Outgoing Prime Minister of Haiti Claude Joseph confirmed the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in the early hours of Wednesday by suspected foreign mercenaries in an “odious, inhuman, and barbaric act.”
Moïse took over for predecessor Michel Martelly in the aftermath of the chaotic 2015 elections as a placeholder president. Moïse insisted that his term began in 2017, thus making him legitimate president through 2022, but faced opposition who claimed that his term had expired by this year and branded him a dictator. Opposition leaders attempted to install a parallel president, 72-year-old judge Joseph Mécène, in February, but Mécène has not received any international recognition and has not made any significant public pronouncements since allegedly becoming president.
In addition to pressure from opposition leaders to step down, Moïse faced mounting demands from Haitian business leaders to consider establishing relations with China. Haiti is one of the few remaining nations in the world to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty and maintain close ties to that country. Under the Communist Party’s “One China” policy, Beijing does not maintain any diplomatic relations with countries that recognize Taiwan. In an interview with Taiwan News published Wednesday, Haiti’s ambassador to Taiwan asserted that Moïse valued the bilateral relationship and had no intention of accepting lucrative Chinese loan offers to abandon Haiti’s relationship with Taiwan.
Joseph, the prime minister, was scheduled to soon leave his post after serving three months in office. Moïse announced the appointment of his seventh prime minister, Ariel Henry, on Monday. Joseph congratulated Henry and had not indicated any conflict existed between the two.
“Around one (1) o’clock in the morning, on the night of Tuesday July 6 to Wednesday July 7, 2021, a group of unidentified individuals, some of whom spoke in Spanish, attacked the private residence of the President of the Republic and thus mortally wounded the Head of State,” Joseph’s statement to the Haitian public read, according to the national outlet Haiti Libre. “Wounded by gunshot, the First Lady is receiving the care that her situation requires.”
Joseph referred to the killing as “odious, inhuman and barbaric” and urged the public to remain calm. The statement also claimed the situation was “under control.” Authorities shut down Port-au-Prince’s international airport to prevent suspects from fleeing and have prevented planes arriving there on flights that left before the assassination from landing.
In addition to First Lady Martine Moïse, one of the president’s children was present for the attack but reportedly uninjured. Moïse was 53 years old.
Joseph assumed the leadership of the country in his statement. Mécène has not made any statements at press time or attempted to assert his claim to the presidency in any way known to the public.
Moïse spent much of 2021 warning that “oligarchs” were attempting a “coup” to remove him from office. In February, in the aftermath of the opposition declaring Mécène president, Moïse granted an interview to the Spanish-language newspaper El País in which he stated that he felt his government threatened by “economic groups” who, in the past, had enjoyed significant influence in prior governments. He also insisted that he would not run for reelection in 2022 and that he was not a “dictator.”
“The coup d’etat is not just one specific act, but a sequence of actions. Until now, the governments were puppets of economic groups, but that doesn’t happen today and our decisions are very poorly received by those who feel powerful and untouchable,” Moïse told El País. “A small group of oligarchs is behind the coup and they want to take over the country.”
Haitian media outlets recently noted that the Mécène presidency declaration had all but faded out of the public eye, as Mécène himself had made no public statements or appearances, nor had he appeared to attempt to exercise presidential powers in any way.
“It has now been three months since judge Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis was appointed ‘President’ of the Transition,” a column critical of the opposition in the outlet Haïti Liberté noted in May. “Since that date, apart from a few relatives of his ‘Excellency,’ no one has met him at his home or in a building serving as his ‘Palace’ while awaiting his installation which, according to some officials endorsing his ‘presidency,’ is imminent.”
“’President’ Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis is nowhere to be found since his destiny changed on Feb. 7, 2021. It’s complete radio silence,” the column noted. “Some say that he is hiding in the Artibonite (where he is from) just to protect himself from the henchmen and bloodhounds of Jovenel’s ANI (National Intelligence Agency) … Others say he is suffering from a disease which prevents him from appearing before the people.”
While facing a challenge to his legitimacy at home, among Moïse’s most important tasks abroad was to maintain relations with Taiwan. Moïse personally visited the country in 2018, weeks after the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola, chose to cut ties with Taipei in exchange for lucrative Chinese economic deals.
“In the wake of the Dominican Republic’s severing of ties with Taiwan, some analysts now consider the national border between the two countries as a new front in a diplomatic campaign of influence being waged by China,” Taiwan News reported at the time.
A year later, Chinese officials told Asian media outlets that the Communist Party was interested in investing Haiti with “interest-free loans,” an offer Moïse did not accept.
“Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, Haiti has always been an unwavering and committed ally of Taiwan,” Haitian Ambassador to Taiwan Roudy Stanley Penn said in an interview with Taiwan News published after Moïse’s assassination on Wednesday. “President Moïse often emphasizes his interest in Taiwanese cooperation. All this is to say that cooperation is going well, and for my part, I will spare no effort to make it even more reassuring by working to strengthen economic and cultural ties that can help bring the two peoples closer together.”