PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Gunmen assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and wounded his wife in their home early Wednesday, inflicting more chaos on the Caribbean country that was already enduring gang violence, soaring inflation and protests by opposition supporters who accused the leader of increasing authoritarianism.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who confirmed the killing, said the police and military were in control of security in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas where a history of dictatorship and political upheaval have long stymied the consolidation of democratic rule.
Despite Joseph’s assurances that order would prevail, there was confusion about who should take control and widespread anxiety among Haitians. Authorities declared a “state of siege” in the country and closed the international airport.
The normally bustling streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, were empty and quiet Wednesday. Sporadic gunshots were heard in the distance, public transportation was scarce, and some people searched for businesses that were open to food and water. Businesses had been ransacked in one area earlier.
Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, said the attack on the 53-year-old Moïse was carried out by “well-trained professional commandos” and “foreign mercenaries” who were masquerading as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Moïse’s wife, Martine, was in stable but critical condition and efforts were under way to move her to Miami for treatment, Edmond said in Washington.
Haiti has asked the U.S. government for assistance with the investigation, he said, adding that the assassins could have escaped over the land border to the Dominican Republic or by sea.
“We know for sure that if they are not currently in Haiti,” he said, refusing to comment on who they were.
Haiti appeared to be heading for fresh volatility ahead of general elections later this year. Moïse had been ruling by decree for more than a year after failing to hold elections, and the opposition demanded he step down in recent months, saying he was leading it toward yet another grim period of authoritarianism.
Joseph said the heavily armed gunmen spoke Spanish or English, but he gave no details on the attack.
It was a testament to Haiti’s fragile political situation that Joseph, who was only supposed to be prime minster temporarily, finds himself in charge. Joseph was considered a protege of Moïse, and it was not clear how the opposition would react to his taking power. André Michel, one of Haiti’s top opposition leaders, did not return messages requesting comment.
But Haiti appears to have few other options available. The Supreme Court’s chief justice, who might be expected to help provide stability in a crisis, died recently of COVID-19.
Joseph is likely to lead Haiti for now, though that could change in a nation where constitutional provisions have been erratically observed, said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born sociologist who teaches at Wesleyan University in the United States.
The best scenario would be for the acting prime minister and opposition parties to come together and hold elections, Dupuy said.
“But, in Haiti, nothing can be taken for granted. It depends how the current balance of forces in Haiti plays out,” said the academic, who described the situation as dangerous and volatile. Haiti’s police force is already grappling with a recent spike in violence in Port-au-Prince that has displaced more than 14,700 people, he said.
Former President Michel Martelly, whom Moïse succeeded, called the assassination “a hard blow for our country and for Haitian democracy, which is struggling to find its way.”
Joseph condemned the president’s killing as a “hateful, inhumane and barbaric act.”
“The country’s security situation is under the control of the National Police of Haiti and the Armed Forces of Haiti,” Joseph said in a statement from his office. “Democracy and the republic will win.”
The White House described the attack as “horrific” and “tragic” and said it was still gathering information to brief President Joe Biden, spokesperson Jen Psaki said on MSNBC.
“The message to the people of Haiti is this is a tragic tragedy,” she during a previously scheduled interview on CNN. “And we stand ready and stand by them to provide any assistance that’s needed.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the assassination “in the strongest terms” and stressed that “the perpetrators of this crime must be brought to justice,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
A resident who lives near the president’s home said she heard the attack.
“I thought there was an earthquake, there was so much shooting,” said the woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears for her life. “The president had problems with many people, but this is not how we expected him to die. This is something I wouldn’t wish on any Haitian.”
The U.S. Embassy in Haiti said it was restricting U.S. staff to its compounds and that the embassy would be closed Wednesday.′
President Luis Abinader of the Dominican Republic met his top military and police commanders to discuss plans to reinforce security along the border with Haiti following the assassination.
It’s too early to know exactly what will happen next, said Jonathan Katz, who previously covered Haiti for The Associated Press and wrote a book about the country’s devastating earthquake.
“At this hour, we don’t know who did this, what their end game is, what else they have planned,” he said, noting that Moïse had a long list of enemies. “There were a lot of people who wanted him gone. And there were a lot of people whom he wanted gone.”
Katz noted that a majority of Haitian presidents have been forced out of office, although it’s been more than a century since a sitting one was killed.
“It seems to be a pretty well-financed operation,” he said, adding that authorities could spend days trying to piece together what happened. “That’s the question: Who’s behind it and what do they want?”
Moïse was killed a day after he nominated Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as Haiti’s new prime minister. Joseph took over the job of interim prime minister in April following the resignation of the previous premier, Joseph Jouthe — the latest in a revolving door of prime ministers.
Haiti’s economic, political and social woes have deepened recently, with gang violence spiking heavily in Port-au-Prince, inflation spiraling and food and fuel becoming scarcer at times in a country where 60% of the population makes less than $2 a day. These troubles come as Haiti still tries to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew that struck in 2016.
Opposition leaders accused Moïse of seeking to increase his power, including by approving a decree that limited the powers of a court that audits government contracts and another that created an intelligence agency that answers only to the president.
The president faced large protests in recent months that turned violent as opposition leaders and their supporters rejected his plans to hold a constitutional referendum with proposals that would strengthen the presidency.
In recent months, opposition leaders demanded that he step down, arguing that his term legally ended in February 2021. Moïse and supporters maintained that his term began when he took office in early 2017, following a chaotic election that forced the appointment of a provisional president to serve during a year-long gap.
In May, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced an 18-month extension of temporary legal status for Haitians living in the U.S., citing “serious security concerns (in Haiti), social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The reprieve benefited an estimated 100,000 people who came after a devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti and are eligible for Temporary Protected Status, which gives haven to people fleeing countries struggling with civil strife or natural disasters.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Ben Fox in Washington contributed.