Haiti President Jovenel Moise was assassinated and his wife wounded early Wednesday in an attack at their home, the interim prime minister announced, an act that risks further destabilizing the Caribbean nation beset by gang violence and political volatility.
Claude Joseph said he was now in charge of the country and urged the public to remain calm, while insisting the police and army would ensure the population’s safety.
“The president was assassinated at his home by foreigners who spoke English and Spanish,” Joseph said of the assault that took place around 1:00 am (0500 GMT) and left the president’s wife hospitalized.
Moise had ruled Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, by decree, after legislative elections due in 2018 were delayed in the wake of disputes, including on when his own term ends.
In addition to the political crisis, kidnappings for ransom have surged in recent months, reflecting the growing influence of armed gangs in the Caribbean nation.
Haiti also faces chronic poverty and recurrent natural disasters.
The president faced steep opposition from swathes of the population that deemed his mandate illegitimate, and he churned through a series of seven prime ministers in four years. Most recently, Joseph was supposed to be replaced this week after only three months in the post.
As well as presidential, legislative and local elections, Haiti was due to have a constitutional referendum in September after it was twice postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The United States condemned the killing as “horrific” and said it was ready to assist in any investigation.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “we will be helpful in any way to the people of Haiti, to the government of Haiti,” adding that President Joe Biden would be briefed on the incident shortly.
– Multiple crises –
Moise, a former entrepreneur who set up a string of businesses in the north of the country, where he hails from, burst on to the political stage in 2017 with a message of re-building the impoverished nation.
He campaigned on populist pledges, as all candidates in Haiti do, but he kept up the rhetoric even after he was elected in February 2017.
Moise maintained that his term of office ran until February 7, 2022, but others claimed it ended on February 7, 2021.
The disagreement stems from the fact that Moise was elected in a vote that was cancelled for fraud, and then re-elected a year later.
Without a parliament, the country fell further into crisis in 2020, and led to Moise is governing by decree, fuelling growing mistrust of him.
The constitution currently in force was written in 1987 after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship and declares that “any popular consultation aimed at modifying the Constitution by referendum is formally prohibited.”
Moise had been accused of inaction in the face of the multiple crises.
The United Nations Security Council, the United States and Europe had called for free and transparent legislative and presidential elections to be held by the end of this year.
The killing comes days after Moise appointed Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who studied in France, as Haiti’s new prime minister.
Henry, 71, has been part of Haiti’s coronavirus response and previously held posts in the government in 2015 and 2016 as interior minister then social affairs and labor minister.
Moise had tasked Henry with “forming a broad-based government” to “solve the glaring problem of insecurity” and to work toward “the holding of general elections and the referendum.”