The Assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise: What to Know

In Brief

The Assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise: What to Know

The murder of Haiti’s embattled president stands to deepen the country’s political, economic, and humanitarian crisis.

What happened?

In the early hours of July 7, gunmen burst into the Port-au-Prince home of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, killing him and critically injuring his wife. The identities of the assailants and of the planners of the assassination remain unknown, although four suspects were killed in a shoot-out with police, and two others have been arrested. Haiti’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, declared a state of siege, imposing martial law and closing the borders.

How will Moise be remembered?

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Even before Moise’s presidency began, it was marked by controversy and conflict. The reported winner of the later-annulled 2015 elections in Haiti, Moise went on to win a second election in 2016 and was sworn in the following February. His presidency saw the outbreak of mass demonstrations over economic underperformance and corruption. For example, top members of Moise’s government were implicated in the siphoning off of billions of dollars of foreign aid.

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The president had been ruling by decree since January 2020, with Haiti’s Parliament closed and legislative elections repeatedly delayed. Opposition leaders have accused Moise of dictatorial tendencies, citing his creation of a new intelligence agency under his sole authority. They also point to Moise’s attempts to alter the country’s constitution to ensure presidential immunity from prosecution and his alleged ties to local gangs. Furthermore, Moise oversaw the reinstatement of the army, a controversial move given its history of human rights abuses and corruption.

What led to this current crisis?

Moise was facing a crisis of legitimacy surrounding the last year of his tenure. Civil society groups and the judiciary’s chief administrative body claimed that the expiration of Moise’s term should be calculated from the first election he won, thus ending his presidency in February 2021. But Moise and his supporters insisted that his five-year term began when he actually assumed power in 2017 and therefore would expire in February 2022. The president declared the controversy—and the opposition’s effort to install a provisional government—an “attempted coup” and ordered the arrest of twenty-three people, including a Supreme Court judge and a police inspector general. The drama sparked fresh waves of unrest that continued throughout 2021.

Haiti’s political crisis takes place against a backdrop of economic and humanitarian devastation. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has never fully recovered from the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 250,000 people and decimated its infrastructure. In the years since, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have been infected with cholera, Hurricane Matthew devastated parts of the country, and now the coronavirus pandemic has strained an already crumbling public health system. Haiti has yet to begin administering COVID-19 vaccines, lagging behind most of the world. Additionally, crime and violence have peaked in recent years. Criminal gangs control large swathes of territory, kidnapping and murdering with near-total impunity. In 2020, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on three Haitians, including two members of Moise’s government, for orchestrating and committing human rights abuses related to gang violence.

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What’s at stake for Haiti and the region if the situation worsens?

With no clear line of succession, the immediate result of Moise’s killing will be a deepening of political uncertainty and the possibility of further democratic backsliding. Joseph claims he is governing the country but lacks legitimacy for the task, as Moise appointed a different prime minister just hours before his assassination. Meanwhile, the leader of Haiti’s defunct Senate, Joseph Lambert, is also claiming the presidency.

The lack of a legitimate executive power—coupled with the inoperative legislative branch—leaves Haiti’s vulnerable population ever more exposed to economic ruin, crime, and political violence. As with any crisis in Haiti, there is also the likelihood of increased emigration, particularly to the neighboring Dominican Republic, where authorities already responded by closing the border.

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Regional powers face few incentives to mobilize the necessary assistance to stabilize Haiti, especially given the inauspicious track record of previous interventions. Since last year, the U.S. government, the UN Security Council, and the Organization of American States have pushed for a new round of elections, but Haitian civil society organizations note that food insecurity, political violence, and the pandemic ensure that voting would be far from free and fair. Instead, they have advocated for a non-partisan transitional government to oversee the restoration of the constitutional order.

What could the Biden administration do?

The White House does not have many good options. A U.S.-led stabilization mission is unlikely given the fraught history of U.S. military intervention in Haiti and the administration’s focus on other priorities, especially the pending drawdown in Afghanistan. Additionally, any overt U.S. intervention could lead to political blowback, both in Haiti and elsewhere in the region, including Cuba, where the authoritarian government has long used the specter of meddling by an “imperialist” United States to rally domestic support. 

Biden has vowed security assistance, including sending a delegation of law enforcement advisors to work with the national police, but has shied away from aid to the military. Haiti’s emphasis in recent years on building up its military means that the country’s generals will nonetheless have an important say over the future of the country. The U.S. government should support an impartial investigation into the assassination to bring to justice those responsible, with an eye toward clarifying whether any Haitian security authorities were involved in the crime. 

Meanwhile, Washington will no doubt focus on immigration, a policy area in which it has already been active. In May, as the situation on the island deteriorated, the Biden administration granted Haitians temporary protected status (TPS), a provisional protection from deportation granted to certain migrants due to emergency conditions in their home countries. Even before the assassination, the numbers of undocumented Haitian migrants and asylum seekers had been on the rise in many Latin American countries and at the U.S. southern border for several years. Should the U.S. government deny entry to Haitian migrants and refugees arriving by boat, as it plans to do, many more will likely seek to gain entry via Mexico, at just the time when the Biden administration is trying to get a handle on rising migrant flows from Central America and Mexico.

What are the prospects for a return to democracy?

The coming weeks and months will be critical for charting Haiti’s path forward. Legislative elections are scheduled for September, but the most crucial step will be determining an interim president to govern the country until new elections are held.

A photo of security and police personnel congregating. In the foreground, tree limbs frame the image.
Haitian police and forensics personnel in Port-au-Prince search for evidence after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise. Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images

However, the law regarding presidential succession is murky. The head of the country’s highest court would be a natural choice, but the position’s most recent occupant died of COVID-19 last month. Joseph, whose executive decisions have so far been honored by the military and police, is a likely candidate, but any contender for the interim presidency would have to be approved by Parliament, which is currently dissolved. Further confusing the situation, Joseph and his named successor, Ariel Henry, have both asserted their claims to the prime minister’s post. 

The killing of Moise has pushed Haiti even closer to the precipice, and the obstacles to the country’s political leaders and civil society banding together to bring it back from the edge are greater than ever.

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