Pétionville is a hilly, leafy suburb of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. Its great views, high fences, numerous CCTV cameras and solid mansions, befit an enclave of the well-heeled. It has always been well-protected against man, but in 2010 it had no defence against nature— the devastating earthquake.
Two years earlier, I’d met three residents of Pétionville who died in that earthquake. United Nations Special Representative, Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi whom I interviewed for BBC News, was killed at his office a short distance away. The parents of my translator/fixer, Mario, whose mother sold me a metal sculpture, were crushed to death in their multi-storey art-filled house.
The quake killed a quarter of a million people. Destruction was widespread. No one, no group was spared, but in one of Haiti’s many paradoxes, a flimsier house made survival more likely. The presidential palace was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished. President Jovenel Moïse spent his term living in his own house, in Pétionville. In the early morning hours of July 7, a band of mercenaries breached security around him and shot him dead in his bedroom.
Security is serious business in Haiti. Like the other vital institutions—the government, the courts and the parliament—the security arms of the state are deeply dysfunctional. Haiti is not a country in which you arrive at the main airport and hail a taxi to take you to your hotel. You arrange your armed guard and transport well before flying. Visitor and greeter establish beforehand what each other look like.
How the assassins bypassed the presidential guard with ease, needs investigating. Police did react swiftly, killing a number of the mercenaries and arresting others. Two were Haitian-American, and 26 were Colombian. Police also arrested a 63-year-old Haitian doctor, Christian Emmanuel Sanon, who they say is a key suspect in the assassination. Sanon, a resident of Florida, arrived in Haiti in June.
There are likely more twists in the tale. That’s Haiti. We don’t know what we don’t know. Everyone should wait until things shake out. What cannot wait, is ending the destabilising uncertainty about who should legitimately succeed Moïse.
The Sunday Express reported that a group of ambassadors from Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the US, the EU and representatives from the UN and the Organisation of American States—described as the Core Group —rejected the claims of interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph.
Moïse had appointed Interior Minister Ariel Henry as PM the day before he was killed, but Henry never got to be sworn in. The group urged Henry to form a government. That angered T&T Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, recently succeeded as chairman of Caricom, by Antigua and Barbuda’s Gaston Browne.
“This is not just about a snub for Joseph,” Rowley raged in a Facebook post. “The real snub and outright insult, is the absence of even a mention (far less recognition in any form) of Caricom. Haiti is a full member of Caricom, its largest member, and this lack of recognition and involvement combined is an insult to all of us, coming from those who designate themselves the ‘Core Group’”.
He decried “kowtowing and genuflecting to those who see us as unworthy and irrelevant”, and said that “we are either a respectable Caricom or we are fawning vassals deserving of such disrespect. We might be small but ought never to accept being insignificant and inconsequential.”
Yesterday, Joseph stepped down, paving the way for Henry. Dr Rowley’s language had appeared to give credence to the claims of Joseph, something on which Caricom hadn’t taken an official position. Joseph’s departure therefore wrong-footed the T&T PM. He’s correct that Caricom needed to be part of that huddle. But was it diplomatic disrespect by the Core Group, or a failure to engage by Caricom?
On July 10, at his weekly news briefing, Dr Rowley had made more cautious remarks on still-fresh developments in Haiti, and they were telling. Caricom, he’d said, “had tried to get into Haiti, to have greater involvement, hands-on involvement”.
Haiti is a part of Caricom, but semi-detached from it. Caricom has few, key institutional relationships and little leverage. Don’t get me wrong. Caricom’s decision to admit Haiti as a full member in 2002 was right. Haitians are us, right down to the way we ole talk. CLR James understood that the Black Jacobins were also a historical touchstone for the Anglophone Caribbean.
Haitians share Creole, albeit differently flavoured, with some Windward Islands. Haiti’s is Kreyòl; Dominica’s is Kwéyòl. But although it’s known to the political and business elite, most Haitians don’t have a feel for Caricom.
All this has made Caricom less sure-footed on Haiti, in contrast the clear and unequivocal positions of successive chairs Mia Mottley of Barbados and Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines, on the attempt by Guyana’s then-President David Granger to retain power despite losing the March 2020 elections. In helping to guide Guyana away from the ledge, Caricom played it well.
In its summit communique on July 6, hours before Moïse’s assassination, Caricom “(viewed) as unacceptable, the breakdown of law and order, the shrinking of good governance and the range of developments adversely affecting the well-being of the Haitian people.”
It made no mention of the president ruling by decree for a year-and-a-half, something Dr Rowley later attributed to a difference of opinion about the dates of his term. It was much more than that.
The author covered Haiti for BBC. His report Targeting Haiti’s Kidnap Trade, is available online.