The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti in a brazen attack at his private residence on Wednesday compounded the Caribbean nation’s turmoil and deepened fears of more widespread political violence.
The interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, said the president had been “cowardly assassinated,” called on the country to “stay calm,” and sought to reassure Haitians and the world that the police and army were controlling the situation.
But Mr. Joseph’s words did little to blunt concerns of possible chaos.
“There is no more Parliament, the Senate is missing for a long time, there’s no president of the Court of Cassation,” said Didier Le Bret, a former French ambassador to Haiti, adding of Mr. Joseph: “Everything will rest on him.”
A history of political violence.
The assassination of Mr. Moïse is the culmination of years of instability in the country, which has long been seized by lawlessness and violence. Haiti, once a slave colony notorious for the brutality of its masters, won independence from France after slaves revolted and defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces in 1803. But in the two centuries since, Haiti has struggled to emerge from cycles of dictatorships and coups that have kept the country impoverished and struggling to deliver basic services to many of its people.
For two decades, the country suffered under the dictatorship of François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, and then his son, Jean-Claude, known as Baby Doc. A priest from a poor area, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, became the first democratically elected president in 1990. But in less than a year, he was deposed in a coup, then returned to power in 1994 with the help of thousands of American troops.
Mr. Aristide was re-elected in 2000, but forced out again after another an armed uprising and went into exile. He has called it a “kidnapping” orchestrated by international actors, including the American and French governments.
Earthquake, cholera, corruption.
When a devastating earthquake flattened much of the country in 2010, the disaster was seen as an opportunity to resuscitate battered infrastructure and start fresh, by shoring up the government’s own capacity to rebuild. More than $9 billion in humanitarian assistance and donations poured in, buttressed by an additional estimated $2 billion-worth of cheap oil supplies and loans from the then-powerful ally Venezuela. International aid organizations rushed to help manage the recovery.
But the money did not set Haiti on a new path — and many experts believe the country is worse off since the reconstruction began. A cholera outbreak soon after the quake that killed at least 10,000 Haitians was linked to the arrival of infected peacekeepers from the United Nations, which only admitted involvement years later but denied legal responsibility, shielded by international treaties granting the organization diplomatic immunity.
Michel Martelly, a one-time popular singer who became president in 2011, was accused of widespread corruption and mismanaging funds intended for reconstruction.
Reports by Haitian court-appointed auditors revealed in lengthy detail that much of the $2 billion lent to the country by Venezuela was embezzled or wasted over eight years. Before he entered politics, President Moïse, then a little-known fruit exporter, was implicated in one of the reports for his involvement in a scheme to siphon off funds intended for road repairs.
Fed-up Haitians take to the streets.
In the years that followed, persistent economic malaise, rising crime and corruption led to protests by Haitians fed up with their government and demanding Mr. Martelly’s resignation. But he held onto power and, after two terms in office, tapped Mr. Moïse to succeed him in 2015 elections.
Mr. Moïse’s bid for power was marred from the beginning. His campaign was accused of fraud and corruption and he took power 14 months after voters went to the polls, after an electoral tribunal found no evidence of widespread electoral irregularities. He took office in 2017 facing an indictment for graft related to Venezuelan aid.
Over the next several years, Mr. Moïse used his control of the judicial system to dismiss the charges and undermine the opposition, which never accepted his electoral victory. The result was an increasingly paralyzed government that became gridlocked completely in early 2020, just as the country faced the coronavirus pandemic.
A leadership crisis, power vacuum, and Covid-19.
A disagreement between Mr. Moïse and the opposition about the start of his presidential term spiraled into a full political crisis, leaving the country without a parliament or a new election date. As the crisis dragged on, Mr. Moïse began governing by unpopular decrees, further undermining his government’s legitimacy. Protests against his rule accelerated.
The political gridlock severely undermined the country’s already weak health care system as coronavirus cases spread. Haiti remains the only country in Western Hemisphere to not receive any Covid-19 vaccines as it now struggles to deal with the latest spike in infections. Although official coronavirus deaths remain relatively low because of limited testing, aid workers have said the hospitals are overwhelmed.
Criminal gangs and a reign of terror.
Haiti’s power vacuum has been increasingly filled with the leaders of organized crime, who have taken over parts of the capital over the past year, instilling a reign of terror. Kidnappings, lootings and gang-associated violence have made parts of the country ungovernable, leaving many Haitians fearful to even leave their homes and forcing some aid organizations, on which many in the country depend for survival, to curtail activities.
Rights organizations have linked a surge in gang violence to the country’s political deadlock, accusing prominent politicians of working with organized crime to intimidate opponents and settle scores in the absence of a functioning government.
Last month, one of Haiti’s most prominent gang leaders publicly declared a war against the country’s traditional elites, calling on citizens to raid established businesses.
“It is your money which is in banks, stores, supermarkets and dealerships,” the gang leader, Jimmy Cherizier, better known by his alias Barbecue, said in a video message on social media. “Go and get what is rightfully yours.”
Harold Isaac contributed reporting.