Haitian President Jovenel Moise, a former banana producer and political neophyte who ruled Haiti for more than four years as the country grew increasingly unstable under his watch, has been killed at age 53.
Moise was assassinated at his private home on Wednesday during “a highly co-ordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group”, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said. His wife, Martine, was injured in the attack.
“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, Moise had no political experience before being hand-picked by former president Michel Martelly as the ruling Tet Kale party’s candidate in 2015 elections.
The soft-spoken Moise seemed like an unlikely politician, especially when compared with the bombastic Martelly, a musician and entertainer. While not poor, he was also far from elite. His father was a small-time 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 “Banana Man”, he promoted achievements that included launching a banana-exporting joint venture with help from a $US6 million loan.
Moise won the 2015 presidential vote, but the results were thrown out following allegations of fraud, leading to a period of political limbo. Moise won the November 2016 elections, although voter turnout was only 21 per cent.
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.
He spoke often about wanting to improve the lot of Haiti’s many small and subsistence farmers by increasing their access to water 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, Moise had been ruling by decree for more than a year after parliament was dissolved and MPs 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 answered only to the president.
Political and economic instability had deepened in recent months, with widespread protests paralysing the country of more than 11 million people. Gangs in the capital of Port-au-Prince grew more powerful, driving away thousands as gangs set fire to their homes and ransacked them.
Moise is survived by his wife and three children.