Explainer | What’s happening in Haiti where the President was assassinated?

Explainer | What’s happening in Haiti where the President was assassinated?

Most Haitians, including its leaders, are still in shock and the crisis has just started unfolding in the country.

The story so far: Jovenel Moïse, Haiti’s 53-year-old President, was assassinated at his private residence in Port-au-Prince early on Wednesday by unidentified gunmen, pushing the Caribbean nation, already battered by months-long protests, economic miseries and the COVID-19 outbreak, into further chaos. On Thursday, the country’s police chief said four suspects were killed in a gun battle and two others were arrested.

What do we know about the assassination?

Haiti’s interim Prime Minister Joseph Claude Joseph announced on Thursday that Moïse was assassinated at his home and the First Lady Martine Moïse was injured. He said some of the attackers spoke Spanish, indicating that foreign mercenaries were involved. Haiti is a French- and Creole-speaking country. Mr. Joseph has not offered any more details. According to local media, Moise’s body had been riddled with 12 bullets. Police chief Leon Charles said four suspects had been killed and the police were chasing others. “They will be killed or captured,” he said on Thursday, but has not disclosed the identity of the suspects nor has he offered any evidence linking them to the plot. It still remains a mystery how the attackers, whoever they were, walked to a presidential residence, shot him dead and then walked out freely.

Who was Jovenel Moïse?

Moïse, a former banana plantation manager who called himself “Banana Man”, rose to political fame when he contested the 2016 presidential election. He came to Port-au-Prince, the capital of the Caribbean country, from the countryside and presented himself as an outsider who could fix the country’s politics and economy. Haiti, the world’s first independent Black-led republic, after slaves successfully revolted against Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces in 1803, has a long, painful history of foreign interventions, coups, dictatorships and not-so-successful democratic experiments. In 2010, the country was battered by a devastating earthquake that killed at least 300,000 people. Moïse promised a new beginning by strengthening institutions and ending corruption, and won the election in the first round itself. But under his administration, the political and economic situation in Haiti further deteriorated.

Why was Moïse targeted?

While the motive of the assassination is not clear yet, Moïse was at the centre of a turmoil that had engulfed Haiti over the past many years. Moïse was elected President in November 2016. The presidential election was scheduled to be held in 2015, but postponed several times amid unrest and other crises. President Michel Martelly, whose term expired on February 7, 2016, stepped down without a clear successor. Moïse could not take office until February 7, 2017 as his 2016 election was marred by allegations of fraud and protests. According to Haitian Constitution (Article 134-1), “the duration of the presidential mandate is five years. This period begins and ends on February 7, following the date of elections”. Opposition leaders claimed that Moïse’s five-year term ended on February 7, 2021 as Mr. Martelly stepped down on February 7, 2016. But Moïse said he has one more year in office as he officially took over on February 7, 2017. This was the crux of the political crisis.

As Moïse refused to step down on February 7, the Opposition called for countrywide protests. They also appointed a parallel government with Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, a Supreme Court Judge, being the interim President. Moïse called it a coup and arrested nearly two dozen Opposition leaders. He was largely ruling by decree as his government failed to conduct legislative elections in 2019. As Haiti fell into chaos, violence by armed gangs spread across the country. Moïse promised that he would hold legislative and presidential elections within a year, but also took steps to rewrite the country’s Constitution. Moïse said the post of Prime Minister, which is not an elected one, wielded enormous powers, which he wanted to clip. Opposition leaders said he was also looking for removing a clause in the Constitution that bars Presidents from seeking re-election so that he could contest again. The political crisis was worsened by an economic contraction and the spread of COVID-19.

Who is now in charge?

According to the Haitian Constitution, the head of the Supreme Court should temporarily take over the government if the President abruptly departs. But the Supreme Court President Rene Sylvestre died last month of COVID-19 and that position is still vacant. In the wake of a power vacuum, the National Assembly could select a new leader. But there is no National Assembly as elections have not been held after the last Parliament’s term expired. That leaves Mr. Joseph in charge. But there’s a problem. The late President had announced on Monday that he was replacing Mr. Joseph with Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon with close ties to the Opposition. Mr. Henry was expected to take over as Prime Minister on Thursday. However, it is not clear whether the transition would happen amidst the current crisis.

Mr. Joseph has already taken control of the government, declared a state of emergency, put the military in charge of security and restricted media coverage of the incident. He says the authorities are in control. But most Haitians, including its leaders, are still in shock. The crisis has just started unfolding in the country.

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