Unidentified gunmen assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and wounded his wife in their home early Wednesday, an attack President Joe Biden described as “very worrisome.”
Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, confirmed the killing, which throws the Caribbean country further into chaos amid gang violence, anti-government protests and a surge in coronavirus infections. Joseph said the police and military were in control of security in Haiti, which has a history of dictatorship and political upheaval.
As he boarded Air Force One on Wednesday morning, Biden said, “We need a lot more information, but it’s very worrisome about the state of Haiti.”
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, said he has asked the White House for assistance in the investigation, and he made a fresh plea for American help in strengthening Haiti’s police force.
“It seems that this horrible act was carried out by well-trained professional killers,” the ambassador said. He added that a video of the attack shows they were speaking Spanish.
Late Wednesday, authorities said they had shot dead four suspects and arrested two others. Three police officers held hostage by the suspected gunmen were also freed, said Léon Charles, chief of Haiti’s National Police.
The Haitian government has been seeking U.S. assistance for its police and military forces for six months, he said, to help the country fight criminal gangs.
“A stable Haiti is in the interest of the United States,” Edmond said. He said the assassination could threaten stability across the region.
The legitimacy of Moïse’s presidency had been in question for months. U.S. human rights advocates said his presidency should have ended in February. But the 53-year-old politician had refused to step down and, using an alternative reading of Haiti’s Constitution, Moïse argued he could stay in office for another year.
“President Moïse leaves behind a severe power vacuum very much of his own making after systematically stripping other branches of power and failing to schedule elections,” Beatrice Lindstrom, an instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
Lindstrom and other advocates had sharply criticized the Moïse government for a series of abuses, including the use of live ammunition to disperse protesters and the arrests of a Supreme Court justice, a police inspector general and a former presidential candidate.
The Biden administration will need to decide how to respond, and “listening to the Haitian people should come first,” Lindstrom wrote in her Twitter post.
In Congress, lawmakers in both parties called for a full investigation and said the perpetrators must be held accountable.
“The assassination of Haitian President Moïse was a horrific act and stands as a clarion call for swift and decisive action to bring political stability and peace to a nation in crisis,” Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., and other leaders of the House Haiti Caucus said in a statement. They called for “full transparency and an independent investigation into this criminal act.”
‘Hard blow’ to Haiti’s fragile democracy
While the streets of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, were quiet, some people ransacked businesses in one area. Authorities closed the international airport and declared a state of siege. The country appeared to be heading for fresh volatility ahead of planned general elections this year.
Joseph is likely to lead Haiti for now, though that could change in a nation where constitutional provisions have been erratically observed, said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born sociologist who teaches at Wesleyan University in the United States.
The best scenario would be for the acting prime minister and opposition parties to come together and hold elections, Dupuy said.
“But, in Haiti, nothing can be taken for granted. It depends how the current balance of forces in Haiti plays out,” Dupuy said. Haiti’s police force is already grappling with a spike in violence in Port-au-Prince that has displaced more than 14,700 people, he said.
Former President Michel Martelly, whom Moïse succeeded, said he was praying for first lady Martine Moïse and called the assassination “a hard blow for our country and for Haitian democracy, which is struggling to find its way.”
Joseph said Martine Moïse, 47, was shot and in a hospital. Edmond, the ambassador, said she was in critical but stable condition and efforts are underway to transfer her to Miami for further medical treatment. That could happen soon, he said.
In a statement, Joseph said some attackers spoke in Spanish but offered no further explanation. Later he said they spoke Spanish or English and were highly trained and heavily armed.
“The country’s security situation is under the control of the National Police of Haiti and the Armed Forces of Haiti,” Joseph said in the statement from his office. “Democracy and the republic will win.”
A resident who lives near the president’s home said she heard the attack.
“I thought there was an earthquake, there was so much shooting,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her life. “The president had problems with many people, but this is not how we expected him to die. This is something I wouldn’t wish on any Haitian.”
US response to killing
The White House issued a fuller statement midmorning Wednesday, calling the “horrific assassination” a shock: “We condemn this heinous act, and I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moïse’s recovery. The United States offers condolences to the people of Haiti, and we stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti.”
The U.S. Embassy in Haiti said that it was restricting U.S. staff to its compounds and that the embassy would be closed Wednesday because of ”an ongoing security situation.”
Biden will be briefed later Wednesday by his national security team, spokesperson Jen Psaki said during an interview on MSNBC.
“The message to the people of Haiti is this is a tragic tragedy,” she said during a previously scheduled interview on CNN. “And we stand ready and stand by them to provide any assistance that’s needed.”
President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic met his top military and police commanders to discuss plans to reinforce security along the border with Haiti.
Moïse was killed a day after he nominated Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as Haiti’s new prime minister. Joseph took over the job of interim prime minister in April after premier Joseph Jouthe resigned.
Haiti’s economic, political and social problems have deepened recently. Gang violence is spiking heavily in Port-au-Prince, inflation is spiraling and food and fuel are becoming scarce at times in a country where 60% of the population makes less than $2 a day. The troubles come as Haiti is still trying to recover from a devastating earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Opposition leaders accused Moïse of seeking to increase his power, including by approving a decree that limited the powers of a court that audits government contracts and another that created an intelligence agency that answers only to the president.
The president faced large protests in recent months that turned violent as opposition leaders and their supporters rejected his plans to hold a constitutional referendum with proposals that would strengthen the presidency.
Contributing: The Associated Press