“It’s as if Haiti had been hit on the head. Nobody moved after the assassination of the president,” describes Arnold Antonin ten days after the assassination of Jovenel Moïse. “This is the most dramatic crisis in the country’s history, even though Haiti has had several tragic moments.”
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A few months ago, before Moïse’s assassination, almost as if guessing what was to come, Antonin compared the magnitude of the crisis that the country was going through to the political instability of 1867 that ended with the shooting of President Sylvain Salnave.
Antonin was born in Port-au-Prince, almost 80 years ago and with another name. It was during the Duvalier family dictatorship (1971-1986) that he stopped calling himself Celesti Corbanese in order to make his films without being arrested. He holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Rome, but he turned to documentary filmmaking because he understood that, in a country where half the population is illiterate, the best way to communicate his ideas was with images rather than words.
For Antonin, Jovenel Moïse’s ambition to stay in power may be one of the reasons for his assassination. “He aspired to stay in power even though his mandate ended on February 7, but he didn’t have the strength to do so. So he found a way to control the population through armed gangs who had free reign to move around the country, make statements and parade through the streets without police intervention. From the power, there was a clear will to destroy the institutions and that ended up turning against them,” Antonin explains in an interview with elDiario.es.
Moïse’s murder cannot be understood without the growing influence of criminal gangs or, as they call it in Haiti, the ‘kidnapping industry’. A symptom of the extreme violence that even made headlines in the main European media after the kidnapping of seven religious, including two French, three months ago in Port-au-Prince.
The first part of the year, the number of kidnappings increased by 36 per cent, with 171 reports registered, compared to 110 in the last four months of 2020, according to data from the latest report of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti. Meanwhile, the number of intentional homicides increased by 17 per cent, with 525 cases reported from January to April, compared to 436 in the last four months of 2020.
In the midst of that situation, Moïse proposed moving forward with a new constitution through a referendum that, as Antolin explains, could only be read as a last-ditch attempt to remain in government. “What he was seeking was to recover a constitutional model from the 1930s where the president concentrates all the power. Our Constitution, with all the criticisms that can be made of it, is the country’s greatest democratic achievement since the fall of the Duvaliers. This created problems for Moïse with various actors in civil society, the churches, the unions, the opposition parties and even within his own political sphere. He was a president with many enemies,” he says.
Among them, Claude Joseph, the prime minister who took control of the government after the president’s assassination and who was in the spotlight as one of the possible beneficiaries of Moïse’s death. However, Joseph announced his resignation as chief executive on Monday and handed over power to Ariel Henry, who was appointed prime minister two days before the assassination.
Two years ago, Moïse said he had “seven heads to cut off”. Already at that time he was revealing tensions within his party, but he had not made it clear who those people were. As a result, many of his own party leaders thought that, if he prolonged his mandate, they could end up being displaced.
Do you think those responsible for the crime could be within the president’s own political space?
Probably, otherwise it is hard to understand the lack of reaction from his security forces. The Haitian democrats condemned the assassination, the only thing they wanted was for him to remain alive so that he could be tried as an accomplice to the mass murders in the working class neighbourhoods.
Where does former President Michel Martelly (2011-2016), Moïse’s political godfather, stand after this?
Michel Martelly was one of the most angry with Moïse because he had put him in power and wanted to return to govern, but Jovenel had another candidate. That was one of the main reasons that led to an internal fight within the party.
What is certain about the case so far?
The only thing that seems to be clear is that Jovenel tried to stage a coup d’état on February 7 to stay in power and that his assassination can be read as a new coup within the coup.
What will it take to clear up the assassination?
We need to create an independent international commission of inquiry with Haitian actors to find out who killed Jovenel and for what reason. That is still a mystery.
Is there any leadership, like former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1991, 1993-1996, 2001-2004), that can present an alternative to the government?
No, currently there is no strong or charismatic figure like Aristide, but there are different political forces that alone can’t do anything, although united they can create an alternative.
What place does 68-year-old Aristide currently occupy in Haitian politics?
Aristide has his party, La Avalanche, which continues to influence public debate to build a political alternative to the ruling party. Aristide has always been one of the most radical opponents of Moïse.
Voter turnout has fallen sharply in recent years. It went from 75% in the 1990 elections to less than 20% in 2015, why do you think people choose not to vote?
People don’t vote because they lost confidence in the electoral bodies that have been manipulated and also because they are very disappointed with the results of the different governments.
At what points did they stop believing in elections?
There were two moments. In 1987 there was an intervention by foreign powers to prevent the first free elections in Haiti. Then, in the 1990s, the military staged a coup d’état and the Americans came back with Aristide in 1994, people participated although they were more distrustful. But also, when they see the results of the last governments, they have been so bad that people no longer believe in anything. If there is a certain social enthusiasm, it is not for a positive cause, but to reject Moïse’s government.
Haiti should have elections in September, are the conditions in place to vote?
We don’t understand why this madness of holding elections this year when the technical, political and social conditions do not yet exist. The alternative is to form a transitional government also made up of the opposition, representatives of the different political forces and civil society, to create the basic conditions for serious elections.
If you had to recommend just one of your more than 60 films to understand Haiti, which one would it be?
The reign of impunity, because that is one of the biggest problems this country has always had. The guilty know that they will never pay for their crimes.