On the night of 6 to 7 July 2021, an armed commando broke into the home of President Jovenel Moïse and shot him dead with 16 bullets, seriously wounding his wife. Prime Minister Claude Joseph said the men spoke English and Spanish and were disguised as Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents; they were armed with assault rifles and were highly trained.
The next day, 17 foreign nationals – 15 Colombians and two Americans – were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the action. Eight more Colombians were found to be on the run, four were killed and soon 28 were arrested. One of the two Americans, James Solages, 35, claims to be uninvolved in the attack, to have taken a job as an interpreter through an internet advertisement and then to have met strangers to work in a restaurant at the Royal Oasis Hotel, a luxury lodge about 10 minutes from President Moise’s home.
Solages claims that they were carrying out the arrest of the president on the orders of a judge, and that he was totally unaware of the attack. When he becomes aware of it, he turns himself in. Participating in the investigation are agents from the United States, Haiti, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. A report by Noticias Caracol, a Colombian television news programme, claims that a previous attempted kidnapping of Moise, in November last year, was the work of the same terrorists. Among the main suspects was Prime Minister Claude Joseph, but also Dimitri Hérard, the head of the General Security Unit of the National Palace, who was arrested. On 16 July, the Haitian police announced the involvement of former Justice Ministry official Joseph Felix Badio, who may have ordered the assassination.
On 19 July Claude Joseph resigned, leaving his post to Ariel Henry, who was charged with forming the new government. On 27 July, Jean Laguel Civil, coordinator of general security, was implicated in the investigation – his arrest coming just a few days after that of the judge of Haiti’s Supreme Court, Windelle Coq Thelot. It sounds like the plot of a thriller. To be understood, it is necessary to explain Haiti and its people, their troubled history, a chain of misfortunes for which man is not always responsible. Sometimes even nature takes its toll on this poor country.
A people that has always been trampled on
Haiti is the poorest country in Central America
In Haiti it is difficult to die of old age. Classified as the poorest country in Latin America and one of the poorest in the world (170th out of 189 in 2020), it is also one of the most unfortunate, with hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann was astonished after the terrible earthquake in January 2010 that left more than 250,000 dead under the rubble: ‘Haiti has known slavery, revolution, debt, deforestation, corruption, exploitation and violence. Now it has poverty, illiteracy, overcrowding, no infrastructure, environmental disaster and vast areas without the rule of law. And this even before the earthquake. It sounds like a terrible cliché, but it really is a perfect storm. This is a catastrophe beyond our worst imagination.
When the three caravels arrive on the island that Columbus named Hispaniola on his arrival, they find the Tainos, a prosperous and well-organised society. The Spaniards turned them into slaves to work in the fields and mines. There followed bloodily suppressed revolts, diseases introduced by the Europeans for which the Tainos had no defence, brutal persecutions, which led to the Tainos’ extinction, replaced by new African slaves. In 1660 the French invaded the western part of the island for the massive cultivation of sugar cane and coffee, exploiting hectares and hectares of land that today are reduced to desert areas. The importation of slaves from Africa brought at least 40,000 people a year, rising to 800,000 despite the very high mortality rate due to the harsh working conditions and constant epidemics.
Then comes the French Revolution: the General Assembly in Paris decrees that the mulattos of the colonies, who represent the elite, have the same rights as normal citizens, including the right to vote, which is refused by the colonial administrators. This refusal triggered the first mulatto rebellion in 1790; then, in 1791, a second rebellion, bloodily suppressed by the whites in the town of Cap Français, costing the lives of 10,000 blacks and 2,000 whites. From then on, the rebellions multiplied.
On 21 August 1791, led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the slaves rebelled against the planters. The French and British troops, who arrived to reinforce them, were repulsed by the rebels and Louverture also managed to conquer the nearby Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, declaring himself governor general for life of the island of Hispaniola and abolishing slavery. More than 100,000 blacks and 20,000 whites died in the struggle and it led to a biblical exodus: the French colonists fled with the slaves they still controlled, but so did many freed blacks. In 1809 alone, almost 10,000 refugees from Santo Domingo settled in New Orleans.
The peace did not last: Napoleon Bonaparte, once he became sovereign, sent 43,000 soldiers to the island to capture Louverture, take over and restore slavery. Louverture died a prisoner in 1803, but one of his generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, led the revolutionaries in the Battle of Vertieres on 18 November 1803, defeating the French forces. On 1 January 1804, Dessalines declared the nation independent and renamed it Haiti. France accepted, and Haiti became the world’s first black republic and the second nation in the western hemisphere (after the United States) to gain independence from a European power.
The bloody struggle between Haitians and French in a painting of the time
Dessalines ordered the massacre of the Europeans, which continued until he himself was assassinated in 1806 and the country was divided between the Kingdom of Haiti in the north, with Henry I in power, and the Republic of the south with Alexandre Pétion in power. Alexandre Pétion was succeeded by Jean Pierre Boyer, who was to become the architect of the reunification of the two parts in 1821. In July 1825 King Charles X of France attempted to reconquer the island and President Boyer, cornered, accepted a treaty by which France formally recognised the independence of the country in exchange for the extortion of 150 million francs (reduced to 90 million in 1838).
Forced to borrow 30 million francs from French banks to make the first payments, Haiti failed. The king sent another expedition in 1838 with 12 warships to force the president’s hand. The 1838 revision, sarcastically labelled ‘Traité d’Amitié’ (Treaty of Friendship) brings the amount owed to 60 million francs, but the Haitian government is forced to borrow heavily to honour the debt. The blackmail to which Haiti is subjected leads the country to collapse: Boyer is forced to make draconian tax levies, every infrastructure project is suspended, first and foremost education and health.
Recent evaluations reveal that, when the interest on all the loans is added up, Haitians have paid more than double the value of the initial claims. French economist Thomas Piketty argues that France would have to pay back at least $28 billion to Haiti to ‘balance the books’. Things get worse: Boyer commands a corrupt army and a predatory public administration; the gap between the black peasants of the countryside and the mulattos of the cities grows inexorably, leading to the rebellion of 1843, when Boyer is forced to flee to Jamaica and then to Paris.
Here comes the Americans
US troops in Haiti in 1929
Since then, 22 presidents have followed one another in an incredible merry-go-round of coups, intrigues, conspiracies and rebellions. Such an unstable situation paved the way for intervention by the United States, which had already considered annexing Hispaniola in the past. At the beginning of the 20th century, a small German community grew up on the island (200 people in 1910) with disproportionate economic power – it held 80% of international trade and also owned and managed public services in Cap-Haïtien and Port-au-Prince: the port, a tramway and a railway. Also in the pipeline is an attempt to take control of the Bank of Haiti and consider military annexation.
Washington is watching with concern. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration finds a pretext to intervene when Guillaume Sam, the then president, executes 167 political prisoners, causing great unrest among the crowds in Port-au-Prince – the mob hunts him down in his palace, tears him to pieces and parades through the city streets displaying his dismembered corpse. The first marines landed on 28 July 1914 and in six weeks controlled the country, including the Bank of Haiti, from which they withdrew 500,000 dollars, transferred “for safekeeping” to New York. In 1915, the USA and Haiti signed a treaty that provided, among other things, for American control of the gendarmerie, complete control of the financial sector and the right to intervene freely. In August 1915, the USA imposed a new president, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, which fuelled new social unrest.
In 1929, the escalation of unrest led the United States to withdraw: the last straw was the ‘massacre of Les Cayes’, perpetrated by the marines who killed twenty demonstrators during a peasant demonstration. After long bargaining and negotiations, the Americans finally left Haiti in 1934, thanks to an order from Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt. 19 years of occupation stabilised the country economically, many public works were completed and there is now a functioning public health service. Little has been done in the field of education, and on the political level, US interference cannot be credited: the years of occupation coincided with those of racial segregation.
The US left behind a politically unstable country, 11,500 Haitians killed, unprecedented militarisation and heavy interference in local government – aspects that left deep scars that have not yet healed. The country was left in the hands of the president-elect of 18 November 1930, Sténio Vincent: a strong nationalist, but a loyal trading partner for the United States. He introduced popular vote into the constitution in 1941, when he resigned in the midst of popular protest, leaving his successor Élie Lescot in charge.
Lescot was also approved by the United States, but was the architect of a period of economic recession and harsh political repression against dissidents. He was forced into exile by a coup led by Colonel Paul Eugene Magloire, General Frank Lavaud and Colonel Antoine Levelt, a junta that took control of the country on 11 January 1946.
April 1988: Tonton Macoute militiamen with voodoo masks searching for victims
In August 1946, Dumarsais Estimé was elected president. He is a noirist, a Haitian who considers blacks to be the historic defenders of freedom. Backed by popular support, Estimé set about freeing Haiti from the American yoke, granting greater freedoms and launching modernisation projects. Among the first acts of his administration was a new constitution with strict restrictions on foreign companies, greater freedom of the press and equal citizenship for all blacks.
In 1950, after a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at extending his mandate, he was forced to resign by a coup d’état organised by Colonel Paul Magloire. He would be the first president in Haitian history to be elected by universal suffrage. A convinced anti-communist, he was welcomed by the United States. He proved to be a good administrator, but the devastation wrought by Hurricane Hazel in 1954 put him to the test: strong protests ensued, forcing him to flee and leave the presidency to François Duvalier in December 1956.
Papa Doc and his bloodthirsty family
September 1957: Papa Doc and his wife Simone, surrounded by bodyguards, stroll through Port-au-Prince
The worst period opened for the Haitian people: thirty years of a ferocious dictatorship that only ended in 1986: first the installation of François Duvalier, nicknamed Papa Doc, a madman with an immoderate personality cult who set up a regime based on voodoo worship, who thought he was a shaman, but was defended by his personal militia, one of the most brutal in human history (the Tonton Macoute), made up of murderous and torturing ragamuffins. This organisation is so powerful that it nullifies the regular army.
When Papa Doc dies in 1971, he is succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as ‘Baby Doc’: he inherits a country reduced to unimaginable misery and despair. Baby Doc governs in continuity with his father’s repressive methods, using power to enrich himself and satisfy his bloodlust: during his brutal regime, 30,000 people are kidnapped or killed. In January 1986, the Reagan administration began to put pressure on Duvalier to leave Haiti. He fled into exile in France in 1986: he had the nerve to return to Haiti in 2011 where he was immediately arrested, but was then released and lived until his death (2014) in a luxury hotel in the mountains of Port-au-Prince.
Between coups and the fury of nature
March 2021, street protests and harsh repression
In 1987 a constituent assembly was convened in a climate of little public interest, now insensitive to democratic participation; in November there was the first attempt to elect a president, but fierce clashes, resulting in numerous deaths, led to the postponement of the elections. In the second attempt in January 1988, Leslie Manigat was elected on charges of electoral fraud. The following 20 June, General Henri Namphy, commander of the army, organised a coup d’état and came to power. Very shortly afterwards, on 17 September 1988, a group of officers led by General Prosper Avril deposed him in yet another coup.
It ended in March 1990 and, in the same year, an attempt was made to organise free elections, which were won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Salesian priest and champion of the poor and disinherited who, in bitter contrast with the ecclesiastical and military hierarchies because of his political ideas, was expelled from the Salesian order. The priest’s work went in the opposite direction to that of his predecessors: he launched a vast literacy programme, tried to dismantle the repressive system in rural areas and fought to drastically reduce the widespread violations of human rights.
Disliked by the military elite, Aristide was deposed in a coup d’état on 30 September 1991. He remained in exile until 15 October 1994, when the American occupying army put him back in the saddle, but at the end of his mandate (1996) René Préval was elected in his place. In November 2000 Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the elections with 92% of the votes, but his mandate was hindered by dramatic political, social and economic crises and by an attempted coup d’état on 5 February 2004, when the rebel group of the Artibonite Revolutionary Resistance Front took control of the fourth largest city in Haiti, Gonaives, and then laid siege to Cap-Haïtien on 22 February, splitting the country in two.
The heavy weapons in the hands of the rebels were allegedly supplied by the Dominican Republic. After the rebels had advanced as far as Port-au-Prince, on the morning of 29 February, Jean-Bertrand Aristide boarded a US plane in the direction of the Central African Republic and later South Africa: the priest accused France and the United States of conspiring against him, reporting that they had threatened him with ‘death, kidnapping and abduction’, while the Bush administration reported a spontaneous request for help from the priest, who had boarded voluntarily after signing his resignation. After his departure, several high-ranking members of his government were accused and convicted of drug trafficking, including the head of state security and the head of airport security.
The country is in chaos: clashes between his supporters and opponents cause hundreds of deaths. Armed forces, led by the United States under the authority of the UN Security Council, are sent to Port-au-Prince to oversee the installation of an interim government led by Boniface Alexandre. The mission MINUSTAH (Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilization en Haïti) is established in June 2004 with a mandate to maintain security, help stabilise the political process, monitor and defend human rights. Voting took place on 7 February 2006: 51% of votes went to René Préval, supported by the poorest part of the country.
Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, devastated by the January 2010 earthquake
René Préval has a seemingly impossible challenge ahead of him: to govern a country in desperate economic conditions, in total political chaos, with a stalled legislature, an economy in tatters and held in thrall by numerous armed gangs. But he does not yet know that the worst is yet to come: in 2008 he will have to face the fury of nature – four hurricanes that cause a thousand deaths and 150,000 displaced persons. And on 12 January 2010, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the country: more than 250,000 people lost their lives. Haiti is in disarray, violence is rampant amidst mountains of debris and rotting corpses, looters rummaging through the rubble, desperate people in search of food prepared for any kind of cruelty, and makeshift roadside camps swarming with robbers armed with machetes and rifles.
As a consequence of this situation, a cholera epidemic struck Haiti, infecting 800,000 people and killing 10,000. The origin of the epidemic is traced back to a UN peacekeeping base, which contaminates a large water reservoir with its waste water. René Préval was forced to spend at least a year making cooperation agreements with foreign states and NGOs in a desperate search for aid.
Despite the dramatically hostile conditions, Préval is remembered as a good president: he goes down in history as the only man to have completed two entire terms in office without going to prison or exile. He succeeded in easing political disputes, increasing employment, improving infrastructure and bringing about a general turnaround in the economy as a whole, even though he was never popular with the people or with foreign politicians because of his shy and reserved character.
In November 2010, the presidential elections ended with former First Lady Mirlande Manigat in the lead, followed by Jude Celestin and Michel Martelly, but there had been massive fraud and the Organisation of American States (OAS) re-examined the ballot papers and declared Martelly the winner. The OAS decision is seen as Washington’s interference: many believe that the result is not based on voters’ ballots, but on American preferences.
The new president is a successful musician called ‘Sweet Micky’, known for his eccentricities. He has no political experience, but his election is greeted with popular joy. Although he has the full support of the United States, his mandate soon ends in a storm: Sweet Micky is incapable of managing the aftermath of the earthquake, of curbing growing violence and corruption, and he himself is a fearsome rabble-rouser: the BOID (Departmental Operations and Intervention Brigade) he set up is responsible for numerous killings, destruction and looting.
At the end of his term of office, he was overwhelmed by the investigation into the fraudulent management of Venezuelan funds for the PetroCaribe programme. The investigation accused Jean-Max Bellerive (Prime Minister under Preval), Laurent Lamothe (Prime Minister under Martelly), former ministers of finance, public works, town planning, agriculture and health, the Office for the Monetisation of Aid and Development Programmes and members of the Ministry of Planning. Amidst turmoil and protests, the elections were postponed for three years, but were cancelled due to fraud, so the National Assembly, in February 2016, elected Senator Jocelerme Privert as interim president, promising elections within 120 days. They were delayed again because of Hurricane Matthew, and were only held in November, won by a man chosen by Martelly himself: Jovenel Moise.
An unloved president
7 February 2017: Jovenel Moïse and his wife Martine during the swearing-in ceremony in Port-au-Prince
Jovenel Moïse was born on 26 June 1968 into a family from Trou-du-Nord, in the North-East department of Haiti. His father Etienne Moïse is a merchant, while his mother, Lucia Bruno, is a seamstress. He graduated in political science from Université Quisqueya and married Martine Marie Etienne Joseph in 1996. He moved to Port-de-Paix and invested a small amount of capital in the creation of a 10-hectare banana plantation, earning the nickname “The Banana Man” thanks to his success. In order to contribute to social welfare, he started a project to provide drinking water to rural areas: with money he personally borrowed, he built a system to bring water to the north-west and north-east departments.
In 2004, he became President of the Northwest Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCINO) and later Secretary General of the Haiti Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCIH). In 2008, he took part in the founding of Haitian Energy Company SA, which builds solar and wind power plants in 10 municipalities in the north-west department. In 2012, in Trou-du-Nord, he founds Agritrans SA and creates Haiti’s first agricultural free trade zone: this allows the implementation of more than a dozen agricultural projects with 3000 direct and 10000 indirect jobs.
In 2015 he enters politics: President Michel Martelly wants him as a presidential candidate in his party, the Tèt Kale (PHTK): in the election campaign Moïse promotes bio-ecological agriculture, a country that focuses on small-scale agricultural production. He then pushed for Martelly’s policies: schools for all and health care, energy reform, the rule of law, sustainable jobs, environmental care and the development of ecotourism and agritourism.
Moïse obtained 32.8% of the vote in the first round, qualifying for the run-off against Jude Célestin. But the election is violently contested by supporters of the Fanmi Lavalas Party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who claim Maryse Narcisse won . On 27 November 2016, the vote was taken again, and this time Moïse won in the first round with 55.67% of the vote. The President was sworn in in February the following year. His reputation as an entrepreneur precedes him: Agritrans, his banana company, is considered opaque: according to the leaders of farmers’ associations in the Trou-du-Nord area, Moïse expropriates thousands of farmers and destroys houses.
The coordinating leader of the organisation Action to Reforest and Defend the Environment, Milosten Castin, says that, without warning, several bulldozers ‘invaded the land, destroying crops and fodder used for grazing. The bulldozers then destroyed the houses of at least 17 families, many of whom are now homeless. Following protests organised by the Peasant Movement for the Development of Deveren (MPDD), Agritrans awarded the owners of the destroyed houses the ridiculous compensation of between 40 and 700 dollars each. At the same time, Moise, thanks to his friendship with Martelly, obtained million-dollar loans from the state to produce bananas and export them.
Agritrans leads the Noumbio project, Haiti’s first agricultural free zone, which is approved in 2015 in agreement with the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MCI) and the Directorate of Free Zones (DZF). This agreement allows the company to benefit from tax advantages, reduced tariffs and special customs treatment. Moreover, under Haitian law, free trade zones must export at least 70% of their products, which, in a country where not enough food is produced for its citizens, seems bitterly ironic. Haitians themselves risk having to buy back from foreign importers their own exported food, obviously at enormously increased prices.
A demonstrator during a protest calling for the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 11 October 2019
President Moïse finds himself managing a country in total instability. He chooses increasing authoritarianism by surrounding himself with personally chosen officials. When most posts expire in 2020, he does not call elections, but keeps everyone in their roles. He does the same with 141 Haitian municipalities, personally appointing mayors, and for those who protest there are “special” interventions by the security forces.
On 31 May 2019, the Haitian senate receives a 600-page report on the investigation into the agreement with Venezuela called PetroCaribe, by which Caracas agrees to provide oil on loan to Haiti by postponing payments by 25 years. The Haitian government was supposed, with the money saved, to develop the economy and finance social programmes but, according to the report, two billion dollars disappeared. The former governor of the Central Bank of Haiti, Fritz Jean, says: ‘This is a missed opportunity for Haiti. The volume of PetroCaribe transactions was $4.5 billion. Debt was a part of it, about $2.1 billion. A huge waste. The money is hidden in tax havens. We could have used this financing, about 2 billion dollars, to double or triple its value through investments”.
Popular anger is mounting: in the eyes of the people, Moise is a corrupt man, a dictator, responsible for rising inflation, fuel shortages and poverty, the sole author of the growing discomfort. Protests are rampant, strikes follow one another: in the autumn of 2019, the Peyi Lock is launched, a protest that paralyses Haiti for three months, shutting down essential services, interrupting transport, blocking food aid, worsening the desperation of many families – because, according to the United Nations, one in three Haitians, or 3.7 million people, need daily food assistance. The chaos also threatens health care, in a situation made worse by the Covid-19: the first vaccines only arrived in mid-July this year.
The capital is now in the hands of criminal gangs – the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has identified at least 95 gangs besieging the poorest neighbourhoods, spreading death and destruction and forcing tens of thousands of citizens to flee their homes. Some gangs are also headed by former policemen, such as the powerful Jimmy Cherizier, nicknamed Barbecue because he likes to burn people in their homes.
He is the head of the so-called ‘G9’ federation of nine gangs, suspected of massacring dozens of women, men and children, but in his neighbourhood he is a patron idol. He finances himself, like the other gang leaders, by doing business with the police and corrupt local politicians, by kidnapping, trafficking in drugs and weapons, looting, and, through a real administrative activity, he manages his neighbourhood by running services that the government has now abandoned, such as cleaning the streets, assisting those in need, defending the neighbourhood from other gangs. And now, feeling strong, he declares himself a revolutionary and declares war on the state.
First people arrested for the murder of President Moïse
The murder of Jovenel Moïse is part of this crazy climate: the person responsible could be anyone, the motives could be many, and in a climate of total ungovernability it is enough to choose from the list. Armed gangs, political opponents, disillusioned soldiers, mercenaries, simple thugs, businessmen: they all hated Moïse. A settling of scores within the palace is suspected, but foreign interference is not excluded either. But, at this point, it matters little who the instigators are.
The president has been killed by the very soul of Haiti, by its destiny, by its misery. The lack of a legitimate executive, an inane legislature, the extreme weakening of institutions, all expose the vulnerable people of Haiti to economic disaster, crime and political violence. There will be a new increase in displaced persons and emigration, particularly to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where the authorities have already closed the border.
Because Haiti is hell, tortured by violent voodoo superstitions, trampled by centuries of local conquerors and dictators. The indignation of the international community expressed following the murder of the president appears hypocritical, if not sarcastic, especially when it is precisely the historical perpetrators of the worst abuses perpetrated against the Haitian people who are speaking out. A people that cannot even imagine the way to rise again.
 Jean Price-Mars, “Vilbrun Guillaume-Sam, ce méconnu”, Imprimerie de l’État, Port-au-Prince 1961
 https://books.google.de/books?id=LOhHGx4v23oC&pg=PA33&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false ; https://archive.org/details/politicaleconomy0000fass/page/250/mode/2up ; https://books.google.de/books?id=CMg–t-YQWQC&pg=PA78&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Roland I. Perusse, ”Haitian democracy restored, 1991-1995“, University Press of America, Lanham (Maryland) 1995, page 170-181; Robert Pastor, ”A popular democratic revolution in a predemocratic society: the case of Haiti“, in Robert I. Rotberg. “Haiti renewed: political and economic prospects“, Brookings Institution Press, Washington) 1997, pages 118-135
Conditions and Congressional Concerns” – Maureen Taft-Morales – 23/12/2015 ; https://cepr.net/documents/publications/haiti-oas-2011-10.pdf “The Organization of American States in Haiti. Election Monitoring or Political Intervention? ” – David Rosnick – August 2011