The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Haiti, rivals claw for power as crisis escalates after assassination

Haitian citizens hold up passports as they gather in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tabarre, Haiti, on July 10, asking for asylum after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. (Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The race to fill Haiti's political vacuum after the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moïse shifted into high-stakes power plays on Saturday, with rivals battling over the nation's leadership amid competing charges of "coups" in progress.

The struggle for control of the country came as acting prime minister Claude Joseph called for help from U.S. and U.N. troops. Meanwhile, what remains of the nation’s nonfunctioning Senate sought to name one of their own as the new president against the wishes of the interim government.

The infighting could complicate any international effort to assist Haiti and prevent a deeper slide into violence.

Four men have now staked claims to either the presidency or the prime minister’s post — including Joseph, who has been broadly recognized internationally but faces a serious challenge to his authority at home. The power contest underscores the extreme fragility of the Haitian state, whose foundations were already on the brink of collapse before the first bullets were fired early Wednesday at Moïse’s compound in the hills above the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a powerful Haitian gang boss, urged protests of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 10, risking more chaos. (Video: Reuters)

Since the assassination, Haiti has plunged deeper into a complex crisis that risks creating a Somalia in the Caribbean — a failed state 800 miles off the coast of Florida ridden by violence, overcome by disease, inflation and deepening hunger and controlled by warlord-like factions and weak nominal governments.

‘Nothing is working’: Haiti’s chaos from behind the locked gates of one man’s home

The Joseph government’s request for troops, meanwhile, is presenting the Biden administration with its greatest foreign policy test in the Western Hemisphere. But in Haiti, the prospect of U.S. forces also divides a nation burdened with painful memories of foreign intervention.

“We do not have any answer for this in the constitution,” said Bernard Gousse, a former justice minister and legal expert. “We are in a constitutional desert.”

Rivals for power

Ariel Henry, the 71-year-old neurosurgeon who was named the new prime minister by Moïse two days before his slaying, alleged in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday that he is the nation’s rightful ruler and that Joseph was in open “rebellion” against him.

He said he was informed that a high-level security meeting would go on without him. After that, he changed his security detail and moved to a safe location to ensure his protection.

“I started to think about a coup” against the authority he was given by Moïse, he said. “I started to be worried about my own security.”

“I will talk to [Joseph], and maybe I will have to do some action that will convince him that he has to stop,” Henry said, saying only that he would resort to using unspecified “leverage” to gain control of Haiti. He also criticized Joseph’s call for foreign troops as premature.

What you need to know about Haiti

“I don’t want to cause more difficulties in the country,” he said. “His way of acting could put the country in jeopardy. We could have a lot of violence. I am trying to stop that.”

Joseph declined an interview. But Mathias Pierre, Haiti’s elections and interparty relations minister, said it was Henry who was attempting a “coup” at time when the nation was suffering.

“According to the constitution, whoever is in charge will manage the country until elections, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “Henry might be trying to lead a coup with the help of senators. I say, with what law? With what constitution is he a prime minister? He has no government.”

On Friday, members of the country’s powerless Senate — it lacks a legal quorum due to a lapsed election schedule — voted to make the body’s president, Joseph Lambert, the country’s acting president.

One senator, Patrice Dumont, said he stood firmly against an interim government led by Joseph. But he also did not sign the resolution to name a new president, because such a decision “can’t be taken in a small room. I ask a special public hearing, so they explain their rationale.”

A fourth potential claimant to power, Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, was declared provisional president by opposition parties earlier this year. Jean-Louis embraced the title, but he has gone silent in the wake of the assassination.

Generations of strife

Since enslaved Africans on the island Hispaniola threw off the yoke of French rule more two centuries ago, Haiti has suffered like few other nations. The nation faced the legacy of colonialism and foreign debt. Add to that: U.S. and U.N. occupations, brutal dictatorships and domestic power grabs. Devastating natural disasters included a 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 250,000 people.

Perspective: Haiti is stuck is a cycle of upheaval. Its people suffer the most.

The Biden administration has said it is sending FBI and Department of Homeland Security personnel to Haiti to assess the country’s needs, but has stopped well short of agreeing to a troop deployment.

In a country that has weathered repeated foreign interventions — in 2016, the United Nations acknowledged its peacekeepers had played a role in a deadly outbreak of cholera following the 2010 earthquake — the suggestion of boots on the ground has stirred passions.

“We do not want foreign troops in the country,” said Monique Clesca, a Haitian pro-democracy advocate and former U.N. official. “We have been traumatized by cholera. We don’t trust the [United Nations]. We don’t trust the U.S. We don’t trust Claude Joseph. The international community should listen to the Haitian people and respect our sovereignty.”

Even while Moïse lived, the authority of the Haitian state was diluted, fragmented and struggling to maintain order. A week before the assassination, armed gangs rampaged down the streets of Port-au-Prince, opening fire and killing at least 15 people. The gangs have torched houses, engaged in systemic rapes and killings, and evolved into small empires based on extortion and kidnapping rings.

By some estimates, they now control 30 to 60 percent of the national territory.

In response, Haitian authorities can muster very little.

The country has virtually no functioning institutions left. Its police forces are riddled by rivalries and corruption. In February, Moïse claimed the government had broken up a coup conspiracy that involved a supreme court judge, leading to the arrest at least 20 people.

And there are even disputed versions of Haiti’s constitution.

According to the most recent constitution — which is not universally recognized — parliament should convene within 60 days to elect a new provisional leader in case of a vacancy of the presidency during a fourth year in office, as Moïse was before his death. But that can’t happen now, because Haiti does not have a functional parliament.

That theoretically defaults to a clause that would leave the prime minister in charge.

Joseph has claimed that he was still acting prime minister at the time of the president’s death, and thus should be the nation’s interim leader. Henry insists that he is rightful prime minister even though he hadn’t formally taken power by the time of the assassination.

A previous version of the constitution reverts the chain of command first to the president of the supreme court. However, he died of the coronavirus last month.

“The only solution right now is for the actors to hold a political dialogue,” said Laurent Weil, a Haiti expert with the Economist Intelligence Unit. “But given the climate of distrust, this is extremely unlikely.”

'Too scared to vote'

The United States has pressed for Joseph to stay on track with elections scheduled for September; a pledge his government has honored to keep. But a host of political players argue that elections are effectively impossible while the gangs still rule the streets.

That has made the power struggle now even more pressing. Whoever exerts control of the country may now end up remaining as head of state for a protracted period given the challenges to electing a new, legitimate leader, one analyst said.

“For me, it is ridiculous that the State Department is talking about elections. [Someone has] just killed the president,” said Ralph Chevry, board member of the Haiti Center for Socio Economic Policy in Port-au-Prince. “There are four warring factions of the police. There is no security. There are 100 gangs with guns. There is no way we can have elections. The people are too scared to vote.”

The nature of the assassination has raised more questions than it has answered thus far.

The government has portrayed the attackers as a 28-member hit squad of Colombian ex-military and their two Haitian American interpreters. 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.

Investigators who have debriefed the Americans and relatives of the Colombian men have suggested the men were not aware of a mission to kill the president — but perhaps to arrest him.

On Saturday, the Colombian news website Semana reported that the head of Moïse’s security detail, Dimitri Hérard traveled to Colombia and Ecuador in May. The report, however, did not disclose details of his time spent in those countries. Hérard has been called for questioning in the probe of the killing.

The same news outlet also released WhatsApp messages sent in April between a retired colonel and several of the former Colombian military personnel who participated in the operation in Haiti.

In Haiti, however, a lack of trust in the police has led to broad skepticism of the investigation, with civil society leaders expressing relief that the FBI and other international police groups will be involved.

“An international investigation is the only way to find out what really happened to Jovenel Moïse,” Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.

Faiola reported from Miami. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Miami contributed to this report.