The tragic fate of Jovenel Moïse, ‘Banana Man’ turned embattled Haitian leader
Haitian President Jovenel Moïse had been a successful entrepreneur before throwing himself into Haiti’s tumultuous political scene, but his term as president of the impoverished Caribbean nation unleashed a spiral of instability and violence that now includes his own assassination.
Moïse was virtually unknown to the general public before he became president in 2017, pledging to create jobs and fight corruption.
Instead, Haiti saw a steady uptick in kidnappings, gang violence and a political standoff on the duration of Moïse's term in office – which ended abruptly early Wednesday when he was murdered by a group of gunmen.
Moïse, 53, was assassinated at his private home during “a highly coordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group”, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said. Moïse's wife, Martine, was injured in the attack and remains hospitalised.
“Haiti has lost a true statesman,” Joseph said. “We will ensure that those responsible for this heinous act are swiftly brought to justice.”
A businessman from northern Haiti, Moïse had no political experience before being hand-picked by former President Michel Martelly as the ruling Tet Kale party’s candidate in 2015 elections.
His focus on agriculture and his provincial home became key campaign themes in the following election. Backed by a communications team that was more advanced than those of his rivals, Moïse visited all 145 of Haiti’s communes.
Like the other candidates in the race, Moïse did not flesh out details of his platform. But after landing in office, his remarks focused on the revival of the country's deeply troubled economy through agriculture.
A soft-spoken man, Moïse seemed like an unlikely politician, especially when compared to the showy and bombastic Martelly, a musician and entertainer. While not poor, he was also far from elite. His father was a small-scale farmer and businessman. His mother helped sell their crops and worked as a seamstress.
“I come from the countryside; I’m not from Port-au-Prince,” he noted pointedly while on a visit to South Florida to meet the Haitian diaspora at the start of his presidential bid.
Campaigning under the nickname “Neg Bannan Nan” – “Banana Man” in Haitian Creole – he promoted achievements that included launching a banana-exporting joint venture with help from a $6 million loan approved by Martelly’s administration.
Moïse won the 2015 presidential vote, but the results were thrown out following allegations of fraud, leading to a period of political limbo, including the appointment of an interim president. Moïse later won the November 2016 elections, although voter turnout was only 21 percent.
He took office in February 2017, pledging to strengthen institutions, fight corruption and bring more investments and jobs to the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation.
“It’s really important to change the lifestyle of these people,” he said of the many impoverished Haitians in rural areas.
He spoke often about wanting to improve the lot of Haiti’s many small and subsistence farmers by increasing their access to water for irrigation and other infrastructure.
“We have a lot of empty land, rivers that go straight to the sea. We have sun, and the people,” he said at one point. “If you put these four items together — the land, the rivers, the people and the sun — you will have a rich country. This is why I am in politics.”
But his administration was soon plagued by massive protests, and critics accused him of growing increasingly authoritarian.
At the time of his assassination, Moïse had been ruling by decree for more than a year after parliament was dissolved and lawmakers failed to organise legislative elections. He was widely criticised for approving decrees, including one that limited the powers of a court that audits government contracts and another that created an intelligence agency that answers only to the president.
In February, Haitian authorities said they had foiled an attempt to murder Moïse and overthrow the government, as the dispute raged over when his term was to end.
Leon Charles, the director of Haiti’s national police force, said at the time that officers had seized documents, cash and several weapons, including assault rifles, an Uzi submachine gun, pistols and machetes.
Political and economic instability had deepened in recent months, with widespread protests paralyzing the country of more than 11 million people. Gangs in the capital of Port-au-Prince grew more powerful, with more than 14,700 people driven from their homes last month alone as gangs ransacked and set fire to homes.
In addition, 15 people were killed during a June 29 shooting rampage in the capital, including a journalist and well-known political activist. Officials blamed a group of rogue police officers but have not provided any evidence.
Moïse is survived by his wife and three children.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)
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