Both opponents and supporters of the Haitian president saw his assassination as a worrisome sign that the already fragile country was descending into greater turmoil.
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Many Haitians in the diaspora feared the worst on Wednesday, following the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, an act of violence viewed by many as a potent symbol of the impoverished Caribbean nation’s descent into mayhem in recent months.
Rodney Saint-Éloi, a celebrated Haitian-Canadian poet and publisher in Montreal, said the assassination of Mr. Moïse was a blow to democracy in Haiti. “It turns all Haitians into assassins because he was, like it or not, the president of all Haitians,” he said. “It is the failure of a society and of an elite who helped get us to this point.”
Mr. Moïse, killed in an attack early Wednesday on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, had presided over a country buffeted by instability, endemic corruption and gang violence, and his refusal to cede power had angered Haitians the world over. Many in the diaspora had put off trips home for the past year, as kidnappings and other acts of violence became more commonplace.
Frantz André, a leading Haitian human rights advocate in Montreal, organized a protest in March in which dozens of Haitians demonstrated against what they called Mr. Moise’s political repression. He said that Mr. Moïse was a deeply polarizing figure and that he and other Haitians abroad on Wednesday were feeling “mixed emotions.”
“I don’t think it would be wise to scream victory at his assassination because we don’t know what will come after and the situation could be even more precarious,” Mr. André said. “Educated people saw him as a threat to democracy and others have been protesting against him because they have nothing to eat.”
But Mr. André added that a sizable minority had also supported Mr. Moïse and saw him as a catalyst for change because he had been promoting the idea of giving Haitians outside the country the right to vote, and was pushing to change the Constitution.
On Wednesday, in New York, Montreal and Miami, Haitians of all political stripes expressed frustration with the state of the country, where a majority of the population earns less than $2.41 a day and which was ranked 170 out of 180 for perceived corruption in 2020 — tied with North Korea — by Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog.
Conspiracy theories were swirling as to who had killed Mr. Moïse, a man with many enemies. Mr. André said one theory circulating in the Haitian community was that the killers, who were heard speaking Spanish, could have been hired assassins from the Dominican Republic.
Because of its chronic instability, Haiti has a large diaspora, with some of the largest communities based in the United States, Canada, France and the Dominican Republic. There are about 1.2 million Haitians or people of Haitian origin in the United States, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But the figure is thought to be higher because of a sizable number of immigrants who are in the country without documentation.
More than two centuries ago, Haitians fought to throw off the yoke of colonial France and bring an end to to one of the world’s most brutal slave colonies, which had brought France great wealth. What started as a slave uprising toward the end of the 18th century eventually led to the stunning defeat of Napoleon’s forces and a declaration of independence in 1804.
But the suffering of the Haitians did not end with the ouster of the French.
The tail end of a brutal, three-decade-long dictatorship under Papa Doc Duvalier and his son, Baby Doc, sent a wave of Haitians to the United States in the 1980s. After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the United States granted temporary protected statuses to more than 55,000 Haitians, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
On Wednesday, not all were upset by the news of the assassination. In New York, home of a vibrant Haitian expatriate community, Dahoud André, a Haitian radio host from Brooklyn, said he was overjoyed.
“There will be celebrations on the streets of New York,” he said, stressing that Mr. Moïse had won the 2016 elections with just under 600,000 votes in a country of 11 million people.
“We believe it is a good thing for the Haitian people that Jovenel Moïse is dead,” he said. “He was a criminal, who never had any legitimacy and under his leadership, there have been massacres, and corruption, and the arming and financing of street gangs. The only people mourning will be those who were helping him to steal.”
Anthonine Pierre, a community organizer in Brooklyn who works for a group developing Black social justice leadership, said the assassination was her generation’s moment to grapple with upheaval in Haiti. “I think that every Haitian person alive has lived through a lot of instability in the Haitian government and this is just a different moment,” she said “This is our generation’s moment.”
The opposition in Haiti said that Mr. Moïse’s five-year term should have ended in February. Mr. Moïse insisted he had one more year to serve, because his term did not begin until a year after the presidential election, amid accusations of voting fraud.
Garry Pierre-Pierre, publisher of The Haitian Times in New York, said the assassination had seemed a step too far, even for Haiti. “I didn’t see this coming, because this is something I thought we had put behind us,” he said. “Despite the shakiness of our democracy, assassination was not a stage we’d go.”
In South Florida, so many Haitians have flocked to the region over the past decades a neighborhood in Miami is known as “Little Haiti.” In recent years, a thriving middle class has emerged and is gaining political influence.
Leonie Hermantin, a Haitian community leader in Miami, said Mr. Moïse took on many projects in the northwest of Haiti, where he is from, and enjoyed support there, particularly from the working class. He also received some support in South Florida, she said.
“To some he was a corrupt leader, but to others he was a reformer. He was a man who was trying to change the power dynamics, particularly when it came to money and who had control over electricity contracts,” Ms. Hermantin said.
In Canada, many members of the diaspora had expressed concern in recent months at the deteriorating situation in Haiti and what they saw as Mr. Moïse’s authoritarian leadership.
Frantz Benjamin, a Haitian-Canadian member of the provincial Parliament for the Quebec Liberal Party, said the assassination underlined the utter lack of public safety in Haiti. He said he feared the assassination would undermine economic and political development and deter foreign investment in a country dependent on foreign aid.
“Whether you supported him or not, no one is a winner from this, there is no joy,” he said. “If you can kill a president, you can kill anyone.”
Reporting was contributed by Pierre-Antoine Louis and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura from New York, Vjosa Isai from Toronto, Frances Robles from Miami and Markendy Simon from Montreal.