Haiti’s assassinated president was a threat to the elite
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Haiti is in the depths of crisis following the assassination of its president Jovenel Moise on Thursday this week. The state has never been so weak, and the volatile situation could easily spiral out of control. The country currently has two competing constitutions, no sitting parliament, overdue elections, a chief justice who just died of Covid-19, and an incumbent Prime Minister Claude Joseph who was supposed to be replaced this week by Ariel Henry, but who has now declared “a state of siege” which translates into the borders being closed and martial law declared.
The now assassinated Moise was an enigma. On the one hand he sounded very much like the only real “peoples’ president” Haiti ever had - former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide - as far as the social agenda he was pursuing. Moise had a dogged commitment to end the monopolies that offered lucrative contracts to Haiti’s powerful elite. He was intent on changing the power dynamics in the country, particularly when it came to money and who had control over electricity contracts. While most of the country struggles with constant electricity outages, a predatory elite were still paid billions to provide electricity. Moise put an end to many of these contracts, and was well aware that his campaign against the wealthy and powerful elites would likely cost him his life.
This was much the same story as when Aristide had come to power in 1991. After decades of dictatorship under the Duvalier family (Papa Doc and Baby Doc) and the formation of a ruthless secret police force that terrorised the country, Aristide had come to power preaching liberation theology. He was the leading voice for the aspirations of the dispossessed in the country, and preached “food for the people”. His left wing people-centred agenda made him too many enemies, and he was swiftly overthrown in a coup, which according to Aristide, had links to the CIA who backed the head of the military who ousted him.
After Aristide had returned to the country in 2001, and won a reported 92% of the election, his attempts to ensure Haitians got a stake in the privatisation of certain enterprises irked the Americans, and it was his strong contention that the US had forced him into exile in 2004. American companies did not want to give a stake to local Haitians, and the French were angry at Aristide’s insistence they pay US$21 billion in restitution for the 90 million gold francs they had forced Haiti to pay them for the appropriation of French property between 1825-1947.
The former powers were not going to stand by and allow Aristide to rule his country in a manner that was not in their interests. Aristide was kidnapped by men in US special forces uniforms, and flown out of the country by the US, with the help of France and Canada. This modern day coup shocked the world, and Aristide was ultimately given safe haven in South Africa by the government of president Thabo Mbeki, until he eventually returned to the country in 2011.
Like Aristide, Moise had an affinity with the people, having grown up on a large sugar plantation. He often said he always wondered why people were living in such bad conditions while enormous lands were empty. He believed agriculture was the key to change his country for the better. His left-wing agenda made him dangerous enemies, just as Aristide’s had. But sadly Moise exited the stage leaving Haiti in a much worse condition than Aristide had.
In the months before he was killed, Moise aggressively pushed for the rewriting of a new constitution which many Haitians believed was needed. The two existing constitutions, which have been existing in parallel, had created two competing centres of power between the president and the prime minister. His proposed new constitution would have given the president more power, and enabled the president to seek more terms in office. Moise felt he needed more time to deliver on his promises, but was roundly criticised for what was perceived to be an attempt to consolidate power.
Elections in Haiti had been delayed due to Covid-19 and the fact that Moise had argued that his term was up next year, and not this February as the opposition maintained. The regional Organisation of American States had backed Moise’s position. But his governance left a lot to be desired, and he made a number of strategic mistakes which provoked mass protests against him, demanding his resignation. With the tide of public opinion already set against him, his detractors saw the opportunity to get rid of him. He was assassinated by professional killers, and now the country teeters on the brink of chaos.
The hidden hand of the predatory elite and outside interests always lurks in the background when it comes to Haiti. This has been Haiti’s curse throughout its history - beginning from when it was one of the world’s most brutal slave colonies, but also France’s richest. It was coveted for its riches of sugar, coffee and cotton, brought to market by enslaved people. But it was also the first enslaved nation to wrench their freedom from their colonial masters after a bloody war. Haiti became the world’s first black-led republic when it declared independence in 1804. But the continued interference by France through the imposition of a suffocating debt on their former colony, and the subsequent occupation by the Americans, meant Haiti was never truly free.
The challenge for the Haitian people now is to rid their politics of those taking their cue from outside powers, and looking to only fill their pockets and hold onto power.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.