The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Haitians in the United States fear for homeland following assassination

Security forces investigate the perimeter of the residence of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince on July 7, 2021.
Security forces investigate the perimeter of the residence of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince on July 7, 2021. (Joseph Odelyn/AP)
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MIAMI — The first call came before dawn, and North Miami City Council member Alix Desulme assumed someone had accidentally dialed his number. More calls and texts followed. He sat up and stared at his phone: Haiti President Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated.

First lady Martine Moïse, whom Desulme had invited to his city in 2017, was in the hospital.

“Oh my God,” Desulme, who was born in Haiti and came to the United States as a child, said in a telephone interview. “This is crazy. Nobody knows what to do. I never thought this was going to happen in our lifetime.”

About 700,000 Haitian immigrants in the United States awakened Wednesday to fresh tragedy in the Caribbean homeland they left behind, some recently, some decades ago. The news stunned and saddened even the president’s critics, who felt they were mourning the nation’s troubled democracy as much as the man.

Haitian immigrants searched for answers in churches, WhatsApp texts, on radio shows and on Twitter on Wednesday as political leaders called for calm in Haiti and a full investigation.

“Not proud to be Haitian-(American) today,” said Boulder, Colo., Mayor Pro Tem Junie Joseph in a tweet. “In 2021, a President should not be murdered/ assassinated, regardless of political beliefs. Haiti has a major issue with a lack of respect for human rights- starting from the leadership. The level of dysfunction in Haiti is too much. Sad!”

[What to know about Haiti where President Jovenel Moïse was just assassinated]

New York Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn said she thought of the president’s three children. “I am saddened about the horrific events that occurred in Haiti, which follow an unstable period for the country, which failed to hold free and fair elections,” she said in a statement. “I pray for the Moïse family as they mourn their loss. I also pray for the security and peace of Haiti.”

The Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary, the longtime pastor at the Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, prayed for Haiti in the mostly empty sanctuary as candles flickered before a towering stained glass window. Bouquets of flowers crowded the tiled floor, and the smell of incense filled the air as a choir sang.

“Today we come to you, Lord, to entrust the soul of Haiti to your hands,” Jean-Mary said.

His relatives in Haiti had been avoiding going out because of rising crime, he said in an interview, stocking up on two weeks worth of groceries at a time.

“You see it’s becoming like a vicious cycle where every day, no good news comes from Haiti,” he said.

Haiti became the world’s first black-led Republic by fighting off French colonial rule and slavery, only later to endure a U.S. occupation and then brutal dictatorships. A 2010 earthquake killed tens of thousands of people and ravaged homes and the presidential palace. Haiti remains one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nations.

More recently Haiti had been struggling with increased gang violence, kidnappings for ransom and rampant coronavirus spread that left the Supreme Court’s chief justice dead just days ago.

Johnny Celestin, a 55-year-old civil servant in New York City born and raised in Haiti, said he moved to his native country after the 2010 earthquake as part of a stream of Haitian Americans who wanted to help their devastated homeland rebuild. He worked for foundations, nonprofits and the Haitian government.

But conditions worsened as the power of gangs grew. His old neighborhood had been a middle-class haven but now it is too dangerous to visit, he said. In 2019 he moved his family back to New York.

Celestin said he hoped Haitians — with the support of the international community — would find solutions for the Haitians he left behind.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” he said of the situation in Haiti. “I met extremely bright, extremely hard-working, extremely capable young people. What we’ve lacked is leadership.”

In Florida, home to about half the Haitian immigrants in the United States, advocates for immigrants said the assassination is intensifying concern for relatives back home.

“People have been worrying about their loved ones and what the worsening of the situation would mean for loved ones back there,” said Marleine Bastien, the founder of the Family Action Network Movement, an advocacy group based in Miami. “People have been under a high level of anxiety, even before this crisis.”

Advocates for immigrants also have called for an end to deportations to Haiti. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in May said that undocumented immigrants from Haiti who pass background checks may apply to stay in the United States temporarily, citing “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Haitians and others abroad sent $3.8 billion in remittances to Haiti in 2020, making up 28 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. Seventy percent of remittances came from the United States, analysts said.

The money went to things like food, medical care, housing, education — and ransom.

Desulme, the president of the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, which has about 80 members in the United States, said his sister-in-law was kidnapped during a visit to Haiti three weeks ago. Gunmen on motorcycles forced her into her car and kidnapped her and her driver. They asked for $2 million, he said, and police helped rescue her. “It really has gotten bad,” he said.

Brian Concannon, the founder and board member of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said government corruption is among the reasons that Haiti has been devastated by earthquakes and hurricanes, which are often less harmful to more developed countries with working zoning boards and oversight.

Wednesday’s assassination is another example of the failure of the government to protect its institutions, he said.

“This is a tragedy because it sets back governance and democratic development in Haiti,” Concannon said of Moïse’s assassination. “We’re not sure how far it sets it back. It could be significant.”

Suggs and Sacchetti reported from Washington.