The latest upheaval in Haiti, the assassination of its embattled president, Jovenel Moïse, on July 7, brings the Caribbean nation one step closer to failed-state status, said Jean Denis Saint-Félix, S.J. “What happened [on July 7] is just an example of this kind of failed state. We don’t have control of anything.”
Transportation in the nation’s capital has come to a standstill, he said, and most residents are simply staying in their homes. “We are still shocked by what happened, and people do not understand what is going on.”
He said there is no apparent police presence on the streets and the small Haitian military “barely exists; it’s not an effective force.” Father Saint-Félix, the Jesuit superior in Haiti, described conditions in Haiti this week from the Jesuit residence in Port-au-Prince.
Father Saint-Félix: “It is not a secret for anyone that there were sectors that felt that the president was going after them.”
“Everyone is in a waiting mode,” waiting to find out what happened and why, and “what will happen,” Father Saint-Félix said. He has asked all the Jesuits in Haiti and the lay people who work with them to stay off the streets and suspend all activities.
Haitian government officials did not address a motive for the slaying, saying only that the attack, condemned by Haiti’s main opposition parties and the international community, was carried out by “a highly trained and heavily armed group.”
Seventeen suspects have been detained so far, including two men with dual U.S.-Haitian citizenship. Léon Charles, chief of Haiti’s National Police, said on July 8 that 15 of the detainees were from Colombia. The Colombian government acknowledged that at least six of the men are former members of its army.
The police chief said eight more suspects were being sought and three others had been killed by police. Earlier accounts reported that seven assailants had been killed.
Prime Minister Claude Joseph assumed leadership of Haiti with the backing of police and the military and on July 8 asked people to reopen businesses and go back to work as he ordered the reopening of the international airport. On July 7, he decreed a two-week state of siege following President Moïse’s killing, which stunned a nation grappling with some of the Western Hemisphere’s highest poverty, violence and political instability.
An ‘explosive situation’
Even before the assassination, with rising political tension accompanied by new heights in violent crime, the situation in Haiti has been “explosive for some months,” Father Saint-Félix said. Mr. Moïse had made many enemies among Haiti’s political and economic elite.
“Everyone is in a waiting mode,” waiting to find out what happened and why, and “what will happen,” Father Saint-Félix said. He asked the Jesuits in Haiti and the lay people who work with them to stay off the streets.
But Father Saint-Félix said it is unlikely that opposition factions would have pursued such a course to dislodge a president who had been governing in defiance of their demands to step down. Speculation in Port-au-Prince focused on actors in the private sector because “the president has been fighting some big interests in the country.”
“It is not a secret for anyone that there were sectors that felt that the president was going after them,” Father Saint-Félix said. “That was a very open fight between the president and some sectors in the economic life of the country.
“And that is part of the crisis we are in because anything is possible in this country.”
“My fear is, ‘Who is in charge right now?’ Nobody, nobody is in charge of the situation. The prime minister says everything is under control, but we know that is false because nothing has been under control for the past three years.”
He explained that “the whole country has been ridden by armed groups.” They are the people truly in charge of the cities and the highways connecting communities across Haiti, and their acts of kidnapping, robbery, extortion and worse have terrorized both rich and poor across Haiti, he said. Some of the criminal gangs, Father Saint-Félix said, appear to have links to the government; others to actors in the private sector and opposition factions.
It is a recipe for disorder and dysfunction the likes of which he has never seen before in a country that has endured multiple natural and human-made disasters and periods of profound political and economic instability.
Armed groups are the people truly in charge of the cities and the highways, and their acts of kidnapping, robbery, extortion and worse have terrorized both rich and poor across Haiti.
Father Saint-Félix’s somber assessment was shared by Miami’s Archbishop Thomas Wenski in a brief statement to America: “With the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse by hired foreign mercenaries, Haiti could easily become the Somalia of the Caribbean.
“That four of the six assassins have themselves been killed by police further raises suspicions,” he said on July 8 before other arrests had been made. “A Haitian proverb says, ‘voye woch kache men’ which translates, ‘the rock thrower hides his hand.’
“If chaos is to be avoided and Haitians have a chance at a future of hope, those hidden hands need to be exposed and brought to justice.”
According to Haiti’s constitution, Mr. Moïse should be replaced by the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court, but the chief justice died recently from Covid-19, leaving open the question of who might rightfully succeed to the office.
Mr. Joseph, meanwhile, was supposed to have been replaced by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who had been named prime minister by Mr. Moïse a day before the assassination. Mr. Henry told the AP in a brief interview that he is the prime minister, calling it an exceptional and confusing situation. A fight over political legitimacy could add to the current confusion, and U.S. officials for now appear to be backing Mr. Joseph.
A looming threat from Covid-19
Haiti has been staggered in recent years by a series of misfortunes. Decades of political instability followed the deposing of the Duvalier regime in 1986. More uncertainty was engendered by a military coup that removed a former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from power in 1991.
The government, distracted by its own self-preservation in recent months, has done little to respond to the threat and there is no vaccination plan to fend off Covid-19.
Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010 from which it still struggles to recover. “You can still see the traces of the earthquake in the cities,” Father Saint-Félix said. “You can see traces of it in the people too.”
A cholera epidemic that followed the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 added to the suffering. Now inflation and gang violence have spiraled as food and fuel grow scarcer in a country where 60 percent of the people earn less than $2 a day.
Father Saint-Félix fears that Covid-19 will contribute to the misery. The illness has been circulating in Haiti, but “so far we have avoided the worst.”
Mary Beth Powers, the executive director of the Catholic Medical Mission Board, worries that the new disorder will hamper efforts to contain Covid-19. “It is heartbreaking that a country that has been facing so much internal political strife and surges in coronavirus infections,” she said in an email to America, “is now roiling from the brutal assassination of its president.”
C.M.M.B. maintains a number of health care and social services outreach programs across Haiti, particularly for mothers and children, and administers the Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan Center for Health in Côtes-de-Fer, in Haiti’s southeastern coast.
“As we work alongside our government counterparts to plan for the distribution of the long-awaited and still not confirmed delivery of vaccines, authorities are doing their best to maintain the peace and investigate this heinous crime,” Ms. Powers said. But it is “beyond human imagination,” she said, “how to tend to the needs of the sick when C.M.M.B. staff and health workers are confined to their homes, required now to shelter in place while the critical needs within communities continue to grow.”
Father Saint-Félix warns that Haiti is broadly unprepared for a major Covid-19 outbreak. Officially 467 have died in Haiti because of Covid-19 and more than 19,000 cases have been confirmed but with little testing being conducted, those numbers are likely to represent a significant undercount. Haiti has yet to receive a single distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
“People are tired of insecurity and may welcome [an intervention], but at the same time we know that this kind of help is not always the best option because there is a price to pay.”
The government, distracted by its own self-preservation in recent months, has done little to respond to the threat and there is no vaccination plan to fend off Covid-19, Father Saint-Félix said.
A battle over the electoral legitimacy with the late president resulted in the nation’s legislative bodies shutting down before new elections could be held. With essentially no members in parliament, no mayors and now the murder of a president who had been attempting to rule by decree, Haitians confront a vast “institutional and constitutional void.”
Hanging on to hope
The Catholic Church “has lost a little bit of its prominence and also lost a bit of our prophetic voice” in recent years. But now, Father Saint-Félix said, it is about the only functioning institution in the country. Its social service, medical and educational efforts are the only civic entities that struggling Haitians can depend on.
He finds hope in the nation’s young people “who would like to make a difference,” who still believe in education and thirst for change despite all they have experienced.
“There are plenty of people who are committed to making a change in this country,” he said. “They are people who don’t want to live elsewhere, so whenever I see this kind of initiative that people are taking every day, when I see people on the streets trying to make a living for themselves and father families, I say there is still hope.”
The mere fact that this country still exists offers some hope, he added, “because everything conspires for this country to disappear.”
But he is adamant that under this yoke of disorder, Haitians cannot solve their problems alone. He expressed gratitude for many expressions of solidarity from members of the Haitian diaspora around the world and other concerned actors and implored a more vibrant response from the international community, which has so far stood by and watched a predictable disaster unfold in Haiti.
“Everyone could see this coming,” he said. “The international community could see that this was rotten, and yet nothing was done to prevent it.” Now “we need friends; we need allies; we need a big push from the international community.”
Though he was guarded about a possible U.S. intervention—which historically have proved perilous for Haiti—he believes many Haitians would welcome back U.N. peacekeepers, despite their experience with U.N. forces after the 2010 earthquake. “People are tired of insecurity and may welcome [an intervention], but at the same time we know that this kind of help is not always the best option because there is a price to pay.”
“It is a dilemma,” he acknowledged, but a necessary risk since “there are no forces to counter the gangs, the police are too weak and the military is too small.”
With unemployment and hunger pressing upon them, Haiti’s poorest are seeking escape to the Dominican Republic and the United States. Meanwhile, its professional and merchant classes are seeking their own ways out, “primarily because of the insecurity. They cannot imagine their future in Haiti.”
That is a kind of brain and expertise drain “which creates poverty in the long run.”
“We definitely want to stay; we definitely want to accompany our people to a better tomorrow. That’s our mission and we are not going to give that up.”
With reporting from The Associated Press
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly used the term “provincial” in the headline to describe Father Saint-Félix, who is the Jesuit superior in Haiti.
Read more from America: