Who benefits from insecurity in Haiti?

The president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was shot dead on 7 July by a team of commandos at his home in Port-au-Prince. The first lady, Martine Moïse, was wounded in the attack and is recovering in a Miami hospital. The bold operation was allegedly perpetrated by 26 Colombian mercenaries hired through a Florida-based security company and three Haitian-American individuals from the South Florida region. The timeline of events and the list of possible perpetrators remain murky, but let’s try to go over what we know so far.

Twenty-three of the 26 suspects of Colombian nationality have been arrested, as well as the three Haitian-Americans. Haitian authorities have publicly implicated one of them, Dr Christian Emmanuel Sanon, naming him as the leader of the coup. Haiti’s national police chief also noted that Sanon had arrived by private jet in Haiti in June with a plan to take over the presidency. Sanon recruited mercenaries as bodyguards from a Venezuelan security company based in Florida called CTU. The mercenaries came from Colombia and were trained for months in Haiti (since January, according to one of the individuals arrested), before being deployed for the coup. It’s unclear how much they knew about the purpose of the operation; one of the alleged perpetrators claimed that it was supposed to be about bringing Moïse in the middle of the night to the presidential office, where Sanon would take over the presidency.

Sanon was the first person one of the suspects called after being captured, according to a report in the Miami Herald.  However, before his arrest, Sanon apparently made contact with two other people whom Haitian authorities say may have been the ‘intellectual authors of the assassination’.

It’s not clear who these individuals are or who the true intellectual authors of the coup might be, but Haitian authorities have summoned businessmen and opposition leaders Jean Marie Vorbe, Dimitri Vorbe and Réginald Boulos, as well as former senators Steven Benoît and Youri Latortue, to provide evidence in the investigation. At the moment, the fingers seem to be pointed at the oligarchs in Haiti, the all-powerful ‘families’ running the main businesses in the country, some of whom may have felt threatened by Moïse’s policies.

A few important questions remain. First, the presidential bodyguards offered no resistance during the attack, and no bodyguard was harmed. That is definitely suspicious. The heads of three police units responsible for protecting Moïse have been placed on administrative leave and are being interrogated. It’s been reported that Dimitri Hérard, head of general security at Haiti’s National Palace, flew to Colombia in the months before the assassination.

Second, the squad was dressed in black outfits reportedly resembling the uniforms worn by officers of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and shouted ‘DEA’ when entering the premise. We’ve just learned that at least one of the Haitian-Americans arrested also worked as an informant for the DEA, which could be a coincidence. The role of American officials in this saga remains to be determined; Sanon claims that he was approached by people representing the US State and Justice departments who wanted to install him as president.

Finally, maybe the biggest question of all is who will replace Moïse as president until new elections can take place. The Haitian constitution is of no help in this regard. Only 10 elected officials remain in the country (all senators), after the dissolution of the parliament in 2020. Moïse had been ruling by decree since the parliament’s dissolution, which led to discontent from civil society and opposition parties. Normally, the head of the Haitian Supreme Court would take over, but Judge René Sylvestre died of Covid-19 complications last month. This leaves us with three main contenders vying for the position of power: the acting prime minister, Claude Joseph; the man who was slated to replace him, Ariel Henry; and the current head of the Senate, Joseph Lambert, who was voted provisional president by his fellow senators a few days ago.

This situation prompts many to turn to the common trope of chaos and insecurity in Haiti. Such a narrative has been mobilised in the past, by local and international actors, to legitimise forceful interventions in the country. The only other time a Haitian president was assassinated in office was in 1915 (President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam). That led to a military intervention and occupation by the US until 1934, when President Woodrow Wilson sent US marines into Haiti. The legacy of the American occupation is still being felt in Haiti.

The current situation also echoes what happened in 2004 after the forced exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, orchestrated by the US, Canada and France, which led to the establishment of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The UN mission did stabilise the country, but there are legitimate questions about what its stabilisation efforts entailed. The UN has a terrible track record of human rights abuses in the country, including a string of sexual scandals and many cases of abuse of force. It also inadvertently introduced cholera in the country, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people and infecting 10% of the population. Many in Haiti are wary of any foreign intervention by the UN or the US, and any honeymoon a new intervention is likely to have will probably be short-lived.

One of the contenders for the position of president, Claude Joseph, requested an ‘urgent’ deployment of US and UN troops to the country. For now, the US has only committed to ‘security and investigative assistance’ through a delegation of FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials. However, while the Biden administration hasn’t ruled out sending US troops to Haiti, it has called for a union of Haitian political leaders to sort out the situation. This seems like a wise decision. Many Haitians clearly have no appetite for another military intervention in the country. And many in Haiti had been asking for a transitional government to be put in place, even before the assassination of Moïse. This could be as perfect a moment as any to bring all the different political parties and factions of the country together before legitimate elections can be held.