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Regional Interests

‘We’re Not Supposed to See Presidents Being Assassinated’: Bay Area Haitian Community Grapples

Hours after she had heard of the assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse, Joanne Eloi was still in disbelief.

“I’m still in awe,” said Eloi, a resident of Vallejo who migrated to the U.S. with her family from Haiti at a very young age. She is now a law student. “We’re not supposed to see presidents being assassinated.”

Moïse was killed early Wednesday morning at his private residence located near Port-au-Prince. According to Prime Minister Claude Joseph, a “highly trained and heavily armed group” attacked the president’s home, also injuring first lady Martine Moïse.

A senior Haitian official said Thursday that two men believed to be Haitian Americans — one of them purportedly a former bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince — have been arrested in connection with the killing.

Eloi’s first response to the news was to reach out to her network in the Haitian and Haitian American communities across the Bay Area.

“I’ve been calling some of my friends and making sure that they have been in communication with their loved ones, their parents, their family members,” she said. “We are worried about their safety right now.”

While Eloi hasn’t kept up with Haitian politics over the years, she has kept up close bonds with her family. She understands that Moïse’s assassination could result in greater instability in the country, which puts her relatives and friends at risk.

“My fear is that the violence will get worse. By taking out a sitting leader, a sitting president, what does that do to the minds of a people?” she explained, referencing the political and social unrest that Haiti has experienced for several years.

Moïse, who had seven prime ministers since his term began in 2017, had been ruling by decree for more than a year since disbanding the Parliament — a move strongly criticized by the opposition. The political upheaval has sparked ongoing political protests and a crime wave fueled by gangs.

Kidnappings are on the rise, as well as food and fuel shortages, hampering the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has flooded hospitals with patients. The first vaccines arrived in Haiti in mid-June.

“There is no safety. As a Haitian American, I understand both sides of the spectrum,” Eloi said. “I sleep peacefully at night [in the U.S.] because I know that there are certain systems in place that provide for that safety, for that feeling. If that thought was uprooted overnight and you woke up to just complete chaos, then how would that make you feel as a citizen of that country?”

People in the crowd run to help police in the Jalousie township as armed men, accused of being involved in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, are being arrested in Port-au-Prince on July 8, 2021. (Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images)

Separated from Haiti by thousands of miles, Eloi and her family in California are now trying to figure out the full details of the situation.

“We’re still piecing the story together as to how this happened,” she said.

Haitian community organizers have quickly mobilized to get information from the ground to the Haitian diaspora across the U.S.

Haiti Action Committee, a Bay Area-based coalition of pro-democracy activists, partnered up with Africans Rising and several other advocacy groups and academics to host an online forum on Thursday to provide historical insight on the week’s events.

Pierre Labossiere, co-founder of Haiti Action Committee and a critic of Moïse, expressed his concern during the forum that the president’s killing could signal greater intervention by the U.S. in Haitian politics.

“Jovenel Moïse is but the latest in a series of heads of state in Haiti who have been lackeys of the colonialist powers,” Labossiere said.

According to Haiti’s constitution, Moïse should be replaced by the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court, but the chief justice died last month from COVID-19, leaving open the question of who might rightfully succeed the office.

But Labossiere has little faith in whoever is the next head of state. For him, real change in Haiti will come when much larger factors, like the lack of trustworthy and transparent democratic institutions, are addressed.

“The dictator is no more, but the dictatorship system that these colonial powers have set up is still there,” he said, including the U.S., France and other Western actors in this category.

The death of Moïse and the political instability it represents, Labossiere explained, are inseparable from the economic and social instability Haitian civilians have experienced for decades, forcing many to leave the country.

“It’s important that we support our brothers and sisters who have fled Haiti. They need our support,” he said. “But unless we connect that with supporting their movement, at home, as they are standing up and fighting … then [we] are missing the point.”

This story includes reporting from KQED’s Tara Siler and Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí, the Associated Press and NPR’s Joe Hernandez and Carrie Kahn.

Copyright 2021 KQED