Haitians are ‘shocked’ and ‘dumbfounded’ by president’s assassination, which throws the embattled country into further chaos

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in Antalya, Turkey, on June 18, 2021. Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • The killing of Haiti’s president has left Haitians feeling even more distressed about the future.
  • The president had many enemies, but the motivations for the assassination remain unclear.
  • One top expert on Haitian politics told Insider he’s “shocked” and “dumbfounded” over the killing.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse by gunmen in his private residence early Wednesday has injected a profound level of uncertainty into a country already suffering from years of political and economic instability.

Though Haiti has experienced all manner of crises in its modern history – coups, US interventions, a devastating earthquake – the country hadn’t seen a presidential assassination in over a century.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Robert Fatton, a native of Haiti who is an expert on Haitian politics at the University of Virginia, told Insider.

“I’m quite a pessimistic guy, but I didn’t expect any assassination,” Fatton added. “The idea that you have, what are for all practical purposes, foreign mercenaries coming into the country, going to the house of the president, and killing him – that to me was absolutely shocking. It was completely out of the ordinary.”

‘We are really at the brink of catastrophe’

Armed police officers stand in front of a mural of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse
Armed police officers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Joseph Odelyn/AP Photo

With Moïse dead, Haiti’s political future is even more up in the air. Haiti’s constitution states the president of the country’s highest court takes over when there’s a presidential vacancy. But Haitian Chief Justice René Sylvestre recently died of COVID-19.

At the same time, Haiti effectively has two men claiming to be prime minister. Moïse was set to swear in a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, before he was killed. Since his assassination prevented that from occurring, the country’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, seemingly remains in power. Haiti also currently doesn’t have a functional legislature or parliament.

“We are really at the brink of catastrophe,” Fatton said, adding that his family members in Haiti didn’t go out anymore because of the security situation. Violent gangs occupy downtown Port-au-Prince after forcing people out of their homes, and the government is not equipped to remove them.

During Fatton’s most recent visit to Haiti, in 2019, he saw people rummaging through the garbage for food.

“It’s distressing,” Fatton said, adding: “It’s a chaotic environment and people are enduring, they’re struggling.”

‘Dumbfounded’

Details on why the assassination was carried out and who was involved remain hazy, though Moïse had no shortage of adversaries.

François Pierre-Louis, a native of Haiti who is an expert on Haitian politics at Queens College at the City University of New York, told NPR the president “made a lot of enemies” and “alienated too many people.”

“The assassination could have come from anywhere,” he said.

Moïse took office in February 2017 after a tumultuous and prolonged election cycle. Leading up to his death, there was a heated constitutional dispute over the length of Moïse’s presidential term.

The opposition accused Moïse of staying in power beyond his five-year term of office, claiming it began in February 2016. Moïse maintained that his term did not begin until he was sworn in and would expire in February 2022 – a position that was accepted by the US government. But Moïse’s refusal to step down prompted protests.

He also faced backlash over the fact he’d been ruling by decree since January 2020 after dissolving parliament and postponing elections.

In February, 23 people were arrested over what officials described as an attempted coup. “The goal of these people was to make an attempt on my life,” Moïse said at the time.

Just days before Moïse was killed, the United Nations Security Council issued a statement expressing “deep concern regarding deteriorating political, security, and humanitarian conditions in Haiti.”

Haitians in the streets during a protest.
Haitians at a protest to denounce the draft constitutional referendum carried by Moïse on March 28 in Port-au-Prince. Sabin Johnson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At least six people – including two men believed to be Haitian Americans – had been arrested over Moïse’s killing as of Thursday afternoon. The police also killed four others in a firefight. The Haitian government said the assassins posed as US Drug Enforcement Agency agents to gain entry into Moïse’s home and spoke both English and Spanish (the main languages in Haiti are French and Haitian Creole).

Though Fatton underscored there’s no concrete evidence on who carried out the assassination, he said rumors were spreading that Colombian drug cartels were involved. “It’s speculation,” Fatton said, adding that he was “dumbfounded” by the assassination and didn’t see anyone benefiting from Moïse’s killing in terms of the current political situation. With Moïse gone, the opposition has lost a scapegoat for the country’s problems.

People in Haiti are “completely confused” about the killing, Fatton said, while raising questions about the security failures that allowed the assassins to get into the president’s private residence.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday condemned the assassination as a “heinous act,” as congressional lawmakers urged his administration to take a different approach to Haiti. The Biden administration has pushed for new elections in Haiti, which critics say couldn’t happen in a meaningful way under the recent circumstances.

Democratic Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, a cochair of the House Haiti Caucus who is also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that Moïse’s assassination was a “devastating if not shocking example of the extent to which the security situation in Haiti has unraveled.” Levin urged the Biden administration to “pursue a new policy toward Haiti that puts the will and well-being of the Haitian people first.”