When I learned that Jovenel Moïse, president of Haiti, had been assassinated—after riots and demands that he resign—something inside me crumpled. Again?
I was in Haiti during its 2010 presidential elections, along with the professional photographer who shot the image above, Patti Gabriel. We were the outsiders on a volunteer medical trip, neither of us trained to do more than stick on a Band-Aid. When we saw that the polling place was outdoors, we slipped into the fray, buffeted by angry, enthusiastic, way more involved voters than any we had seen in the States. (This was 2010.)
The passionate interest startled me. Haitians had barely finished extricating bodies from the rubble of the earthquake when cholera hit, killing so many that there was no time to mark the graves. Now cholera pits had been dug, lined in lime and soaked in bleach, and medical waste was being tossed into them, as would bodies if the count grew too high. I expected people to be preoccupied with their suffering.
But Haiti is so used to suffering.
A singer, Michel Joseph Martelly, aka “Sweet Micky,” was running for president that year, as was law professor and former first lady Mirlande Manigat. But the interpreters at Hôpital Sacré Coeur in Milot, where we were staying, were convinced the election was already fixed for President René Préval’s handpicked successor, Jude Célestin. Politicians had been canvasing Milot trying to buy votes.
Preliminary election results had Manigat in first place, Célestin in second, Martelly in third. Riots broke out, there were reports of election fraud, and the headquarters for Preval’s and Célestin’s political party was set on fire. Finally, the party was forced to drop Célestin. In the runoff election, voters chose Martelly (who had the backing of both Bill and Hillary Clinton).
When he took office the following spring, it was the first time in Haitian history that a president had peacefully transferred power to a member of the opposition party. Soon, though, there were claims that Martelly was corrupt and calls for his resignation. True or not, it was an old pattern: The first democratically elected president, a priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide, took office in 1990 and was deposed less than a year later in a coup.
Martelly lasted five years and managed to stabilize the country enough for the next election—which was again contested and redone. Both times, Jovenel Moïse, an entrepreneur and politician, won by large margins. Two years after he took office, cries for his resignation grew loud enough to send the country back into chaos. Mid-term elections were never held. Parliament was dissolved. By 2021, only eleven elected officials were left to represent eleven million Haitians.
Early this February, its government arrested twenty-three people—among them a Supreme Court judge and a general inspector with the police—claiming they had plotted to overthrow and kill Moïse. He was refusing to leave office, insisting that his term began late and would not expire until 2022—by which time he would have a new Constitution drafted.
There is a consensus that the Constitution needs to be rewritten, but many worry that Moïse grew power-mad, and the changes his small commission came up with—seeking no broad input and releasing the document only in French, the language of Haiti’s elite—were self-serving. One amendment, for example, lifts the term limit so a president can serve a second term. Another grants the president immunity for any actions taken in office.
Our trip’s leader was Dr. Bill Guyol, who has made dozens of trips to Haiti, risking contagion and exhausting himself in clinics whose lines never end. (His ancestors were colonial administrators in Haiti, he told me wryly, and all but one was killed in the revolution. That was not a conscious motive—but he is certainly making reparations.) A few weeks before the assassination, Bill returned from yet another trip with Haiti Health Promise. He described the unrest that was building, adding that the long road from Cap Haitien to Milot was now dangerous.
I thought back to our trip, me jouncing along in the open back of a pickup truck, bottle rockets smashing on the road in protest of that coming election. At the time, voudun practitioners were being stabbed because people blamed them for “le cholera.” The road felt dangerous then; what must it be now, to alarm unflappable Bill Guyol?
People were staying inside, I learned, because there was again an epidemic—not of cholera, but of kidnappings for ransom. Schoolkids held fundraisers—not for dances, but to buy their friends back. Armed gangs controlled many streets, and many Haitians accused the government of supporting the gangs in an effort to stay in power.
Haiti’s judges ruled that Moïse’s term had expired. The United States took his side, agreeing that his term should not end until 2022. We did, however, impose sanctions on his close allies for giving weapons and protection to the gangs.
Tension ratcheted even higher. As usual, the rest of the world ignored Haiti’s foment—until the July 7 assassination, when the media swooped down. The interim prime minister told reporters that the attackers spoke Spanish and English, not French and Kreyol. The Haitian embassy in Canada called the attackers “mercenaries,” and the Haitian ambassador to the United States described them as “well-trained professional killers, commandos.” In an audio recording that could not be confirmed, at least one man was speaking English with an accent from the American South. “DEA operation,” he called out as a ruse. “Everybody stand down.”
But the emphasis on paid gunmen could not erase the fact that much of Haiti wanted Moïse gone. Far more, in fact, than had elected him. In 2016, only eighteen percent of those eligible to vote did so.
The U.S. turnout for the same year was much higher, fifty-six percent of those eligible. But when I look further, I find a Pew Research study that shows thirty-one countries—most of the developed world—with higher voter turnout than ours.
Granted, the U.S. stats look much better when you look at the percentage of registered voters, not just eligible voters, who turned out in 2016. Then the percentage rises to eighty-nine. But that wide discrepancy—far wider than in any other country included in the study, with the single, odd exception of Luxembourg—reveals the flaw in our “participatory democracy”: the vast number of citizens who are not even registered to vote.
I was probably wrong back in 2010, I think now. What looked like passionate enthusiasm on the part of all Haitian voters could have been just a cluster of activists who still thought their vision for Haiti was possible.
It is easy for the passion of a vocal minority to turn a country on its head.
As a democracy, Haiti could have been a heroic success story. Brutalized and enslaved, its people rose up and managed to defeat Napoleon’s army for freedom’s sake. But then came decades of would-be monarchs and presidents-for-life. And then came the Duvalier family’s dictatorship, the multinational companies sucking away resources, the thoughtless aid that only corrupted the officials who received it, the discouragement of people who cannot feel safe, earn a living wage, or trust their government.
Now, because Haiti’s parliament has not been recalled, the chief justice of its Supreme Court was killed by COVID, and the order of succession is unclear, Haiti is under martial law.
Ten years ago, the chaos of crisis upon crisis felt like a morality play about the damage done by colonialism. Now it also strikes me as a warning. After the assassination, pundits wrote that “democracy has never fully taken root” in Haiti. But even if it had, democracy is frighteningly easy to unravel.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.