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Latin America & Caribbean

Saint or sinner: Moïse's assassination in Haiti revives racial tensions

The widow of the assassinated president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, says he was a brave man who stood up to the country's corrupt oligarchy. But her critics say he was largely to blame. (Leer en español)
24 Jul 2021 – 02:49 PM EDT
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Martine Moïse grieves during the funeral for her husband, slain Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, on July 23, 2021, in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, the main city in his native northern region. - Moïse, 53, was shot dead in his home in the early hours of July 7. Crédito: VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty Images

As Haitians buried their assassinated president on Friday, banners hanged from buildings along the narrow streets of the northern city of Cap-Haitien, proclaiming in Creole 'Jovenel Moïse - defender of the poor.'

Tensions in the country are on edge after supporters allege that his death was a plot by the country’s lighter-skinned business elite against the nation’s poor black majority, reviving a historical social divide that has plagued the country since its birth as a result of a slave revolt to overthrow French colonial rule.

But that narrative is widely questioned by political analysts and human rights activists who say Moïse’s legacy is benefiting from a heavy dose of revisionist sympathy, understandable perhaps for a man who was mercilessly gunned down on July 7 in his bedroom.

Critics point out that he forged his political career with the backing of some of the country’s most powerful businessmen and that prior to his death his government was under savage attack for alleged corruption and human rights atrocities.

Moïse was a victim of his own rule, a leader who “died because of the insecurity his party created,” according to Pierre Esperance, Director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.

The ruling Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) “has spent years dismantling our democratic institutions and providing protection, money, and guns to gangs in exchange for terrorizing our population to quell political dissent,” Esperance wrote this week in an essay for Just Security, an online forum for analysis of national and international security.

Moïse, 53, had also lost the support of the Congressional Black Caucus in the United States which issued a letter only days before his death, denouncing “large scale killings by forces linked to the Haitian Government and the documentation of widespread theft of State resources.”

Not one of Haiti’s six living former presidents attended the funeral, including Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a one-time champion of the poor who narrowly escaped assassination himself.

"The war has not finished"

In her eulogy, the widowed First Lady, Martine Moïse, hailed her husband as a progressive leader who built roads and installed electricity, but who was “abandoned and betrayed” because of his efforts to overturn the political system and challenge the vested economic interests of the country’s lighter-skinner mulatto oligarchs.

“Your murder has exposed their hatred, their ugliness and their cowardice,” she said. “The oligarchs have won a battle, but they didn’t realize the people are starting to see clearly,” she said. “The war has not finished. We have to find justice for you,” she warned.

Assassination plot still a mystery

Exactly who were the masterminds behind the assassination remains cloaked in mystery. The Haitian National Police, who are working with investigators from the FBI and Colombia, have arrested more than 23 individuals so far with ties to several countries, including the United States.

Martine Moise’s words echoed the threats of some mourners who warned wealthy members of the elite from the capital of Port-au-Prince not to show up for the ceremonies.

“If they come, we will cut their heads off. We will bring our guns out of hiding. We want justice for Moïse,” one man who identified himself as John Jovie, told the Associated Press.

Demonstrations turned violent on Thursday afternoon in Cap Haitien with protesters shooting into the air, throwing rocks and blocking streets with burning tires.

An official U.S. delegation had to make an early exit after they were cursed for allegedly having a hand in the assassination, The Miami Herald reported. “You’re responsible, you killed Jovenel and we’re going to get justice today,” one man told the U.S. delegation which included the U.S. ambassador and the black New York congressman, Gregory Meeks.

In the search for answers to Moise’s death, “there’s always going to be room to make a racial argument. It’s a reflection of the animosity that always exists,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti scholar at George Washington University and co-author of the book Who Owns Haiti?: People, Power, and Sovereignty .

It’s hard to ignore the racial fault-lines in Haiti’s political history. For many years Haiti’s mulatto elite was happy to back submissive black presidents as figureheads, to maintain at least a semblance of a balance of power, known as the ‘politique de doublure,’ or politics by proxy, confident they wouldn't try to upset the economic status quo.

The use of race in the discourse over Moïse’s death is not new and is dangerously misleading, a Haitian historian, Emile Eyma Jr., told The New York Times.

“What is dangerous is that both the question of color and the question of regionalism are weaponized for purely political reasons,” he said, distracting from the country’s fundamental problems of inequality, poverty and corruption.

Maguire and other point out that Moise fit that picture, plucked from obscurity in the northern city of Port-de-Paix in 2015 by his mentor, the outgoing president Michel Martelly, a popular folk singer known by his stage name Sweet Micky.

“He was definitely an outsider, what Haitians call ‘moun andeyò,’ said Maguire. “Martelly pulled him out of a hat and made him a candidate,” he added.

One well-formed political insider who asked not to be named, told Univision, that Martelly picked Moise in large part because of his skin color. “They wanted to change the narrative of monopolies and mulatto government,” he said.

Son of a seamstress

In fact, Moise owed his business and political career to the very elites his wife is now attacking. Moïse was born to a merchant and seamstress in a small Haitian town and began in business as a bottled water distributor and car parts dealer thanks to loans from wealthy Port-au-Prince benefactors.

He was also the beneficiary of lucrative government contracts before he became president. He launched a banana-exporting joint venture with help from a $6 million loan approved by Martelly’s administration. His presidential campaign branded him with the nickname ‘the Banana Man’, or ‘Neg Bannan Nan,’ in Haitian Creole.

Companies he was involved in were also named in two reports, by a federal auditor and the Haitian Senate, into the spending of funds from Petrocaribe, a multi-billion dollar Venezuelan government program that provided subsidized oil to Caribbean nations.

In one 600-page report one of the company’s was described as receiving potentially improper payments as a private contractor in "a misappropriation scheme" to build a $1 million stretch of rural road in road in northern Haiti.

Moise has denied any involvement in corruption and the company has challenged the report’s findings.
Critics of Moise say he misplayed his hand, overestimating the power of the presidency, and ending up politically isolated with few allies.

His election in 2016 was marred by controversy and historically low turnout of barely 20%. He obtained only 590,000 votes in a country of 11 million, hardly a strong mandate.

Promises of change

After taking office he announced a ‘caravan of change’, promising to send earth-moving equipment to all corner of the country. But he lacked charisma and was barely visible, making few public speeches.
While some road and infrastructure construction did take place, his government ran out of money and the country was plunged into darkness by power outages after he canceled a lucrative electricity contract with one of the country’s elite business groups.

“The Haitian special interests pushed back hard at his reforms,” said Damian Merlo a Miami-based political consultant who worked with Moïse and Martelly on their campaigns. “Many in Haiti did not support his vision or policies, but Jovenel was determined. He pushed through his agenda of revitalizing the agriculture sector, running water, and 24 hours of uninterrupted energy,” Merlo wrote in an opinion column published by The Miami Herald.

“The Haitian people, even those who may not have supported him, will come to realize how much he cared about them,” he added.

However, critics say Moise picked his targets selectively, going after those business interests with ties to his political rivals.

A 2019 report by the Clear Eyes Foundation, a Haitian human rights group, revealed a lack of government transparency with few public officials disclosing their financial assets as required by law.

As the country sunk deeper into political violence in recent months, critics say Moise relied on slum gangs to instill political fear. He became more vocal in his attacks on the elite, but by that time he had alienated so many sectors he was unable to rally public support.

Don Quijote

"He was like Don Quijote tilting at windmills," said one U.S. security expert familiar with Haiti who asked not to be named. "He was fighting too many battles and didn't realize the monster he was up against," he added.

“You feel some empathy for the guy. He did take on the oligarchs. He stepped on a lot of toes,” said Maguire.

“He could talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk. While he may have taken on the oligarchs the rest of the Haitians were still being trampled in the dust,” he added.