Haiti is in disarray after the assassination of President Jovenal Moïse early Wednesday at his residence. His wife Martine was critically wounded and is currently in the hospital. The nation had already been facing political, social, and economic upheaval from poverty and violence and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, it is also still trying to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed 250,000 people.
Although Prime Minister Claude Joseph has become the de facto leader of the Caribbean country, who will take charge long-term is one of the many questions left in the aftermath of Moïse’s death.
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Here are five things to know about the crisis in Haiti so far:
During the apprehension of the possible assassins, police were engaged in a gun battle outside the president’s residence in Port-au-Prince, killing four suspects. Two others were detained, and three hostages were freed. What is unclear is if these individuals were the only ones involved in the plot to kill Moïse. “The pursuit of the mercenaries continues,” Léon Charles, director of Haiti’s National Police, said Wednesday night, according to the Associated Press. “Their fate is fixed: They will fall in the fighting or will be arrested.”
Police say the attack was particularly vicious, with the assailants shooting Moïse in the head several times. First Lady Martine Moïse was transported to a Miami hospital, where she is listed in critical condition.
In a statement, Prime Minister Claude Joseph said that “a group of unidentified individuals, some of them speaking Spanish, attacked the private residence of the president of the republic and fatally wounded the head of state.” At the time, no information was available on who the assailants were. But Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., called the attackers “well trained professional commandos” and “foreign mercenaries” pretending to be U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
A video, which was posted online by Haitian newspaper Journal la Diaspora, but has circulated on social media shows a group of people approaching the residence, with one of them saying, "everybody stand down, DEA operation" in an American English accent. Officials say that any U.S. government's role in the killing is nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor, as has the U.S. State Department.
With Moïse’s death, Prime Minister Claude Joseph is leading the country and has vowed to bring those responsible to justice. Moïse just placed him in his interim position in April to begin with, and he was not meant to be the permanent leader. Last month, René Sylvestre, the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court, died of COVID-19. He would have been a significant figure in determining who would succeed the president and would have temporarily taken over. But there are said to be two versions of Haiti’s constitution, favored by opposing parties, which adds to the governmental confusion.
A large faction already believes Moïse was not the legitimate president because they felt his term expired in February. But, while he maintained that it wasn't set to expire until Feb. 2022. There were also earlier failed attempts to oust him. Essentially Moïse ruled by decree because a new parliament had not been reinstated due to a failure to hold elections last year. An election was expected to take place in September, but anyone's guess whether or not it will actually happen.
“There was always the question of the finances to put on the elections,” said Vania Andre, a journalist with the Haitian Times who covers the Haitian community told BET.com. “In the past they needed money from France or Canada to hold them. There was also the question of security leading up to it. There are so many issues, financial, political or social that would impact all of that.”
According to the World Bank, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with a current poverty rate of 59 percent. The dire economic situation extends centuries back to just after the Haitian Revolution in 1804 when western nations, including the U.S., refused to trade with the liberated Haitians. About 60 percent of the country earns less than $2 per day. What’s worse, a 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 added to the strife.
Additionally, powerful armed gangs control a significant portion of the capital Port-au-Prince, and in recent years, violent political demonstrations have become commonplace. Now with an impending power vacuum, it’s unclear in what direction Haiti will go.
“It’s a really explosive situation,” Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics expert at the University of Virginia, told the Associated Press. “Whether Claude Joseph manages to stay in power is a huge question. It will be very difficult to do so if he doesn’t create a government of national unity.”
A spike in coronavirus cases has filled hospitals to the brink in Haiti, and global health officials had promised that the first vaccines would soon be administered in the nation through the COVAX program. Still, there was no definite date set on the arrival of the shots. It was already the only nation in the western hemisphere without the drugs, according to Bloomberg.
World Health Organization statistics show there have been 19,000 reported cases and 467 deaths, but those are believed to be underreported because of a lack of infrastructure that wealthier countries have. Rates in Haiti were low, but a spike is believed to come from new variants spreading in the country. According to DirectRelief.org, very few people in Haiti have access to the vaccine, and those who do have U.S. visas to get the vaccine in the United States.
Oxygen is crucial in treating coronavirus patients and is becoming less and less available. The fear of venturing to a hospital is creating another humanitarian crisis within the existing one.
“The insecurity issue is killing people silently as well,” Fr. Richard Frechette, a priest and doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince, told DirectRelief.org. “They’re running the risk of being shot, so they just stay at home, and they don’t go to hospitals.”