The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. concern about security situation in Haiti had been rising

Police stand by a mural featuring Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, near the leader’s residence, where he was killed by gunmen in Port-au-Prince on July 7. (Joseph Odelyn/AP)

President Biden on Wednesday deplored what he called the “shocking” assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who was killed in his home by unidentified gunmen the Haitian government said were foreign mercenaries.

Officials across the administration offered condolences and said the United States stood ready to help in investigating the killing. The United States provides Haiti a steady flow of humanitarian and development aid.

But for many who closely follow events in Haiti as well as U.S.-Haiti relations, the assassination was far from a shock. While devastating, it was further proof “of the extent to which the security situation in Haiti has unraveled,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who co-chairs the House Haiti Caucus.

“I implore the Biden administration to pursue a new policy toward Haiti,” Levin said in a statement, calling it “essential to bringing about true peace and security and preventing more atrocities like that which occurred this morning.”

Like many foreign policy issues on the margins of larger concerns such as climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and relations with Russia and China, Biden has scarcely detoured from the path taken by the Trump administration of support for Moïse that critics charged emboldened the Haitian president to seize ever more power amid rising corruption and human rights abuses.

In recent months, there have been increasingly bipartisan congressional calls for the administration to change course, particularly its support for Moïse’s plans to hold elections and a referendum on a new constitution this year.

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

Moïse suspended previous elections 18 months ago, citing security concerns. At that point, the terms of the existing parliament and all mayors expired, and he began to rule by decree. Opposition activists accused him of planning to use a rewritten constitution to expand his own power.

Amid reports of government-sanctioned assassinations and disappearing official funds, 69 U.S. House lawmakers in late April wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to say that Moïse “lacks the credibility and legitimacy” to oversee the kind of “free and fair” elections the Biden administration advocated.

“For decades, the international community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to help Haiti achieve political stability and a representative democracy,” the letter said. “In order to move forward more productively, we must acknowledge that these efforts have failed.”

The lawmakers called for the administration to appoint a special representative for Haiti to oversee a “top-to-bottom review of U.S. foreign assistance”; expand existing sanctions on those implicated in abuses; and task U.S. law enforcement with investigating Haitian money-laundering as well as drug and arms trafficking.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Wednesday that the United States still believed that elections were the best path to stability in Haiti. The Biden administration, he said, has “urged the Haitian government and stakeholders repeatedly to reach a political accord to ensure legislative and presidential elections take place this year.”

Among the few policy changes regarding Haiti that Biden has made since taking office, his administration in May reauthorized temporary protected status (TPS), allowing more than 100,000 Haitians in this country to remain, a provision first activated for Haitians after a major earthquake in 2010. President Donald Trump’s efforts to discontinue the program had been blocked by court challenges, and Biden’s move was hailed by Democrats and immigration activist groups.

At the time, the Biden administration recognized that the threat to Haitians had changed from earthquake devastation to physical fear and poverty. “Haiti is currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and a lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement on the TPS renewal.

The history of U.S. intervention in Haiti is as voluminous as the amount of money that has been spent trying to bring peace and stability to a country that has been roiled by political and economic upheaval throughout its more than two centuries of existence as an independent state.

U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, ostensibly to protect American lives and property there, and establishing a pattern of U.S. responsibility for the country. In the Marines’ wake, a succession of dictatorships and military rulers took power, leading to repeated U.S. suspensions of aid. In 1994, after the Clinton administration sent U.S. warships and troops to restore an ousted president to power, the flow of aid was restored.

The 2010 earthquake, and a years-long cholera epidemic that followed, led to increased U.S. involvement in Haiti.

Price said the administration remained determined to “preserve Haiti’s democratic institutions. . . . That is key to restoring peace.”

Calling “absolutely false” reports from Haiti that the assassins had gained access to Moïse’s compound by identifying themselves as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Price said that the administration stood ready “to offer assistance” to Haiti’s investigation of the killing.

The United States has been in the lead of a consortium of nations supporting the development and training of Haiti’s national police force, but, according to Bocchit Edmond, Haiti’s ambassador in Washington, has declined to aid the country’s armed forces.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been facing resistance when it comes to armed forces,” Edmond said in a briefing for reporters Wednesday. Asserting that the killers were foreign “commandos” who entered and most likely have now left Haiti undetected, Edmond said that “the national police itself cannot guarantee the full security of the country.”

Calling for military equipment for the armed forces to defend Haiti’s borders, he said that “we don’t understand why they refuse to let us have it. . . . It is unacceptable to have foreign commandos to enter a country and to kill a president and to leave the country without any concern.”

Asked about U.S. military aid to Haiti, Price said that there was no “pending” request. “We expect to be in receipt of a formal request,” he said, “but as of right now, I’m not in a position to confirm.”

He noted that the administration announced $75.9 million of aid for Haiti “in support for a wide range of issues,” including democratic governance, health, education, agricultural development and elections. “Haiti is a partner, and that is how we will treat this relationship,” Price said.

John Hudson contributed to this report.