Who shot the president?

Haiti’s grim murder mystery alludes to broader challenges

A sultry mood reminiscent of Graham Greene’s classic Haiti-set tropical noir The Comedians – where nothing and nobody is ever quite what it seems – has gripped the capital Port-au-Prince. The assassination in July last year of its former President Jovenel Moïse bears all the hallmarks of a whodunit whose final chapter could shake the country’s political foundations to their core.

A senior legal expert explained, “The assassination shocked the country. I think right now the most important lever of stability will be to ensure that the next elections progress safely and peacefully – to show that the institutions of the state continue to function.”

“Right now the most important lever of stability will be to ensure that the next elections progress safely and peacefully.”

Senior legal expert Haiti

This will be challenging given that the institutions of the state have not been working for some time. Haiti’s Senate for example has thirty seats. Those seats are currently occupied by ten people. That is not enough for a working group to scrutinise legislation.

In a way, it was perhaps unsurprising that such a turn of events could happen in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s most impoverished and politically unstable country. Successive governments since the fall of the voodoo-inclined Duvaliers in the 1970’s have run administrations marked by inefficiency, political infighting and eyewatering levels of corruption. Protestors take to the streets on a daily basis. Politicians rarely listen to them.

True, Mr Moïse was deeply unpopular. But then so are most Haitian presidents. There was little indication that his life was at risk. His demise adds yet another problem for a country that simply does not have the resources to scrutinise such egregious assaults on its (ostensibly) democratic foundations.

At its heart, the murder of the former president points to a critical failure of the rule of law. Chronic deficiencies in Haiti’s judicial system – see judges needing to be appointed, criminal legislation in legislative limbo – means administrations lack the resources and personnel to solve and prosecute crimes. This has created an environment of impunity and increasing political violence.

Against this background, Covid has compounded the investigation and underscored chronic deficiencies in the nation’s infrastructure. “The post-COVID economic recovery in Haiti is very difficult because you have a situation where all the stakeholders come up with plans, with strategies, with policies to undertake action. You have an ambitious plan, but when it is time to enforce it, and to enforce the law you are met with reality – political deadlock and funds siphoned off elsewhere,” added the senior legal expert.

“You have an ambitious plan, but when it is time to enforce it, and to enforce the law you are met with reality – political deadlock and funds siphoned off elsewhere.”

Senior legal expert Haiti

The Government is talking about a post-COVID recovery plan but this will be difficult against a backdrop of kidnappings and violent demonstrations. At the end of this year, Haiti will contend with one of the largest budgetary deficits in the Americas. Haitians, stoic and entrepreneurial, speak of opportunities stemming from pandemic. A chance to develop a digital economy is one idea but will be difficult given the country’s virtually non-existent digital infrastructure.

The Caribbean nation’s precedent does not bode well for the future. A political expert said, “Yes, the administration wants to push for elections. But to unlock the vicious cycle of violence and corruption, we have to amend our constitution because nothing will happen without structural reform of the state.”

Last year, one of the few judges advocating for constitutional reform was murdered. With their lives so clearly at stake, few others will feel emboldened to speak their minds.

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