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By the weekend, Haitian authorities had set the narrative: Moïse was the victim of a conspiracy involving hired mercenaries and a pair of Haitian Americans. The plot appeared to run a convoluted route through regional geopolitics, from Colombia to the Dominican Republic to an incident in which a number of the suspects briefly holed themselves up in the Taiwanese Embassy. At least 21 people are now in custody and three were slain in altercations with the police.
On Sunday, authorities said they had arrested a Haitian man suspected of playing a leading role in the plot. Christian Emmanuel Sanon, 63, allegedly planned to assume the presidency and hire some of the assailants as his security team.
“National Police Chief Léon Charles said Sanon landed in Haiti on a private plane in early June with ‘political objectives’ and recruited a team through a Venezuelan security firm based in the United States,” my colleagues wrote. “The team’s mission changed when one member was presented with an arrest warrant for Moïse.”
Sanon was a doctor in Florida with more than a dozen businesses registered there under his name, the Miami Herald reported. Haitian authorities also said two other “intellectual authors” have been implicated in the alleged scheme but did not name them.
Still, distrust abounds. “The government has portrayed the attackers as a 28-member hit squad of Colombian ex-military and their two Haitian American interpreters,” my colleagues reported. “Yet they apparently met virtually no resistance at the president’s home and had no escape plan. Most of them lingered in areas not far from the assassination site for hours.”
The Biden administration has dispatched security officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to assist the country’s investigation of the assassination plot. Sporadic gunfire could be heard through the weekend in the capital, Port-au-Prince, as a powerful leader of an alliance of gangs urged his followers to take to the streets in protest of Moïse’s killing.
“It was a national and international conspiracy against the Haitian people,” Jimmy Cherizier, the gang leader, who is also a former police officer known by the nickname “Barbecue,” said in a video that depicted him in khaki military fatigues, sitting in front of a Haitian flag. “We tell all bases to mobilize, to mobilize and take to the streets for light to be shed on the president’s assassination.”
The outsize role of figures like Cherizier is an illustration of the harrowing deterioration that has taken place in Haiti. “I couldn’t believe that a commando could pass not only [the president’s] personal security but the security of the neighborhood and kill him. It’s unbelievable,” Yvens Rumbold, a communications director at a public policy think tank in Haiti, told my colleagues. “But at the same time, when you step back, you think of all of the events ongoing in the country and you think, huh, it’s not that surprising. Gangs are killing people not too far from the National Palace. Two weeks ago, the president was giving a press conference and you could hear the shots firing in the background.”
Moïse’s critics accused him of fostering an environment where these gangs and drug cartels could gain sway and taking an autocratic turn that further hollowed out the country’s institutions, from its legislature to its police forces. They argue that he overstayed his presidential term, which, in the opposition’s view, ended in February, but which Moïse contested would elapse next year. That was a position backed by the United States, which wanted to see fresh elections this year.
Now, the picture is even murkier. Acting prime minister Claude Joseph is at odds with Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon whom Moïse tapped last week for the role. Both claim the mantle of leadership, but they aren’t the only ones. “On Friday, members of the country’s powerless Senate — it lacks a legal quorum due to a lapsed election schedule — voted to name the body’s leader, Joseph Lambert, as Haiti’s acting president,” my colleagues wrote. “… A fourth potential claimant to power, Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, was declared provisional president by opposition parties earlier this year.”
Joseph has asked the United Nations and the United States to send in security forces to help stabilize the country. (U.S. officials said the request was under review.) Given Haiti’s history of ordeals under occupation — including its recent experience of a devastating outbreak of cholera probably brought into the country by U.N. peacekeepers — it’s a loaded request.
“I don’t want to cause more difficulties in the country,” Henry told The Washington Post, referring to Joseph’s outreach to Washington. “His way of acting could put the country in jeopardy. We could have a lot of violence. I am trying to stop that.”
For the time being, Haiti’s political system may be unable to generate a way out of this impasse. “We do not have any answer for this in the constitution,” Bernard Gousse, a former justice minister and legal expert, told my colleagues. “We are in a constitutional desert.”
“The constitution does not provide for the lack of both a president and a National Assembly, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who could arbitrate, died two weeks ago of covid-19,” explained the Economist. “The killing could also make it harder to hold elections for a new president and legislature, which are due in September.”
But experts caution that elections, even in a context in which they would be deemed safe to stage, are no panacea. “Institutional weaknesses encourage undemocratic behavior and the international community fails to discourage it,” wrote Peter Mulrean, a former U.S. ambassador to Haiti. “In a negative loop, each time undemocratic behavior is accepted, it becomes the baseline for the next loop. Jovenel Moïse’s rise and fall are a case in point.”
At the same time, Haitian civil society advocates stress the need for the country to find unity and consensus without foreign intervention. “The transition must be led by Haitians, free of outside influence or partisan politics, and must retain the confidence of the public,” Rosy Auguste Ducena, a human rights lawyer in Port-au-Prince, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “Unfortunately, as long as the United States and others continue to back the flawed election process, Haitians are left with little room to work out necessary solutions.”