Editor’s Note: Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
In a devastating development in Haiti’s constitutional standoff, a group of gunmen allegedly posing as agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency forcibly entered President Jovenel Moïse’s private residence and assassinated him in the early hours of Wednesday. The macabre act will prolong the uncertainty as Haiti tries to avert pandemonium.
A history of political upheaval, dictatorship and weak institutions, as well as endemic corruption have wracked Haiti for decades and stymied the consolidation of democratic rule and good governance. The country was already on edge following a protracted political crisis centered around the constitutionality of Moïse’s presidential term and a controversial proposal to overhaul the country’s constitution.
While Moïse won the first round of Haiti’s presidential election in November 2015, the runoff was postponed in the wake of fraud allegations. The country eventually scrapped the results and scheduled new elections for November 2016; Moise won outright with a clear majority of 56%.
Meanwhile, an interim president, Jocelerme Privert, served from February 2016 to February 2017.
In Haiti’s polarized political climate, the political opposition has claimed that Moïse’s presidential term started in February 2016, rather than February 2017 – when he actually took the oath of office following do-over elections – and that his five-year mandate thus ended in February of this year. The United States, the United Nations and the Organization of American States supported Moïse’s interpretation, but public anger and social unrest continued to destabilize the country. Moïse did not do much to appease the population, ruling by decree since January 2020 after the mandate of the old parliament expired without an election to replace its members.
Now, the dispute over the constitutionality of Moïse’s term has taken a criminal turn and the question of succession could engender another constitutional crisis. Prime Minister Claude Joseph is currently exercising executive power until new presidential elections can be organized. However, last week Moïse appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, who has yet to be sworn in. Another potential contender for the job, according to the Haitian constitution, would be the head of the Supreme Court of Justice, but that person, René Sylvestre, died of Covid-19 last month and has yet to be replaced.
The lack of a functional parliament makes it unclear who has the authority to approve replacements and confirm officials in the line of succession. For now, the Haitian Armed Forces and National Police have deployed to the streets to maintain control after declaring a state of siege.
Meanwhile, grinding poverty characterizes quotidian life in Haiti. In essence, the country is still recovering from a spate of natural disasters, including the scars of a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 estimated to have killed between 220,000-300,000 people. With more than 60% of the population living on less than $2 per day, Haiti often ranks as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. According to the World Health Organization, Haiti – which has experienced difficulties getting vaccine supplies – is one of a handful of nations that has not begun vaccination yet even as Covid-19 cases increase.
Recent years have also witnessed an epidemic of kidnappings and the explosion of gang violence, with many neighborhoods in the capital, Port-au-Prince, controlled by criminal organizations. Thousands of displaced people have sought refuge from the growing insecurity in a stadium on the southern edge of the capital.
The Haiti assassination is yet another incident in a series of political, social and economic crises that have festered throughout the Western Hemisphere. The situation is emblematic of a larger democratic regression afflicting many countries – including Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela – where, in lieu of negotiations and political compromise, taking political prisoners and even conducting political assassinations have become worryingly commonplace.
Haiti’s constitutional crisis has failed to register with many Washington policymakers as well as those in the international community for far too long – in part, thanks to the plethora of challenges already present in the Western Hemisphere. Notwithstanding the Biden administration’s claims to the contrary, the inattention of US policymakers in recent years has contributed to the country’s rapid unraveling.
While four people suspected of assassinating Moïse were shot dead by police and two others arrested Wednesday night, this may well be only the first phase in another one of Haiti’s seemingly interminable crises. The short-term emphasis for the US and the rest of the world should be on supporting Haiti’s political leadership, untangling the constitutional questions likely to arise and maintaining order while ensuring that the Haitian armed forces remain confined to their proper constitutional role.
The international community, and in particular the US, should push for an investigation into the assassination and make resources available for bringing the perpetrators to justice – lest they benefit from the impunity that is all too common in Haiti. In the long-term, the international community has a key role to play in encouraging political and institutional reforms that will advance a national dialogue, generate economic opportunities for all and bring greater stability to Haiti’s turbulent domestic politics.
Moïse’s assassination is a tragic reminder of the country’s unraveling democracy and the need to forge a solution to the escalating turmoil that puts Haiti’s constitutional order and the well-being of its people at its center.