An already struggling and chaotic Haiti stumbled into an uncertain future Thursday, reeling from the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse followed by a reported gun battle in which authorities said police killed four suspects in the murder, detained two others and freed three officers being held hostage.
Officials pledged to find all those responsible for the predawn raid on Moïse’s house early Wednesday that left the president shot to death and his wife, Martine Moïse, critically wounded. She was flown to Miami for treatment.
“The pursuit of the mercenaries continues,” Leon Charles, director of Haiti’s National Police, said Wednesday night in announcing the arrests of suspects. “Their fate is fixed: They will fall in the fighting or will be arrested.”
Officials did not provide any details on the suspects, including their ages, names or nationalities, nor did they address a motive or what led police to the suspects. They said only that the attack condemned by Haiti’s main opposition parties and the international community was carried out by “a highly trained and heavily armed group” whose members spoke Spanish or English.
Prime Minister Claude Joseph assumed leadership of Haiti with help of police and the military and decreed a two-week state of siege following Moïse’s killing, which stunned a nation grappling with some of the Western Hemisphere’s highest poverty, violence and political instability.
Inflation and gang violence are spiralling upward as food and fuel becomes scarcer, while 60 per cent of Haitian workers earn less than $2 US a day. The increasingly dire situation comes as Haiti is still trying to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 following a history of dictatorship and political upheaval.
The country is also under a health state of emergency due to COVID-19, where the true toll is believed to be underreported.
Politically, a dispute emerged over when Moïse’s term truly ended, with scheduled elections in September perhaps even more in doubt now.
WATCH | Haitian Canadians stunned by assassination:
Those in Haiti and family and friends living abroad, including in Canada, wondered what is next.
Marlene Bastien, executive director of Family Action Network Movement, a group that helps people in Miami’s Little Haiti community, said she wants to see participation of the extensive Haitian diaspora: “No more Band-Aids. The Haitian people have been crying and suffering for too long.”
Haiti had grown increasingly unstable under Moïse, who had been ruling by decree for more than a year and faced violent protests as critics accused him of trying to amass more power while the opposition demanded he step down.
Who’s in charge?
According to Haiti’s constitution, Moïse should be replaced by the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court, but Chief Justice René Sylvestre died in recent days from COVID-19, leaving open the question of who might rightfully assume the office.
Joseph, meanwhile, was supposed to be replaced by Ariel Henry, who had been named prime minister by Moïse a day before the assassination.
Front Burner18:00The assassination of Haiti’s president
Henry told The Associated Press in a brief interview that he is the prime minister, calling it an exceptional and confusing situation. In another interview with Radio Zenith, he said there was no fight between him and Joseph: “I only disagree with the fact that people have taken hasty decisions … when the moment demands a little more serenity and maturity.”
Moïse had faced large protests in recent months that turned violent as opposition leaders and their supporters rejected his plans to hold a constitutional referendum with proposals that would strengthen the presidency.
Hours after the assassination, public transportation and street vendors remained largely scarce, an unusual sight for the normally bustling streets of Port-au-Prince. Gunfire rang out intermittently across the city, a grim reminder of the growing power of gangs that displaced more than 14,700 people last month alone as they torched and ransacked homes in a fight over territory.
Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics expert at the University of Virginia, said gangs were a force to contend with and it isn’t certain Haiti’s security forces can enforce a state of siege.
“It’s a really explosive situation,” he said, noting that foreign intervention with a United Nations-type military presence is a possibility. “Whether Claude Joseph manages to stay in power is a huge question. It will be very difficult to do so if he doesn’t create a government of national unity.”
Joseph told The Associated Press that he supports an international investigation into the assassination and believes elections scheduled for later this year should be held as he promised to work with Moïse’s allies and opponents alike.
“Everything is under control,” he said.
Pontiff praying for Haiti
Pope Francis on Thursday sent his condolences to Haiti following what he said was the “heinous assassination” and was praying for the Haitian people and for Martine Moïse.
Francis said in a telegram that he “wishes for the dear Haitian people a future of fraternal harmony, solidarity and prosperity.”
In 2015, Francis convened a special conference on Haiti to mark the fifth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people. Three years later he met with Moïse, the Haitian leader, for talks on social problems afflicting the Caribbean nation.
Global Affairs Canada said Canadians in need of emergency consular assistance in Haiti should contact the Embassy of Canada there at 011 (509) 2-812-9000 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Canadians with families and loved ones in Haiti can contact a response centre in Ottawa at 613-996-8885, 014-800-2326-6831 or by email at email@example.com.