Nearly 24 hours after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti in the bedroom of his home, gunfire erupted in the capital, Port-au-Prince, late Wednesday as the security forces engaged in a chaotic shootout with a group they described as suspected assailants, killing four and taking two into custody.
With the country placed under a “state of siege” by interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, he said the authorities were continuing to hunt down the “mercenaries” who carried out the attack.
“This death will not go unpunished,” Mr. Joseph said in an address to the nation on Wednesday.
But the authorities did not identify those killed or in custody, and offered no evidence of their involvement in Mr. Moïse’s death.
The rapidly evolving crisis deepened the turmoil and violence that has gripped Haiti for months, threatening to tip one of the world’s most troubled nations further into lawlessness.
Haiti’s police chief, Leon Charles, said that the security forces were in control of the situation even as he acknowledged that other suspected members of the hit squad remained at large.
Even as questions swirled about who might have been behind such a brazen attack and how they eluded the president’s security detail to carry it out, the uncertain political landscape added to the deep unease that gripped the Caribbean nation of 11 million.
While Mr. Joseph — the nation’s sixth prime minister in the last four years — declared that he was now in charge, his hold on power is tenuous given that a new prime minister was scheduled to be sworn in this week.
An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the crisis was set for Thursday afternoon. In a statement, members unanimously called for “all parties to remain calm, exercise restraint” and avoid “any act that could contribute to further instability.”
President Biden called the attack “horrific” and pledged U.S. assistance.
With rumors rife, some details of the attack started to come into focus.
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, said at a news conference that the killing of the country’s president had been carried out “by well-trained professionals, killers, commandos.”
Carl Henry Destin, a Haitian judge, told the Nouvelliste newspaper that the assailants had posed as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — both U.S. and Haitian officials said that they were not associated with the D.E.A. — when they burst into the president’s private home on the outskirts of the capital around 1 a.m.
He said that a maid and another member of the household staff had been tied up by the attackers as they made their way to the president’s bedroom.
The president was shot at least 12 times, he said.
“The offices and the president’s bedroom were ransacked,” Mr. Destin said. “We found him lying on his back, blue pants, white shirt stained with blood, mouth open, left eye blown out.”
He said Mr. Moise appeared to have been shot with both large-caliber guns and smaller 9-millimeter weapons.
The president’s wife, Martine Moïse, was injured in the assault and was rushed by air ambulance to the Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, where Mr. Joseph said she was “out of danger” and in stable condition.
Mr. Destin said that the couple’s daughter, Jomarlie, was also at home during the attack but had hid in a bedroom and escaped unharmed.
An already turbulent political landscape in Haiti threatened to descend into further chaos on Thursday as a power struggle between two competing prime ministers stoked tensions after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
The country’s interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, has said he is in charge and declared a “state of siege” for 15 days, essentially putting the country under martial law. But even constitutional experts are unsure whether he has the legal authority to impose it and whether he can stay in power.
Mr. Joseph was supposed to be replaced this week by Ariel Henry, who had been appointed prime minister by Mr. Moïse in recent days. But hours after the killing, Mr. Joseph assumed leadership of Haiti, taking command of the police and army in what he said was an effort to ensure order and stability.
Mr. Henry, in an interview with the Nouvelliste newspaper, said that Mr. Joseph was “no longer prime minister” and instead claimed his right to run the government.
“I am a prime minister with a decree that was passed in my favor,” Mr. Henry said, adding that he had been in the process of forming his government, of which Mr. Joseph was expected to be a member.
Mr. Henry said that he “did not want to add fuel to the fire,” but he criticized Mr. Joseph’s decision to impose a state of siege and called for a dialogue that could ensure a smooth political transition.
Lilas Desquiron, a Haitian writer who was culture minister from 2001 to 2004, said the situation was deeply confused since Mr. Moise had “left behind a prime minister that he had dismissed and another that he had not yet installed.”
Today’s Haiti is a parliamentary democracy without a functioning Parliament. Before his death, Mr. Moïse had been ruling by decree, and the president’s office is traditionally vested with most of the executive powers. It also appoints the prime minister. Long-planned elections were scheduled for later this year, but it was unclear on Thursday when or whether they will take place.
Haiti has a long history of political instability. The country has been rocked by a series of coups in the 20th and 21st centuries, often backed by Western powers, and has been marked by frequent leadership crises that have driven Haitians into the streets in protest.
It is unclear whether the political implications of this week’s assassination will follow a similar pattern.
Ms. Desquiron said that “no one understands” what is happening at the political level and that most Haitian political and intellectual actors were currently in a “wait-and-see and powerless position.”
A few hours after the assassination, Mr. Joseph called for calm and told the Haitian public that the situation was under control. He also declared a 15-day period of national mourning, starting on Thursday.
“During these 15 days of national mourning, the national flag will be flown at half-mast, nightclubs and other similar establishments will remain closed, and radio and television stations are invited to program circumstantial programs and music,” read the order, which was published in the official government journal, Le Moniteur.
The United Nations once deployed thousands of peacekeeping troops and police officers in Haiti as part of a coordinated international effort to rescue the country from its chronic bouts of political violence and instability. But the cholera epidemic that followed the 2010 earthquake — spread by infected peacekeepers — indelibly tainted the global organization in the eyes of many Haitians.
Even the U.N. secretary-general who presided during that period, Ban Ki-moon, admitted in a memoir published last month that the cholera disaster “forever destroyed the United Nations’ reputation in Haiti.”
A peacekeeping force authorized by the Security Council in 2004, known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or by its French acronym Minustah, was empowered to send as many as 6,700 troops of all ranks and more than 1,600 civilian police officers to Haiti.
Ninety-six members of the peacekeeping mission were among those killed in the 2010 earthquake, which by some estimates left more than 300,000 people dead. The crisis led the Security Council to strengthen Minustah’s size to as many as 8,940 soldiers and 3,711 police officers.
But many Haitians came to regard the peacekeepers as an occupying force, and one that did not necessarily protect them. The force’s reputation was further impaired by reports that a Nepalese contingent may have introduced cholera to the country through poor sanitation — reports that were later confirmed by independent investigations.
Mr. Ban eventually acknowledged some responsibility, but the U.N. successfully rejected claims for compensation sought by aggrieved Haitians. A U.N. trust fund established under Mr. Ban to help Haiti cope with the cholera epidemic’s aftermath, which was supposed to total $400,000, has only a fraction of that sum.
Minustah’s mandate was terminated in 2017 with a transition to a much smaller mission, known as the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti or its French acronym, Binuh. But the mission, which is confined to the capital, Port-au-Prince, has struggled.
None of its aspirations — helping Haiti achieve good governance, the rule of law, a stable environment and promotion of human rights — have shown any significant progress.
Helen La Lime, a former American diplomat and Binuh’s chief, summarized the worsening conditions afflicting the country in a report last month to the Security Council:
“The deep-rooted political crisis which has gripped the country for the better part of the last four years shows no sign of abating,” she said. “A political agreement remains elusive, as the rhetoric used by some political leaders grows increasingly acrimonious.”
Stéphane Dujarric, a U.N. spokesman, said on Wednesday that Ms. La Lime was in “constant contact” with the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, and that she was calling “on the Haitian people to ensure calm.”
Mr. Dujarric said Binuh was in the process of accounting for its 1,200 staff members in Haiti, which includes about 200 from other countries, and he was advising them to “stay in place and in a safe place.”
Haiti’s morass has for decades put it near the top of a list of nations that have captured the world’s imagination for their levels of despair. But the failures have not occurred in a vacuum: They have been assisted by the international community, which has pumped $13 billion of aid into the country over the last decade.
Instead of the nation-building that the money was supposed to achieve, Haiti’s institutions have become further hollowed out.
Haiti is less a failed state than what an analyst called an “aid state” — eking out an existence by relying on billions of dollars from the international community. Foreign governments have been unwilling to turn off the spigots, afraid to let Haiti fail.
Yet the money has served as a complicating lifeline — leaving the government with few incentives to carry out the institutional reforms necessary to rebuild the country, as it bets that every time the situation worsens, international governments will open their coffers, analysts and Haitian activists say.
The aid has propped up the country and its leaders, providing vital services and supplies. It has also allowed corruption, violence and political paralysis to go unchecked.
Instead of helping create a system that works, Haitian civil society leaders contend, the United States has propped up strongmen and tied the fate of the nation to them.
“Since 2018, we have been asking for accountability,” Emmanuela Douyon, a Haitian policy expert who gave testimony to the U.S. Congress this year, said in an interview. “We need the international community to stop imposing what they think is correct and instead think about the long term and stability.”
Many Haitians in the diaspora are fearing the worst after the assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, an act of violence that many consider a potent symbol of the mayhem experienced in the Caribbean nation in recent months.
Rodney Saint-Éloi, a Haitian-Canadian poet and publisher in Montreal, said the assassination of Mr. Moïse was a blow to democracy in Haiti. “It turns all Haitians into assassins, because he was, like it or not, the president of all Haitians,” he said. “It is the failure of a society and of an elite who helped get us to this point.”
Mr. Moïse, killed in an attack early Wednesday on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, had presided over a country buffeted by instability, endemic corruption and gang violence. His refusal to cede power had angered Haitians the world over, and many in the diaspora had put off trips home for the past year as kidnappings and other acts of violence became more commonplace.
Because of its chronic instability, Haiti has a large diaspora, with some of the largest communities based in the United States, Canada, France and the Dominican Republic. About 1.2 million Haitians or people of Haitian origin live in the United States, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But the figure is thought to be higher because of a sizable number of immigrants who are in the country without documentation.
Frantz André, a leading Haitian rights advocate in Montreal, organized a protest in March in which dozens of Haitians demonstrated against what they called Mr. Moise’s political repression. He described Mr. Moïse as a deeply polarizing figure and said that other Haitians abroad were feeling mixed emotions about the president’s killing.
“I don’t think it would be wise to scream victory at his assassination, because we don’t know what will come after and the situation could be even more precarious,” Mr. André said. “Educated people saw him as a threat to democracy, and others have been protesting against him because they have nothing to eat.”
Mr. André added that a sizable minority had supported Mr. Moïse and saw him as a catalyst for change, because he had promoted the idea of giving Haitians outside the country the right to vote and was pushing to change the Constitution.
Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times
Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Haiti has suffered a series of devastating events in recent years, including a devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake in 2010, a powerful hurricane in 2016 and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. Political turmoil in recent months led to thousands taking to the street demanding the removal of President Jovenel Moïse, who was killed in the early hours of Wednesday.
Not long after Haiti’s president was shot to death by assassins who burst into his home early Wednesday, the country’s interim prime minister announced that he had declared an “état de siège” — a state of siege.
To many people around the world watching with alarm as events unfold in Haiti, the term was unfamiliar, even baffling.
But things grew a little clearer when the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, published details of the order in the official government journal, Le Moniteur.
Haiti is now basically under martial law. For 15 days, the police and members of the security forces can enter homes, control traffic and take special security measures and “all general measures that permit the arrest of the assassins” of President Jovenel Moïse. It also forbids meetings meant to excite or prepare for disorder.
There is one wrinkle. Or two, really.
Only Parliament has the power to declare a state of siege, said Georges Michel, a Haitian historian and constitutional expert. But Haiti at this moment has no functional Parliament. The terms of the entire lower house expired more than a year ago, and only 10 of Haiti’s 30 Senate seats are currently filled.
“Legally, he can’t do this,” Mr. Michel said. “We are in a state of necessity.”
There are actually a few other wrinkles.
Mr. Joseph’s term as interim prime minister is about to end and, in fact, President Moïse had already appointed a replacement, his sixth since taking office.
“We are in total confusion,” said Jacky Lumarque, rector of Quisqueya Universty, a large private university in Port-au-Prince. “We have two prime ministers. We can’t say which is more legitimate than the other.”
It gets worse.
Haiti also appears to have two Constitutions, and the dueling documents say different things about what to do if a president dies in office.
The 1987 version — published in both national languages, Creole and French — deems that if the presidency is vacant for any reason, the country’s most senior judge should step in.
In 2012, however, the Constitution was amended, and the new one directed that the president should be replaced by a council of ministers, under the guidance of the prime minister. Except if, as was Mr. Moïse’s situation, the president was in the fourth year of office. In that case, Parliament would vote for a provisional president. If, of course, there were a Parliament.
Unfortunately, that Constitution was amended in French, but not in Creole. So as it stands, the country has two Constitutions.
“Things are unclear,” said Mr. Michel, who helped write the 1987 Constitution. “It’s a very grave situation.”
Mr. Lumarque lamented the state of his country.
“This is the first time where we’ve seen that the state is so weak,” he said. “There is no Parliament. A dysfunctional Senate. The head of the Supreme Court just died. Jovenel Moïse was the last legitimate power in the country’s governance.”
Haiti has been thwarted by outside interests from its very foundation as a country.
For decades, European powers, and later the United States, refused to recognize it as an independent republic.
The Caribbean nation became the world’s first Black-led republic when it declared its independence from France on New Year’s Day 1804. That day, Saint-Domingue, once France’s richest colony, known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” became Haiti.
It was a land long coveted for its riches of sugar, coffee and cotton, brought to market by enslaved people. Its declaration of independence meant that, for the first time, a brutally enslaved people had wrenched their freedom from colonial masters. But it came only after decades of bloody war.
In 1825, more than two decades after independence, the king of France, Charles X, sent warships to the capital, Port-au-Prince, and forced Haiti to compensate former French colonists for their lost property.
Haiti, unable to pay the hefty sum, was forced into a debt that it had to shoulder for nearly a century. Throughout the 19th century, a period marked by political and economic instability, the country invested little in its infrastructure or education.
In 1915, U.S. troops invaded after a mob killed the Haitian president.
The United States later justified its occupation as an attempt to restore order and prevent what it said was a looming invasion by French or German forces. But U.S. troops reintroduced forced labor on road-construction projects and were later accused of extrajudicial killings.
The widely unpopular occupation ended in 1934, but U.S. control over Haiti’s finances lasted until 1947.
After a series of midcentury coups, the Duvalier family, father-and-son dictators, reigned over Haiti with brute force until the 1980s. Their regime plunged Haiti deeper into debt, and introduced the so-called Tontons Macoutes, an infamous secret police force that terrorized the country.
In the early 1990s, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, was elected president. He was then ousted twice from power over the next 15 years.
Mr. Aristide preached liberation theology, and threatened the establishment by promising economic reforms. After a first coup, he was restored to power. But he left the presidency for good after a second coup in 2004, which was supported by the United States and France. He was exiled to the Central African Republic and, later, to South Africa.
Haiti, with a population of 11 million, is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
In 2010, it suffered a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of about 300,000 people. The country never really recovered, and it has remained mired in economic underdevelopment and insecurity. A cholera outbreak in 2016, linked to U.N. peacekeepers, killed at least 10,000 Haitians and sickened another 800,000.
Then early Wednesday, Jovenel Moïse, who became president in 2017, was assassinated at his residence.
It was a battle from the start for Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse.
Even before he took office, Mr. Moïse had to fight off accusations that, as a little-known banana exporter, he was nothing but the handpicked puppet of the previous president, Michel Martelly.
“Jovenel is his own man,” he told The New York Times in 2016, shortly after winning his election, trying to flick off the accusations. He promised to show results within six months.
After more than four years in office, he was gunned down in his home early Wednesday at the age of 53. He left a wife and three children.
In his last year in office, as protests grew and he declined to step down, he had to defend himself in other ways: “I am not a dictator,” he told The Times in February.
So who was he?
Mr. Moïse was a former chamber of commerce leader when he ran for president. Few people had heard of him as he emerged as a leading candidate. They dubbed him “the Banana Man.”
He won a majority of votes cast in a crowded field where few people bothered to cast ballots.
In interviews, Mr. Moïse often recounted how he grew up on a large sugar plantation and could relate to a vast majority of Haitians who live off the land. He was raised in a rural area in the north but attended school in the capital, Port-au-Prince. He said he learned how to succeed by watching his father’s profitable farming business.
“Since I was a child, I was always wondering why people were living in such conditions while enormous lands were empty,” he said. “I believe agriculture is the key to change for this country.”
He ran a large produce cooperative that employed 3,000 farmers.
During his time in office, Mr. Moïse was often accused of being a strongman who tried to consolidate power. He tried to push through a new Constitution that would have given his office more power and presidents the ability to seek more terms in office. Those plans were derailed by Covid-19 and rising insecurity.
In a dispute over when his term should end, he declined to step down and ruled by decree as the terms of nearly every elected official in the country expired and no elections were held. He was accused of working with gangs to remain in power.
Even his critics agree that Mr. Moïse used his power in office to try to end monopolies that offered lucrative contracts to the powerful elite. And that made him enemies.
“To some he was a corrupt leader, but to others he was a reformer,” said Leonie Hermantin, a Haitian community leader in Miami. “He was a man who was trying to change the power dynamics, particularly when it came to money and who had control over electricity contracts. The oligarchy was paid billions of dollars to provide electricity to a country that was still in the dark.”
Simon Desras, a former senator in Haiti, said Mr. Moïse seemed to know that his battle against the wealthy and powerful interests in the country would get him killed.
“I remember in his speech, he said he just targeted the rich people by putting an end to their contracts. He said that could be the reason for his death, because they are used to assassinating people and pushing people into exile,” Mr. Desras said in a telephone interview, as he drove through Haiti’s deserted streets. “It’s like he made a prophecy.”
The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti on Wednesday could complicate efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic in the Caribbean nation, which has yet to begin vaccinating its citizens, officials from the World Health Organization warned.
Carissa Etienne, the director of the Pan American Health Organization, which is part of the W.H.O., said her organization had made Haiti a priority in recent weeks as reported cases have surged.
“I am hopeful that the arrival of vaccines in the country can start to turn the tide of the pandemic and bring some relief to the Haitian people during these very difficult times,” Dr. Etienne said. “We continue to stand with them now and will redouble our efforts.”
Haiti did not experience the kind of surge early in the pandemic that many experts feared could devastate the country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. But the pandemic has grown worse in recent weeks, with a rise in reported cases that experts say is almost certainly an undercount, considering the country’s limited testing capacity.
Last month, Covid-19 claimed the life of René Sylvestre, the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court — a leading figure who might have helped to establish order in the wake of an assassination that has plunged the country into even deeper political uncertainty.
Dr. Etienne’s organization said in an email that while it was too soon to evaluate the impact of the assassination, “further deterioration of the security situation in Haiti could have a negative impact on the work that has been done to curtail Covid-19 infections,” as well as on vaccination plans.
The organization said that Haiti was also facing challenges from the start of hurricane season and the recent detection of the Alpha and Gamma virus variants on the island. Though “vaccines are expected to arrive shortly” in Haiti, the organization said it did not have a specific delivery date.
In June, Dr. Etienne urged the global community to do more to help Haiti cope with rising coronavirus cases and deaths. “The situation we’re seeing in Haiti is a cautionary tale in just how quickly things can change with this virus,” she said.
Haiti is an extreme example of the “stark inequities on vaccine access,” Dr. Etienne said. “For every success, there are several countries that have been unable to reach even the most vulnerable in their population.”
Across Latin America and the Caribbean, there are millions of people who “still don’t know when they will have a chance to be immunized,” she said.
She said the inequitable distribution of vaccines posed practical and moral problems.
“If we don’t ensure that countries in the South have the ability to vaccinate as much as countries in the North, this virus will keep circulating in the poorest nations for years to come,” Dr. Etienne said. “Hundreds of millions will remain at risk while the wealthier nations go back to normal. Obviously, this should not happen.”