. What president elected with almost 60% of the vote would decide today to leave office without working on the promises that he has made? Now we see the opposition asking for the president to leave, what strategy do they bring, what future do they say they have for the country? It is a system where it is ‘get out so that I can get in.’ ”

As the instability rolled on, Moïse lost more and more popularity and found himself more and more isolated.

“In the beginning, he had a social project that he wanted to accomplish in favor of the nation, for example the electrification of the country, the construction of irrigation dams on the rivers, the insecurity that he wanted to slow down,” said Remise Bélizaire, the co-director of the Konbit Sant Sosyokiltirèl Thomonde, headquartered in the town of the same name in Haiti’s largely rural Plateau Central, one of many forgotten regions that Moïse claimed he wanted to help with his so-called caravane du changement (caravan of change).

“But unfortunately, he did not produce, he did not keep promises to the people,” Bélizaire said.

And yet, even then, Moïse still had some supporters. But they were not the kind of people who haunt social media (especially Twitter), nor were they the kind of people who are easily accessible as most of them speak only Creole and not the kind of people that the foreign professional journalist and analyst class often bother to talk to.

During a text-messaging chat earlier this year, a friend who is a recently lapsed member of the baz in the poor quarter of St. Martin wrote that “Jovenel is a good president but the opposition prevents him from being able to work and makes chaos. They are afraid to go to the polls because they know no one will vote for them. Haitians do not need transition, we need elections and another constitution for the country to prosper.”

The fact that voices like this young man’s are almost uniformly absent from the analyses that have appeared in recent weeks is maybe something worth pondering.

In January 2020, after the terms of most of Haiti’s elected parliament expired — the government and the opposition, whose first demand for negotiation was that Moïse resign, couldn’t agree on a process to hold elections — Moïse began ruling by decree, in an almost carbon copy of how former President René Préval had dealt with a similar impasse in 1999. When all eight members of Haiti’s Conseil Electoral Provisoire (Provisional Electoral Council) resigned in July 2020, Moïse created a new electoral council and unilaterally named its members and tasked them with organizing local and federal elections and overseeing a commission to rewrite Haiti’s often-criticized 1987 constitution. This was to be approved by a plebiscite, a move that many called unconstitutional and dictatorial. Many constitutional experts charged that the one-year term of an interim president should be deducted from his five-year term, but Moïse refused to step down before February 2022.

And PHTK, the party that Moïse was ostensibly aligned with but by some accounts was increasingly at odds with (others within the party deny this), has become what many Haitians have described to me alternately as a “poison” and a “cancer” on the country, and a survey of its officials provides a rogues’ gallery of malefactors and malfeasance.

PHTK Sen. Hervé Fourcand figured prominently in the 2019 trial of a former U.S. Marine sergeant and Orlando gun shop owner who was found guilty of conspiring to illegally export guns and ammunition to Haiti, with WhatsApp messages showing Fourcand in regular contact about the shipment. In February 2021, Canada’s La Presse reported that the wife of PHTK Sen. Rony Célestin purchased a $3.4 million waterfront villa for her and the senator, paid off in cash. The circumstances of the purchase of the villa are currently under investigation by Haiti’s Unité de Lutte Contre la Corruption (ULCC), even as Rony Célestin also owns newly constructed buildings in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Juvenat and a large mansion in Haiti’s remote Plateau Central. Yet another PHTK politician, Deputy Claude Luc Guillaume, is the nephew of famous Haitian drug trafficker Jacques Ketant (who once famously told a Miami court that his former friend Aristide was “a drug lord” who had turned Haiti “into a narco-country”) and was involved in a July 2019 gun battle that left six people dead in Petite-Rivière de Nippes.

By May 2021, Woodly “Sonson La Familia” Ethéart — a feared figure in Haiti’s criminal underworld who reputedly led the “Gang Galil” and a former business partner of Martelly’s brother-in-law, Charles “Kiko” St. Remy — was incautiously posting photos to social media of himself enjoying a night of music by Martelly in the Dominican Republic before he was arrested by police there and transferred to Haiti on what they said was an outstanding arrest warrant dating from 2019. Moïse’s collaboration in the arrest is said to have outraged some sectors of his own party, as was, reportedly, his view that one of the ways to rescue his historical legacy was to hold “legitimate” elections this coming September.

In recent months, Moïse had told several international diplomats that he believed he would be killed.

Young activists, meanwhile, felt exasperation about not only Moïse but also what they viewed as a rotten political system.

“The cornerstone of a country is the foundation of a state where the institutions stand and defend the constitution, whatever it takes,” says Deshommes. “But the smartest people never got a chance to govern this country. Aristide left us with gangs that until now cause problems. Préval should never have been president over Manigat; he did not believe in great projects but in small victories and a lot of people in the private sector took a lot of advantage of that. In no other country in the world would Michel Martelly ever run for the presidency because of his past.”

Haitians have learned not to look abroad for a solution to their problems, either.

The so-called Core Group (made up of the ambassadors of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and the U.S., and representatives of the Organization of American States, the EU and U.N.) is widely viewed as little more than a kind of collective proconsul, dictating to the country the path outside powers demand it should take.

Though some Haitians might have hoped for an improvement in the level of discourse about their country in the U.S. since former President Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” comment in 2018, the individuals populating the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee are enough to give one pause. In February 2021, Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan mocked Moïse in a tweet for having “no evidence to support claims of a conspiracy against his life.” In October 2019, Levin posted a photo to his Twitter account and described his meeting with “a brave delegation from Haiti.” In the photo, Levin posed with Evallière Beauplan, who voiced his support for overthrowing René Préval after the 2010 earthquake and faced accusations of corruption during his time in parliament, and Croix-des-Bouquets Mayor Rony Colin, who runs a radio station called Radio Zenith that more than one Haitian has compared to Rwanda’s genocidal Radio Mille Collines.

During a recent House hearing on Haiti, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, whom I watched party with Aristide at Haiti’s National Palace in 2004 as protesters whom she mocked and degraded were being savagely repressed by his government, appeared to think it was still 2001, declaring at a recent congressional hearing on Haiti “I am Lavalas” out of loyalty to Aristide’s political party, which has been in political eclipse for almost 20 years now.

By the time Moïse was killed in the early morning hours of July 7 — after frantically calling to the nation’s police as his personal security had abandoned him — the mercenaries who cut him down were adding but one more life, no matter how grand, to Haiti’s butcher’s bill of recent years.

In February, in an operation targeted against the 5 Segonn gang, believed to be one of the main movers behind the recent spate of kidnapping, police raided the gang’s stronghold in the impoverished quarter of Village de Dieu. The raid ended in disaster with 6 police officers killed, their last moments shared on social media by gang members who can be heard gloating in the footage.

Thousands have been displaced in fighting between armed groups in the capital’s Martissant, Bel Air, and Cite Soleil neighborhoods. In June, the leader of the G9 coalition of armed groups, Chérizier, released a video in which he was surrounded by dozens of armed, masked men saying a “major revolution” was beginning in Haiti. Only days later, Haiti journalist Diego Charles and feminist activist Antoinette Duclaire were slain in Port-au-Prince’s Christ-Roi neighborhood, two of more than a dozen killed that night, with Duclaire having said before her murder, “you deal with death on a daily basis. When you leave home, there’s no certainty that you will return. They can assassinate you, kidnap you.”

And on and on and on …

In Jacques Roumain’s book “Gouverneurs de la rosée,” published in 1944 at the height of the despotic rule of Élie Lescot, he wrote of “how far things were from the good old days of the konbit, from the virile joyous chants of the men folk, from the sparkling, swinging hoes in the sun, from those happy years when we used to dance the minuet under the arbors with the carefree voices of dark young girls bursting forth like a fountain in the night.”

In Haiti, they have a saying, lane pase toujou pi bon (past years are always better).

Since the murder of Haiti’s president — the fifth president from Haiti’s grand nord to be slain — all the actors have been playing their parts. The former police officer known as Barbecue has been ratcheting up incitement on social media and led an armed march in the slain president’s honor through downtown Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s current ruling class cobbled together a new “consensus” government that includes virtually no one outside of their own circle and were given the helpful nod of the Core Group. The president’s wife, wounded in the attack that killed her husband, returned to Haiti from her convalescence in Miami, dressed all in black, and denounced the “traitors” who had surrounded her husband at his funeral. Even Dimitri Vorbe — who, in a broadcast a few weeks before Moïse’s murder, rambled about an electoral timeline, called the president a “sucker” and “ugly” and told him “you don’t have much time left” — took a moment to post a smiling selfie of himself on his Twitter account, ostensibly celebrating Argentina’s win over Brazil in the Copa America, three days after the president’s murder.

The people of Cité Soleil, Martissant, Bel Air and other marginalized neighborhoods in the capital cling to hope within their communities to lift themselves up, with little help from the government or anyone else. In the countryside, in communities like Thomonde, Bombardopolis and Gros-Morne, people do the same. Old rivalries — between city and countryside, between black and mulatto, between north and south — once muted if not absent, now seem reanimated.

Moïse is gone, but the system that he was part of and ostensibly was fighting against, made of blood and bone, both predated him and will outlast him.

“I believe the president opened his eyes once he started understanding the system,” says Deshommes. “He became a danger to their interests but tout bèt jennen mòd (a cornered animal will bite). By then it was too late, and he was fighting alone.”

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