Jovenel Moïse Obituary

Haitian president whose five-year rule was mired in allegations of corruption and brutality

Jovenel Moïse speaking in New York in 2018. During his term in office inflation spiralled upwards and food and fuel became scarcer for the already impoverished population of Haiti. Photograph: Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Sun 11 Jul 2021 07.47 EDT


The five-year rule of the Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, who has died aged 53 after being assassinated at his home, was dominated by allegations of corruption and brutality. At the time of his death there was a dispute about the handover of power, and Moïse, who last year had dissolved the country’s parliament, was essentially running Haiti by decree, much as Napoleon had done more than 200 years before.

In 2016, Moïse inherited a country still trying to recover from the 2010 devastating earthquake as well as Hurricane Matthew, which had hit just a month before. However, under his presidency, Haitians endured worsening living standards, including rampant unemployment, in a nation where more than half the population live below the poverty line. Inflation spiralled upwards and food and fuel became scarce.

Haiti dropped from No 78 in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) in 2010 to its current ranking of 104, out of 107 countries; with about 4 million Haitians – a third of the population – facing severe hunger.

The hardship experienced by so many Haitians was compounded a year into Moïse’s term by the emergence of a senate commission report into Petrocaribe, a deal for cheap Venezuelan petrol, which found evidence that billions of dollars had been embezzled by officials. The deal, signed before the 2010 earthquake, had been seen as a possible solution to Haiti’s desperate finances, with funds earmarked for social programmes and infrastructure development. In 2019 a further report on Petrocaribe linked two companies belonging to Moïse to the misappropriation of $2bn from the fund.

Predictably, Moïse denied any wrongdoing. In a move his critics saw as retaliation, he suspended the two-thirds of the senate that had accused him, as well as all 119 members of the chamber of deputies in 2020, saying their mandate had expired after he failed to hold legislative elections in 2019.

When Haitians protested, his retaliation was swift. Armed gangs were tasked with terrorising his critics in a series of attacks and killings including the La Saline massacre, which provoked even the Trump administration into issuing sanctions against three of Moïse’s henchmen.

The protesting poor saw Moïse as a corrupt, feckless puppet of the tiny community of elites who have long dominated Haiti’s economy and government. Moïse himself was an entrepreneur with many “sustainable development” businesses, including solar panels and a water plant, and a 10-hectare (25-acre) banana plantation in the Nord-Ouest, which earned him a reputation in Haiti’s agribusiness and political circles, including with his mentor and presidential predecessor, Michel Martelly.

These connections led Martelly to choose Moïse in 2015 as his successor and candidate for his Haitian Tèt Kale party. However the election that year was scrapped because of the fraud and violence that prevented almost 80% of Haitians from voting. The following year, Moïse won the postponed polls with just 600,000 votes.

Born in poverty in Trou-du-Nord, Jovenel was the son of Lucia Bruno, a seamstress and trader, and Étienne Moïse, a mechanic and grower. Haiti was then already 11 years into the brutal dictatorship of the US-backed François Duvalier, or Papa Doc, as he enjoyed being called, which began in 1957 and lasted longer than any other in Haiti’s history – of the 36 Haitian presidents who preceded Papa Doc following independence in 1804, 23 were either killed or overthrown.

In search of a better life, the Moïse family moved to the capital, Port-au-Prince, in 1974, three years after Papa Doc’s 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, succeeded his father as Haiti’s “life president”.

After attending Don Durélin national school as a child, Moïse studied at the Lycée Toussaint Louverture, and later at the Collège Canado-Haïtien. By the time he had entered Quisqueya University to study political science in 1986, a popular uprising had just ousted Baby Doc, allowing exiles including René Préval, Haiti’s only democratically elected president to win and complete two terms (1996-2001, 2006-2011), to return to Haiti.

In 1996, Moïse married his classmate Martine Joseph and moved to Port-de-Paix. From here he launched his first mechanic business, JOMAR Auto Parts, then, over the next 20 years, built up his businesses and banana plantation.

Préval handed over power peacefully to Martelly in 2011. Many people in and outside Haiti hoped that Moïse would leave in the same manner. But it was not to be. The opposition claimed that Moïse’s five-year term should have ended on 7 February 2021, the date that the Haitian constitution stipulates newly elected presidents be sworn in, and coincidentally the day in 1986 when Baby Doc was overthrown. His supporters rejected that argument, saying that although he won the re-run in 2016, he took power only in 2017, meaning his term would end on 7 February 2022.

Moïse chose to cling to power. As well as the suspension of parliament in 2020, Moïse also suspended every mayor throughout the country and limited the powers of the court that had accused him in the Petrocaribe scandal. At the time of his death, Haiti had only 11 elected officials, including himself.

The attack on Moïse at his home on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, by assailants described by the Haitian government as “foreign, trained killers”, happened barely 24 hours after Moïse had named a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to replace Claude Joseph, and prepare the country for presidential elections in the next two months. Following Moïse’s assassination, Joseph has refused to acknowledge Henry, and, with US and UN backing, has declared himself Haiti’s de facto leader.

Martine was shot alongside her husband and seriously injured. She survives him, as do their three children, Joverlein, Jomarlie and Jovenel Jr.

 Jovenel Moïse, politician and businessman, born 26 June 1968; died 7 July 2021

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