The assassination of Haiti’s president has thrown the nation into disarray, spawned shootouts on the streets and left terrified citizens cowering in their homes. But behind the scenes, a bigger, high-stakes battle for control of the country is already accelerating.
The fault lines were drawn long before President Jovenel Moïse was killed. For more than a year before his death, the president had been attacking his political rivals, undermining the nation’s democratic institutions and angering church and gang leaders alike.
Then the president was gunned down in his home Wednesday — and the power play burst into the open, with the interim prime minister claiming to run the country despite open challenges by other politicians.
But even as that battle over who inherits the reins of government plays out in public, analysts say a more complex, less visible battle for power is picking up speed. It is a fight waged by some of Haiti’s richest and most well-connected kingmakers, eager for the approval of the United States, which has exercised outsize control over the fate of the Caribbean nation in the past.
How it will all play out is unclear.
Elections were planned for September, but many civil society groups in Haiti worry that doing so would only sharpen the political crisis. They question whether it would even be feasible to hold legitimate elections given how weak the nation’s institutions have become, and some civil society leaders are expected to meet Saturday to try to devise a new path forward.
Many fear that Haitians themselves may not have much of a say in the matter.
“This whole system is founded on the idea that legitimacy is determined by outside factors,” said Jake Johnston, a senior research associate at the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. “So while politicians in Port-au-Prince fight for power, the rest of the country will continue to be ignored.”
The first to assert the right to lead the nation was the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, who called a state of siege immediately after the attack and has spent the past several days trying to parlay general words of support for Haiti from the United States into the appearance, at least, of a mandate to govern. But his legitimacy has been directly challenged by the country’s last remaining elected officials, who are trying to form a new transitional government to replace him.
Eight of the 10 remaining senators in Haiti signed a resolution calling for a new government to replace Joseph. As “the only functioning elected officials of the republic,” they wrote, they were the only ones who could “exercise national sovereignty.”
The lawmakers declared that Senate President Joseph Lambert should become provisional president and that Joseph should be replaced as prime minister by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon and politician who had been named by Moïse to take the position but who was not yet sworn in.
The others jockeying for control, behind the scenes, is a group that includes Michel Martelly, the former Haitian president, and Reginald Boulos, a prominent businessman. Both have been testing the waters in Washington recently as they explore potential bids for the presidency.
In May, Boulos, one of Haiti’s richest men and a former ally of Moïse, hired two U.S. lobbying firms to represent him. This month, according to a federal filing, Boulos retained another firm, run by Arthur Estopinan, a lobbyist who served as the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
In an interview, Estopinan said he was helping Boulos “get his message out” in Washington but that the focus had shifted recently.
“The assassination of the president happened, so obviously now that has taken center stage because everyone wants to know, you know, who was the culprit,” Estopinan said. “Obviously you have to leave politics aside for now that the Haitian people are mourning.”
In late June, Martelly, the former Haitian president, made his own trip to Washington, according to two people familiar with the visit who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The purpose was to interview lobbyists as he mulled another run at Haiti’s presidency, one of the people said.
In the meantime, Joseph and his fellow ministers have continued to insist that they are leading the government.
“This is part of the chaos certain people are trying to create in the country,” said Mathias Pierre, the country’s minister for elections, referring to the efforts to unseat Joseph. “For us, this is a second attempt to assassinate the president. We are doing what we have to do to establish stability and prepare for elections.”
On Friday, the top prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, summoned five top businessmen and politicians to report for questioning in connection with the assassination. Analysts said everyone on that list was perceived to be an enemy of Moïse, including Boulos, who helped get the slain president elected but later became his nemesis.
Boulos, who owns supermarkets, hotels and car dealerships, recently came under investigation by the government’s anti-corruption unit, which many saw as politically motivated. Boulos, who denied any involvement in the killing, said he had seen the summons only on social media so far.
“I have not seen it, and it has not been delivered to me,” he said via WhatsApp message Saturday morning. “My lawyers will try to confirm it and advise me then.”
The leadership question is especially murky because the nation’s democratic institutions have been hollowed out, leaving no clear options for settling disputes over who should be the rightful leader.
Haiti is a parliamentary democracy with almost no parliament. The Senate is at one-third its usual size, and the lower house is entirely vacant because the members’ terms expired last year. Moïse had governed by decree for about a year.
Beyond that, the judiciary has been virtually nonexistent for the past year, with judges often on strike to protest the political upheaval and rampant violence. And the head of the nation’s highest court, who might have offered guidance, died of COVID-19 in June.
Making matters worse, Haiti appears to have two Constitutions, and the dueling documents say different things about what to do if a president dies in office.
The 1987 version deems that if the presidency is vacant for any reason, the country’s most senior judge should step in.
But in 2012, the Constitution was amended, and the new one directed that the president be replaced by a council of ministers, under the guidance of the prime minister — except if, as was the case with Moïse, the president was in the fourth year of office. In that case, Parliament would vote for a provisional president — but there is barely any parliament left.
U.S. officials have been keenly eyeing who wins the loyalty of the nation’s security forces, but even that may be a tricky litmus test.
Haiti’s police have been thrown into tumult following the assassination, engaging in pitched gunbattles with people they say are suspects even as the nation’s own security apparatus comes under suspicion for possibly coordinating with the mercenaries who carried out the attack.
Four of the men within the president’s security detail have been called in for questioning. Outside observers and many Haitians are increasingly suspicious that at least some of those who were supposed to protect the president were in on the attack, given how little resistance the assailants encountered from the president’s guards.
And questions have been swirling in Washington about how the United States will react if Haitian civil society leaders push for a path out of the turmoil that contradicts the plans of the sitting government.
“It’s going to be an amazing drama about how the U.S. responds,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “So far we have resisted the idea of a transition to democracy that’s not, like, whoever happens to be sitting there in office.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.