In March, Haitians in Port-au-Prince protested against the constitutional referendum project initiated by President Jovenel Moïse.
Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP via Getty Images
"Everything that can go wrong seems to go wrong," says Robert Futton, an expert on Haitian politics at the University of Virginia and also a native of Haiti.
Haiti is the western part of the island of Hispaniola, located in the Caribbean Sea just 600 miles southeast of Florida. It threw off French rule in a successful rebellion, becoming the first black-led republic in 1804.
The United States has a long history of intervention in this country: it occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. In the last three decades, the U.S. has twice sent in the Marines to restore order: under President Bill Clinton and again under President George W. Bush.
Even before Moïse's assassination early Wednesday, Haiti was in crisis: political instability, the lingering effects of a devastating earthquake and cholera epidemic, foreign political interference and gang violence took their toll.
"You had a situation where institutions were not working, the economy was stagnant...politics has been extremely unstable. The population has challenged the current government. There have been massive allegations of corruption," Futton said. "You name everything about instability and institutional decline - all of that is there right now in Haiti."
The country is facing a constitutional crisis
François Pierre-Louis, an expert on Haitian politics at Queens College of the City University of New York, says he was not too surprised by the news of Moïse's assassination.
Moïse wrested power from competing political parties, businessmen and prominent families. "He had many enemies. [The attack] could have come from anywhere. He alienated too many people," Pierre-Louis, a native of Haiti, told NPR.
Moïse took office in 2017 after a protracted and contentious election. He had never held political office; he was a businessman who grew rich exporting fruit.
The opposition said his term was due to end in February, but Moise said that since it took him a year to formally take office, his term should run until 2022.
The 53-year-old president had been ruling by decree for more than a year when he was assassinated after dissolving parliament and failing to hold legislative elections.
On July 1, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing its "deep concern at the deteriorating political, security and humanitarian conditions in Haiti."
Image credit to Alyson Hurt/NPR
Moïse has also proposed a referendum to change Haiti's constitution.
Among other things, the UN explained that Moïse's desired changes to the constitution would allow the president to run for two consecutive five-year terms without the break currently provided for. In addition, the Haitian Senate is effectively abolished and the prime minister is replaced by a vice president reporting to the president. He called for free and fair elections in 2021, when they are scheduled.
But not everyone believes that is possible now. "Many civil society organizations in Haiti - and I think rightly so - argue that it is impossible to hold elections in the current environment because the country is so unstable and insecure," says Futton.
A street vendor was selling plastic bags last month in Port-au-Prince.
Image credit to Joseph Odelyn/AP
Haiti still struggling to recover from devastating earthquake
Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010, whose main tremor shook the ground for nearly 30 seconds. It is estimated that at least 220,000 people died and nearly 1.5 million people were displaced. "Around 300,000 people were injured and large parts of the country were buried under tons of shattered metal and concrete," the report said.
The earthquake devastated Haiti's infrastructure. And that infrastructure has yet to be truly rebuilt.
"People are still traumatized by the earthquake. They lost family members," says Pierre-Louis. "They can't rebuild a house because they have no income. And there are generations of people who are gone."
A devastating cholera outbreak
The earthquake was followed by another deadly force: cholera.
As NPR's Jason Beaubien reported in 2016, "U.N. peacekeepers inadvertently introduced cholera to Haiti in 2010 just after the devastating earthquake. The outbreak, which continues to this day, has sickened some 800,000 people and killed nearly 9,000. Prior to 2010, cholera had not been recorded in Haiti for decades."
In 2016, the UN apologized for its role in the cholera outbreak. However, as Pierre-Louis points out, "people have not been compensated for the loss of family members who were breadwinners."
Gangs run amok
Gangs have become a veritable plague in the capital, Port-au-Prince. A recent UN report states that in the first 10 days of June alone, 5,000 people were displaced from their homes because of gang violence.
"Several people have been killed or injured in the violence as rival gangs fight for control of densely populated areas such as Martissant, Cité Soleil and Bel Air. Hundreds of homes and small businesses have also been burned," the UN said. Several police stations were also attacked by armed assailants.
Some areas of Port-au-Prince are not even accessible because they are controlled by gangs, Futton says, reflecting the government's inability to govern. "And these areas are very close to the places of power, the presidential palace, the Legislative Assembly," he says.
In February, protesters in Port-au-Prince demanded the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. The opposition believed his mandate had expired. Image credit to Dieu Nalio Cheri/AP
Haiti has yet to introduce vaccine doses due to rising incidence of COVID.
Haiti is the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean and one of the poorest in the world, according to the World Bank.
Nearly half of the population is in need of immediate food aid, according to the UN World Food Program.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit the country, further damaging the country's economy. According to the World Bank, more than 90% of Haiti's population is highly vulnerable to natural disasters.
Recently, the country has seen a resurgence of COVID-19. It is also one of the few countries where a dose of the vaccine has not yet been introduced, Reuters reported.
"It's an environment of insecurity," Futton said.
It is still unclear who is responsible for Moïse's murder. But Pierre-Louis believes one possible version of his murder is a struggle between the elite that came to power and Moïse's former elite.
"He was trying to get rid of several people in Haiti who have been known for a long time as businessmen in Haiti," he says. "That's what always happens in Haiti, when a person becomes president, he tries to accumulate wealth: using state resources, using other means to dispossess other people who already have wealth and power."
However, Futton claims that assassination is a new phenomenon in contemporary Haitian politics. Although the first ruler of independent Haiti was assassinated in 1806, such violence was not typical of the country's modern era.
"It was a very violent and shocking event," Futton says.