Haitian president's assassination adds to crisis in Caribbean nation

Haitian president's assassination adds to crisis in Caribbean nation
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The shocking assassination of Haiti’s president on Wednesday has given new urgency to an already dire situation in a country rocked by political instability, ongoing suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing violent crime.

President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE condemned the shooting death of President Jovenel Moïse and offered U.S. assistance for a “safe and secure” Haiti.

The overture comes just two months after the Biden administration, in recognition of the fraught security situation, extended temporary protected status for Haitians residing in the U.S. who fled their country after a massive earthquake in 2010 created a humanitarian crisis.

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Now, the assassination of Moïse is deepening that crisis.

The president’s killing at his private home on the outskirts of the capital Port-au-Prince is shrouded in mystery, with few details beyond Acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph saying the nighttime attack was highly coordinated and carried out by a trained and heavily armed group.

First lady Martine Moïse was also shot and is said to be undergoing treatment.

“One thing that we all know for sure is that we don’t really know much, other than there’s sheer chaos going on in the country right now,” said Vania Andre, board chair for the U.S.-based Haitian Times newspaper who also works for the nonprofit newsroom THE CITY.

“I think what’s really surprising people in all of this, not that it happened, but how it happened,” Andre added.

A Haitian official called the attackers “mercenaries,” the Miami Herald reported, while noting that video taken by residents near Moïse’s house included audio of someone invoking the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), yelling in English: “DEA operation. Everybody stand down. DEA operation. Everybody back up, stand down.”

But sources told the newspaper that the assailants, one of whom reportedly spoke English with an American accent, were not with the DEA.

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Public resentment against Moïse had been building over the past two years, and the circumstances surrounding his assassination attack have raised questions about what motivations were at play.

"I can't imagine anybody in Haiti would have the wherewithal -- whether you're talking about economic interests or political interests -- would have the capability to carry something like this out," said José Cárdenas, a former U.S. diplomat who held various posts in the Western Hemisphere during the George W. Bush administration.

The degree of planning and execution that went into the raid raised concerns in the United States, as did the assailants' attempts to identify themselves as DEA agents.

A senior Biden administration official said reports of any ties to the DEA “are absolutely false. The United States condemns this heinous act.”

Haiti's history is littered with examples of intervention by foreign governments, and public sentiment is primed to believe that another country was behind Wednesday’s attack.

"I think it was a bit of trickery by the assailants to do that. But it leaves a residue that is exploitable," said Cárdenas, referring to the DEA claims.

"We as a country [need to] get out the public diplomacy apparatus to try and get the word out to Haitian media and the condolences of the U.S. And you know what, that's all we can do," he added.

Joseph said in a statement that Haiti’s national police and the armed forces are taking control of the situation, and later Wednesday was reported to have instituted a "state of siege," akin to martial law, for at least two weeks.

U.S. lawmakers criticized the security situation.

Rep. Andy LevinAndrew (Andy) LevinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Biden administration defends handling of Haitians amid uproar Pelosi signals she won't move .5T bill without Senate-House deal MORE (D-Mich.), co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus, called Joseph’s statements on the security situation “absurd,” especially in light of his expected ousting that Moïse had reportedly announced earlier this week.

On Monday, Moïse tapped former interior minister and neurosurgeon Ariel Henry to replace Joseph. That transfer of power is uncertain at the moment.

“The murder of Jovenel Moïse is a devastating if not shocking example of the extent to which the security situation in Haiti has unraveled,” Levin said in a statement.  

“Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph’s claim that the Haitian national police and armed forces have the country’s security in hand strikes one as absurd in the immediate aftermath of the brazen murder of the de facto president and just two days after Moïse had announced Joseph’s own replacement as prime minister with no consultation or political support,” he added.

The emphasis on control of the police and armed forces “is a worrying sign of more chaos” as a power-struggle is set to ensue, said Andre, of the Haitian Times.

“Everyone’s concerned about what these next couple of days are going to look like because there is going to be a power struggle and if history has shown us anything about Haiti, that’s not going to happen peacefully,” she said.

The Haitian Times reported that the head of the country’s Supreme Court is typically second-in-line of succession after the president, but that the court's president, Rene Sylvestre, reportedly died of COVID-19 last month.

Moïse’s assassination came amid growing uncertainty over whether he would eventually step down.

Moïse had been pushing for a constitutional referendum that was indefinitely postponed over deep institutional disagreements, such as when the president’s term would end.

Amid the chaos, Moïse had been ruling by decree, with no active legislative or judicial counterweights, exacerbating relations with Europe and the United States.

In February, he addressed the United Nations via teleconference, giving a 27-minute speech where he railed against a "powerful lobby" and "bids to interrupt the constitutional order through violence."

Then-acting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeffrey DeLaurentis said in response that Haiti needed "to bring the current period of rule by decree to a swift conclusion."

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Another question that’s arisen after Moïse’s assassination is the fate of parliamentary elections expected to take place in September after they've been postponed twice since October 2019.

Regional experts and Haitian-American groups say the Biden administration and international community can exercise a positive influence on efforts to stabilize the situation, but stress that efforts to investigate Moïse’s killing and the carrying out of the democratic transition must also be a Haitian-led process.

“This should be a period of embrace by the international community. The country and its people cannot be isolated. Any way forward should start with engagement with local actors,” Wazim Mowla, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said in a statement.

“Amid the chaos, all international actors have to find the balance between accompanying and supporting the Haitian people while nudging along processes that help build political consensus among a fragmented political opposition and strong civil society. It will be about guidance rather than giving orders to Haiti.”

Minister Archange Antoine, a member of the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, emphasized that the Biden administration and Haitian diaspora community leaders should work with the Haitian government and people.

“I think it’s important that those who have the ear of the president ensure that the United States works in tandem with the Haitian government and they do whatever is possible to ensure that we support the Haitian people and their requests to have their human rights respected during these times of extreme violence,” he said.