Ask the Expert: The Assassination of Haiti's President
By Brian Hiro
Like most Americans, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall awoke last Wednesday to the stunning news that Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, had been assassinated in a brazen act of political violence.
Like very few Americans, however, Sepinwall brought to the international incident a vast reservoir of knowledge about Haiti, its history and its people. The Cal State San Marcos history professor is a Haitian expert who has written two books on the Caribbean island nation: “Haitian History: New Perspectives” and “Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games,” the latter of which was published just two months ago.
Since the assassination, Sepinwall has been interviewed by several media outlets, including by The Guardian newspaper and RTVI, or Russian diaspora TV (scroll to the 1:11 mark for Sepinwall’s appearance). We spoke with her on Thursday afternoon, when developments in Haiti were still in a high degree of flux.
Question: What was your reaction to learning of the assassination?
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall: Jovenel Moïse was extremely unpopular and there were many protests in the last year calling his rule illegal, pushing for him to resign and demanding that the U.S. and United Nations withdraw their support for him. So it wasn't like I woke up and said, “Oh, look, this popular, wonderful person was killed.” I just said, “Wow, someone decided to do it.” Then it was just a matter of figuring out who. My first instinct was that this must be a Haitian patriot who was frustrated that all efforts to dislodge him had failed and that people were dying as a result of his misrule, and then decided to take the matter into their own hands. However, as the day went on last Thursday, the situation started to seem more complicated and maybe much sadder – it looked like the result was not going to be things improving and Haitians getting the real autonomy and democracy that they've been pushing for, because instead this was a power play by elites.
Q: What is the prevailing theory on who might be responsible for the killing and what their motivation was?
AGS: In some ways, this is like Clue, where the deceased had so many enemies that it's hard to know which of them did it. Again, it seems that this was not someone from the grassroots. Whoever it was seems to have hired Spanish-speaking mercenaries who claimed they were Drug Enforcement Administration agents and who got into Moïse’s house without much trouble, with his equivalent of the Secret Service really doing nothing to protect him. There doesn’t seem to have been any kind of firefight to enter; they reportedly knew the layout of his house and had some cooperation from the inside.
There have been three main candidates. One is various members of the Haitian oligarchy, who often have tried to control the situation in the country and have financed coups d'état against leaders they don't like. Many had been allied with Moïse, but recently he had a falling out with some key members of the elite. A variation of this theory is that this was an internal struggle within Moïse’s party – he had fired his prime minister, Claude Joseph, only two days before he was murdered and announced a replacement (Ariel Henry). So there has been speculation that Joseph’s allies arranged the hit so he would not be eclipsed from power.
Another possibility that people were pointing to was the U.S. After all, the assassins said they were DEA. And, unfortunately, the U.S. has had a very long history of intervening and sometimes sending the Marines to Haiti. This would not be the first time that someone in the U.S. government, CIA or Department of State decided that a Haitian president had outlived their usefulness to us in terms of our policy objectives and tried to remove him. That possibility has not seemed the strongest to me because Moïse was wildly unpopular and was depending on the U.S. and UN to shore him up against his people. Haitians were protesting against him for the last few years and especially after Feb. 7, when his term was deemed to be over but he remained in power. It would be like if we did not end up having a presidential transition on Jan. 20. I think there are many other ways that the U.S. could have withdrawn support for Moïse, much simpler than staging a very dramatic assassination.
The third possibility that has been floated is that this was ordered by Colombian or Venezuelan narco-traffickers, who had had a falling out with Moïse and hired other Spanish-speaking mercenaries. This theory suggested that they wanted to be free and clear to keep using Haiti as a point for transferring drugs and money laundering. This idea was floated by many in Moïse’s party, which is called the PHTK. But as days have gone on, it has seemed increasingly unlikely, especially as Moïse’s party has remained in power, and Claude Joseph’s faction has used the supposed chaos to declare martial law and shore up its support. As my Haitian colleagues have pointed out, the fact that these assassins were speaking Spanish would help make it seem that this was a foreign attack. And under the Haitian constitution, that would give the president or whoever is leading the government the right to declare martial law. So that is lending credence to the idea that dissenting factions in Moïse’s party planned the assassination to give Joseph’s faction (or the PHTK in general) the upper hand in a situation in which they worried that they were finally going to lose power.
Q: In terms of Moïse’s rule over the last few years, was it already bad and then his decision to stay in power after the election was the last straw for people?
AGS: First of all, many Haitians didn't want to elect him in the first place. The international community has been meddling in Haitian elections since the 2010 earthquake, and even before, by excluding candidates that they did not want to win. In many ways, the PHTK was handpicked by American diplomats, including not just Moïse but the president before him, whose name was Michel Martelly. Martelly is a popular Haitian music star who uses a lot of sexual innuendo – not the first person you’d imagine would become president of the country. But in this period of transition after the earthquake, he was allied with powerful forces and said he would be friendly to foreign business interests. His associates also included former supporters of the Duvalier dictatorship, which was very worrisome. Under Martelly, the PHTK seems to have begun stealing large amounts of money that were given to Haiti. For instance, Venezuela sold fuel to Haiti at a discount. The government was supposed to be able to sell it to citizens, and the difference between what they paid and what they were selling it for was supposed to be used to finance schools and roads. The government sent out glossy brochures showing things they were supposedly building, but they were never constructed. So PHTK officials seem to have been keeping the money and pocketing it. That became increasingly clear under Moïse’s rule after he succeeded Martelly, and there have been protests where people kept saying, “Where did the money go? Where are the stadiums and where are the schools?” That has been going on especially since 2018, and people were just waiting for his term to end so they could get someone different in office. When he didn't leave in February, the situation got so much worse, and the government began shooting at peaceful protesters. Who was keeping the PHTK in power? Essentially the U.S. and the UN, because otherwise they would have been toppled by a revolution, with all of these people in the streets.
Q: Did you consider Moïse to be a dictator?
AGS: After Feb. 7, yes, many Haitians called him a dictator. The other thing I didn't mention is he was trying to get rid of the constitution. He was planning a referendum in which the constitution would be overturned and there would be a new constitution that removed any possibility of criminally prosecuting officials for wrongdoing in office. This is the kind of thing that many Haitians were appalled by, and made them say we need to get him out. There also was debate in the U.S. government over Moïse. Whereas the Biden administration continued the Trump administration’s support for Moïse after taking office on Jan. 20, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had been holding hearings and pushing the Biden Administration to stop supporting Moïse. They stressed his harmful effects on Haitians and the need for them to be able to choose their next government without our meddling. This possibly led people in the PHTK to feel threatened and then to sacrifice Moïse so that they could continue to rule. But if they get their wish, and foreign troops come whose task will be essentially to suppress the population in the name of keeping “order,” that's going to be very troubling.
Q: Do you feel like the U.S. and international community could have done more to prevent the assassination from happening?
AGS: Absolutely. Haitians have been crying out for us to stop supporting Moïse. If you look at the signs that people had in the streets in February, they asked us and the UN to stop supporting a president who had become a dictator and was trying to cancel their constitution. That, again, supports the idea that this is manufactured chaos to keep the PHTK in power, as opposed to drug traffickers being responsible, which is the narrative that was getting pushed at first.
Q: Earlier, you mentioned the U.S. policy objectives in Haiti. How would you describe those?
AGS: We like to talk about wanting to spread democracy, but unfortunately our record in Haiti has not supported that. I’d say our real policy objectives are two things. One is the promotion of U.S. business interests. While the rest of us are not always paying attention, we are often interfering with what Haitians want, like a minimum wage (which is especially needed for Haitians working in sweatshops owned by foreign companies). When Haitian leaders have tried to do that, American companies have complained that it will increase the cost of doing business in Haiti. And the State Department has then pressured to have those laws withdrawn or they've had presidents removed, by which I mean not assassinated, but the U.S. Embassy sends a limo and says “your time is up” to Haitian leaders. The amount the minimum wage was going to be raised by is embarrassing by our standards (for instance, we fought against raising the minimum wage to $0.61 an hour a few years ago). But American businesses did not want to pay even a little more, because to them the advantage of this country nearby is that labor is cheap, and it's so much less expensive to ship products from Haitian sweatshops to the U.S. than from China.
The second U.S. policy objective, I'm sad to say, is often keeping things stable there so people don't try to come here. There has been particularly strong anti-immigrant sentiment about Haiti, even more so than, say, from Cuba. Many have said it's because of a kind of demonization of Black Haitian immigrants. In reality, Haitian Americans are wonderful, integral, brilliant parts of our country. Look just at the COVID epidemic; so many Haitians have been on the front lines as nurses, nursing home aids, doctors or scientists. But there are people who think, “Too many Haitians are coming.” We saw this in 2016 in San Diego, where you had Haitians arriving here after their post-earthquake refuge in Brazil turned hostile (they were invited to work constructing buildings for the 2016 Olympics, but once the construction was finished and there was a recession in Brazil, they were scapegoated and often violently chased from the country). There was a wealth of organizations here in San Diego willing to welcome Haitian refugees and help them resettle. But there were also voices who said, “No, there are too many of them coming.”
Q: Would you say that Haiti is still suffering today from the effects of the 2010 earthquake?
AGS: Yes, definitely. And not just the earthquake itself but the way the international community, which claimed it was going to help Haiti, actually made things worse (in the “manmade disaster” that followed the earthquake). One of the people I write about is a Haitian filmmaker named Raoul Peck, who was Oscar-nominated for his film on James Baldwin. He also made an earlier film called “Fatal Assistance” about the international response to the earthquake and how it made things worse. For instance, land was confiscated from Haitians, supposedly to “give them jobs.” But this meant that farmers were kicked off their land and being able to feed themselves, to give the land to South Korean garment manufacturers, which then didn't pay them livable wages. There are lots of stories like that, with money that was supposedly raised and not actually used to help Haitians. In general, the international community directed the reconstruction of Haiti more than the Haitian government did – and they did not listen to Haitians about what they needed. They often imposed policies that benefited foreigners and made things worse for Haitians.
Q: Why do you think stable democracy has been so elusive for Haiti for so long?
AGS: Foreign interventions are one big reason. Whenever there has been a ruler who wants to do things that foreigners don't like, there has been a risk that foreigners will invade and effect regime change. Many people don’t know that the U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The U.S. problem with Haiti really goes back much longer, 200 years ago, when Haitians were the first people in the New World to free themselves from slavery and they had a revolution. There were definitely Americans who thought that was good; they saw the Haitian Revolution as being like the American Revolution and thought it was good for Haitians that they managed to free themselves from the French and to rule themselves. But keep in mind, when Haiti became independent in 1804, we had Thomas Jefferson, who was a slaveholder, as president. And Jefferson and other whites did not look at the Haitian Revolution favorably; they essentially said, “Look at those horrible savages who just killed their masters. We better punish them and keep them isolated or enslaved people here will have the same idea.” We've had this long history of demonizing and trying to isolate Haitians, and then seeking to invade them when they try to enact policies that we don't like. One example is the Duvalier dictatorship, which was so destructive in Haiti. The U.S. meddled in the election by which Duvalier first came to power because they did not like his opponent. And then, despite all the evil things that he did, we helped keep him in power for one big reason – he wasn't a Communist. There was this worry that Haiti might “fall” just like Cuba if we didn’t keep him in power. So yes, we've had a long history of meddling. That's something that people often fail to see when they say, “Oh, look at that country, it's so troubled! Why can’t they fix themselves?” I'm not saying Haitians would be without problems if they were left alone. But many problems happen because Haitians are not in fact permitted by the international community to make decisions for themselves.
Q: What do you see as the path forward for Haiti in the wake of this tragedy?
AGS: I would like to see the international community give support, and I'll stress the word support, to Haitian civil society and to the opposition parties to have a transition from this government, which so many Haitians see as illegitimate. What I don't want to see is people saying, “We need to go in there and send troops,” which is what Claude Joseph has been trying to do. Increasingly, his effort to get foreign troops to arrive to create “order” has seemed to be an attempt to make sure the PHTK retains power. And that would destroy real democracy and dash the hopes of Haitians.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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