The assassination of a Haitian president

RIP Banana Man

No one saw Jovenel Moïse coming. Five years ago he was an unknown plantain exporter in northern Haiti, plucked from obscurity to succeed (and shield from potential corruption charges) Haiti’s outgoing proto-Trumpian President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. He then shocked pretty much everyone by going farther than his flashier political mentor ever had: canceling all elections, overstaying the end of his constitutional term, and overseeing a wave of oppression, kidnapping, and the assassination of critics and journalists that left millions of Haitians in privation and fear. Suddenly, it seemed the blank-faced cipher introduced to Haitians only recently as the “Banana Man” might be a new dictator in the making.

And now, just as unexpectedly, he’s dead. This morning around 1 a.m. Haitian Standard Time, a group of still-unidentified gunmen broke into his home in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, murdered him, and shot his wife, Martine. It is the first assassination of a sitting (if unconstitutionally so) Haitian president since an enraged mob of the families of slain political prisoners killed President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam back in 1915, giving a pretext for a bloody U.S. invasion and 19-year occupation that followed.

No one it seems except the perpetrators knows who killed Moïse, nor who ordered the hit. The list of Moïse’s enemies, and thus potential suspects, runs long. Even the powerful Haitian businessman Reginald Boulos— who supported, then publicly became enemies with the quasi-dictatorial president— admitted to the New York Times that his name was one of many being floated in connection with the attack.

Other potential beneficiaries of the assassination include the recently appointed interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, who finds himself positioned as Haiti’s de facto leader, as well as leaders of the Haitian army that Moïse helped reconstitute. (The presidency should pass to the chief justice of Haiti’s Supreme Court, but he died a few days ago of COVID-19. There are only ten remaining elected officials in the Haitian government, the Miami Herald reported.)

For me, it immediately brought to mind the murky episode from 2019 in which five American mercenaries including two ex-Navy SEALs and a Blackwater-trained contractor were arrested in Port-au-Prince, apparently on a secret mission ordered by Moïse himself. What happened here could get even weirder.

I’m planning to write more about the potential fallout in the days ahead. Suffice it to say for the moment that calls for “swift and muscular intervention” by either the U.S. military or U.N. peacekeepers, as the Washington Post editorial board put it this afternoon, will only recreate the conditions that have made Haitian politics so chaotic and deadly throughout Moïse’s reign, not to mention the century that led up to it. For now, just spare a thought for the millions in Haiti now living in an even greater state of confusion and fear. They deserved better than the Banana Man, and better than what is likely coming next.

Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of the upcoming Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, coming in January 2022 from St. Martin’s Press. His first book was The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.