HAITI: President Moïse’s killing leaves Haiti less stable but as elitist as ever – Opinion

Any reform after the assassination of Jovenel Moïse will depend on the US re-evaluating its interests in the country
A photo of Jovenel Moise, at his memorial ceremony in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 20 July 2021.
‘Moïse’s assassination is the latest crisis for the most economically disparate country in Latin America and the Caribbean.’ Photograph: Matias Delacroix/AP
The assassination of Jovenel Moïse, Haiti’s president, marks another point in the years-long power struggle that pitted his loyalists against activists and working-class families, exhausted by years of social strife and gang violence. On Saturday, his wife Martine Moïse, injured in the attack, returned home to the Caribbean state to face speculation about her own political career. Meanwhile, the authorities still search for the motive for her husband’s killing.             

At least 20 people have now been arrested in connection with the murderincluding Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian-American self-proclaimed pastor who lives in South Florida, and who allegedly issued the order for the assassination. According to reporting by the Washington Post, Sanon had ambitions to become president of his homeland. He had vowed to transform the country into a “free and open society” with an ambitious $83bn redevelopment plan for Haiti. His defenders say, however, a plot to kill Moïse was never part of the masterplan.

Yet the perpetrators of past crimes in Haiti remain hidden in plain sight. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian anthropologist, wrote: “History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” These words speak to me on a profoundly personal level. My parents emigrated to the US from Jamaica and Montserrat, and I’ve travelled to the Caribbean throughout most of my life. The cultures across the islands of the Caribbean are distinct, but I’ve noticed too the different expressions of neocolonialism over time.

Haiti has been a site of conflict for centuries. Colonised first by Spain and later France, which was responsible for instating a three-tiered caste systemles grands blancs (white elites), les affranchis (freed Blacks), and les bossales (the captive African population). The Haitian population defeated Napoleon’s army in 1804, and with this achievement Haiti became singular in the world – a free Black state. Despite the successful Haitian revolution, orchestrated by the African population, most struggled to advance economically.

Le Code Noirs, as it was known, remained after its white creators fled. John D Garrigus wrote that the caste systems caused “tension” that “was more a matter of social and political conflict than racial prejudice”. Moreover, the governments of France and the US, which did not want Haiti to be a beacon of possibility, did everything possible to undermine the new nation’s legitimacy. In 1825, France demanded an “indemnity” – $21bn by today’s standards. To subsidise the payment, Haiti closed its public schools; now, more than a third of the population is illiterate.

Moïse’s assassination is the latest crisis for the country with the greatest wealth disparity in Latin America and the Caribbean. The nation’s political future hangs in the balance, but beneath this most recent dramatic expression of underlying tensions runs the elitism that stifles social mobility.

The economy of Haiti is controlled by a handful of elite families who prospered under the Duvalier regime. Before Moïse was killed, gangs that supported him cordoned off some of Haiti’s most fertile land owned by the elites who profit while the working class starves. According to the World Bank, “The richest 20% of its population holds more than 64% of its total wealth, while the poorest 20% hold hardly 1%.”

The investigation into Moïse’s killing is being conducted by an international team from Colombia, the US and Haiti. Claude Joseph, as acting prime minister in the days immediately after Moïse’s killing, asked the US to send military aid to secure the borders and deter gang violence. The US turned down the request, but whatever future course it chooses to take, it must act delicately for risk of undermining Haiti’s fragile democracy.

Joseph has since stepped aside in favour of Ariel Henry, who Moïse had named as his new prime minister shortly before being killed, and who has the backing of foreign governments including the US.

A US official once said that they worked closely with Haiti’s wealthy elite because it was “pragmatic”, but now the elite must be held accountable. While the investigation is underway, the American government also needs to help democratise Haiti’s economy and redistribute power. More fundamentally, the US needs to reevaluate its interests in Haiti and the elites who live there; it’s not too late to improve on relations across its “third border”.

One hopes that Kamala Harris, vice president of the US, whose father was born in Jamaica, will be an empathetic voice for diplomatic relations with her Caribbean kin. Otherwise, leaders across the region – many of them as corrupt, if less visibly so, as their peers in Haiti – will continue to act with impunity.

  • Natalie Meade is a journalist for the New Yorker magazine
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