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Fear grips Haiti after Wednesday’s presidential assassination

‘You are just so powerless you would like to cry but it’s like you don’t have the strength’

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Haiti President Jovenel Moïse was gunned down by assassins Wednesday.

LOUISVILLE — News of the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse early Wednesday morning left the country still and gripped in fear of the unknown.

“Everyone I’ve talked to says the streets of Port-au-Prince are dead quiet,” said mission co-worker Cindy Corell, who has served in Haiti for nearly eight years. “People are stunned and waiting for what happens next.”

This assassination is the latest source of anxiety for the people of Haiti. It comes on the edge of three years of severe insecurity, economic collapse, a second deadly surge of COVID-19, an avalanche of kidnappings and slayings, and a constitutional crisis.

A local partner told Corell, “You are just so powerless you would like to cry but it’s like you don’t have the strength.”

Corell has been sheltering-in-place in Virginia since March 2020, when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) called mission co-workers back to the U.S. She was on the phone all day Wednesday gathering information from colleagues and global partners. She and Valdir França, World Mission’s coordinator for the office of Latin America and the Caribbean, and Catherine Gordon from PMA’s Office of Public Witness, gathered by phone with faith-based and humanitarian organizations around the world to stand in solidarity with Haiti and look for ways to coordinate efforts.

Reports are that a group of “mercenaries” or “commandos” speaking both English and Spanish stormed the gates of the president’s residence claiming they were with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, a claim U.S. President Joe Biden said was “absolutely false.”

Moïse was killed in a hail of gunfire. First Lady Martine Moïse was wounded and later medically evacuated to Miami, Florida. The extent of her injuries has not been made public. She was listed in critical but stable condition.

Following a gunfight in St. Pierre Park in Petionville on Wednesday afternoon, police said four suspected gunmen were killed and two more were taken into custody. According to news reports, police did not confirm the identities of the men. Nor did police offer other details.

In many countries, there is a clear succession of power when a leader dies, but there is great confusion in Haiti, adding to the fear Haitians are feeling now. What happens next is the question everyone in Haiti is asking.

Life in Haiti has not been this peaceful in at least three years. (Photo by Cindy Corell)

Moïse has ruled by decree since January 2020. He did not hold planned elections, so the terms of most members of the Parliament of Haiti have expired. However, no one new has been elected to take their place. Currently there is no active Parliament. Until Wednesday, the president had been ruling without oversight.

The third branch of Haiti’s government is its Supreme Court. In the past six months, Moïse unilaterally fired six justices of the court. Last week, Supreme Court Judge René Sylvestre, who headed the court, died of COVID-19.

In Haiti, the president and the prime minister share power. Since Moïse took office in 2017, he has had seven prime ministers. Tuesday, just hours before his death, Moïse announced he had chosen a new prime minister, Dr. Ariel Henry. The president was assassinated before Henry could be sworn into office. Claude Joseph, the sixth prime minister who had stepped aside for his successor, assumed power and has placed the country under a “state of siege,” which has included closing borders and airports and declaring martial law shortly after the assassination.

Corell explained the “state of siege” gives the government great powers of search and seizure. Police can enter any home and search anyone’s car. They can also take anyone into custody. “Knowing that helps me understand the deep fear people are feeling now,” she said.

Photos coming out of Haiti show signs that read “Dechoukaj” or “Uprooting,” a term used after Haiti’s former leader, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, was exiled in February 1986. This dictator and son of a dictator had been uprooted.

“But no peace came,” said Corell. “What followed was a steady parade of catastrophe, disaster, coups d’etat and power grabs, and the vast majority of Haiti became even more poor. So, when Haitians hear the term ‘Dechoukaj,’ they imagine destruction.”

An estimated one-third of Haiti’s 12 million residents are faced with food insecurity. (Photo by Cindy Corell)

Corell said the people of Haiti have not known even a moment’s peace in three years.

“What began with a violent lockdown in Haiti in 2018 has continued to pull the people of Haiti deeper into misery,” she said. “Gang violence and a surge of COVID-19 is overwhelming large parts of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. The crumbling economy and challenges of transporting food means families have greater difficulty feeding their families.”

She said an estimated 4 million of the island nation’s 12 million residents are facing food insecurity.

Corell hopes to return one day soon to Haiti, a place and a people she loves.

“Haiti is making the news once again because of disaster, but we must remember the strength and the courage of Haiti who are doing their best. Remember its history — the people who fought for their country when they were still slaves. They should not be known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but as a country the world has left behind, time after time after time.”

“As they tell me every day,” Corell said, “’Se anyen Bondye pa kab fè.’ There is nothing God can’t do.”

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