Were Haiti’s Capitalists Behind the Assassination of President Moïse?

Kim Ives

Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated this week by alleged mercenaries. In an interview with Jacobin, the English language editor of Haiti Liberté says he suspects that some of Haiti’s richest families hired the attackers to preempt a potential revolution — and possibly even trigger US military intervention.

A soldier patrols the area near the police station of Pétion-Ville, where people protest after the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse on July 8, 2021, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Richard Pierrin / Getty Images)

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

During the early morning of July 7, hours before first light, nine SUVs arrived at the home of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse outside of Port-au-Prince. Moïse had been clinging to the presidency since February, sparking weekly demonstrations by thousands of Haitians who accused him of corruption — especially in relation to Petrocaribe, a program through which Venezuela provided Haiti with billions of dollars’ worth of oil and funding meant to support development.

What months of popular protests had not accomplished, a small band of suspected mercenaries carried out in minutes. Claiming to be agents with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (the DEA, which maintains a presence in Haiti to assist with counter-narcotics operations), the group gained entry to the home and killed the president.

Moïse’s assassination comes amid increasingly revolutionary fervor in Haiti. The popular demonstrations against corruption, which were supported by bourgeois opponents of the former president, have more recently given way to openly radical forces, such as those around Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier. A former cop turned vigilante leader, Cherizier has sought to unite Haiti’s many armed community defense groups, and even criminal gangs, under the banner of the “Revolutionary Forces of the G-9 Family and Allies” in order to topple the state altogether. His base is in Haiti’s shantytowns, where millions of former peasants now comprise a “lumpenproletariat” of unemployed workers.

While the people behind Moïse’s assassination remain unknown, Haiti Liberté‘s Kim Ives tells Jacobin that he believes the plot may be an attempt to turn back the revolutionary tide — and maybe even bring in US Marines. Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar spoke with Ives about the assassination, its potential backers, and the possibility of a US military intervention. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Arvind Dilawar

What happened in Haiti on July 7?

Kim Ives

There was a band of mercenaries with brand new Nissan Patrol vehicles. They clearly had knowledge of the layout of the presidential compound, where Moïse lived. They were clearly well-financed, well-prepared. It was a very sophisticated operation.

Who had the money to do that? And who would want to do that?

Haiti Liberté’s working hypothesis is that the mercenaries, more than likely, were hired by one or a consortium of the bourgeois families who are opposed to Moïse. Reginald Boulos is one. Dimitri Vorbe is another. There are several others who were unhappy with Moïse.

If this hypothesis is correct, their fear is of the uprising that is coming out of Haiti’s vast shantytowns, where the lumpenproletariat is organizing itself into armed gangs, which have now vowed to carry out a revolution against the bourgeoisie and “the rotten system,” as they call it in Haiti.

The gangs are led by Cherizier, a former gung-ho cop who has been radicalized through his misfortune and betrayals — not just by the police leadership but by the bourgeois opposition and also by Moïse. So, he is defending these “wretched of the Earth,” as Franz Fanon called them — this vast number of essentially uprooted people.

Fifty years ago, Haitian society was a largely rural, peasant society. But over the past thirty-five years, since the fall of the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, the neoliberal reforms championed by Washington in Haiti — the dumping of excess food, everything from flour to rice to oil — has decimated Haitian agriculture. The result is that millions of peasants have been ruined and have moved to the cities to join the ranks of this huge lumpenproletariat.

The bourgeoisie is absolutely terrified of this revolution. Just this past week, Cherizier said, “We are going to come and enter your banks, your car dealership, your grocery stores, and take what is ours.” The bourgeoisie didn’t have any protection from Moïse. He had zero state authority. He was totally isolated, but he was refusing to leave. So I think they had to take him out.

The breaking news I see is that they’ve killed four of the assailants, according to the police, and two have been captured. Now, will those two give up who it was that hired them? Do they know?

Reginald Boulos is one of Haiti’s richest men and the most at odds with Moïse. I think he’s fled the country. He had an arrest warrant out against him, which also may have motivated his backing of a mercenary unit to kill Moïse. However, it may have required more money than one family could have provided. There may have been some combination of families involved. This is what’s happened in previous coups, such as the one against former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide — basically, a collection was taken up among the bourgeoisie, and they raised tens of thousands of dollars to underwrite the 1991 coup.

We see today that President Iván Duque of Colombia — perhaps the most reactionary president on the South American continent — is proposing that the Organization of American States (OAS) intervene in Haiti, much the same way that it intervened in the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbor, in 1965. The OAS can get reactionary presidents, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Duque and in a few other countries like Honduras, to give some soldiers. But just as it was for the Dominican Republic in 1965, the principal backbone of such an OAS force would be US Marines.

Arvind Dilawar

What is it, in your mind, that makes it clear the assassination wasn’t connected to the revolutionary movement but was an attempt to cut it off?

Kim Ives

It was very expensive. They arrived in, as I said, nine new Nissan Patrol vehicles. They had clearly spent a lot of time planning to carry it out. And it was foreign mercenaries. It was not something the lumpenproletariat of the cities could do.

I could see if it were a Haitian band of men or women who carried out the attack. Maybe you could say, “Is this coming from one of the armed neighborhood groups in Port-au-Prince?” But these were foreigners, it appears, speaking Spanish, speaking English, and representing themselves as the DEA.

This does not fit at all with the MO of the revolutionary forces growing in Haiti’s shantytowns. This looks more like a mercenary unit — much like the mercenaries who were hired two years ago to steal $80 million from the Petrocaribe Fund from the Haitian Central Bank.

This is more or less typical of what the bourgeoisie will do. They will just hire the firepower and muscle they need, the same way they hired thugs from the lumpenproletariat in the past to carry out their dirty work. But Cherizier says, “We are no longer working for you, we are not going to do your dirty work.” And so they had to look overseas.

Arvind Dilawar

Some of the coverage of the assassination has almost made it seem like it was an outgrowth of “gang violence.” Who are these gangs? What are their aims? How are they different from our conception of gangs here in the United States?

Kim Ives

The Duvalier dictatorship had one big gang called the Tonton Macoute, the Volunteers for National Security, which was essentially a paramilitary force used to safeguard, and safeguard the interests of, the Duvalier family. They were the eyes, ears, and fists of the regime, and they very effectively guarded that power for three decades.

But after Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country in 1986, the Tonton Macoute kind of became free agents and began preying on popular neighborhoods. They used to strut about, brazenly shaking down people, taking what they wanted from a store, picking any woman that they wanted to sleep with — you name it, all sorts of abuse that made them infamous.

As the Tonton Macoute moved into free agent status after Duvalier’s departure, the popular neighborhoods of Haiti set up what were called vigilance brigades. Those vigilance brigades began mostly as a group banging pots and pans and so forth to scare away marauders, but gradually they became armed and hired by the bourgeoisie to guard their factories or their homes or their land. Eventually, they moved from defensive work to offensive work — “I have a rival over there who has a gas station that is competing with mine. Go burn it.”

As the political struggle in Haiti became more and more acute, the gangs became used for all sorts of political crimes as well — assassinations and so forth. This moved, as the years went by, into warfare between gangs who were working for the bourgeoisie and others who were working for, say, Aristide’s Lavalas government, which was in some antagonism with the bourgeoisie. As a result, the battles were very political.

Fast-forward to 2019, 2020, 2021, and the authority of the state has dwindled to almost nothing. The Moïse government is illegitimate, is reviled for its corruption and its repression. The shantytowns, and the gangs in them, are moving into business for themselves, primarily through kidnapping. The kidnapping is often of poor people, of the population, quite indiscriminate and quite random, and sometimes very deadly. Even if a ransom was paid, the victim, the hostage, the kidnappee would be killed. It became a total terror and trauma for Haitian society.

Enter Cherizier, a cop with an elite unit of the Haitian National Police called UDMO, the Departmental Unit of Maintenance of Order. In November of 2017, he was ordered by police leadership to put together a team of ten people from the station that he commanded in Cité Soleil to carry out a raid against the gangs in the area of Martissant.

There ensued a dramatic battle between cops and gang members. A number of gang members were killed, and maybe some civilians, too. It’s unclear exactly what happened. Police leadership said, “Oh, no, this was a rogue operation, it was Cherizier who did it.” They hung him out to dry, made him the scapegoat. This immediately started his radicalization. He started to see that this force he had been so devoted to was betraying him and trying to use him to cover for their own screwups.

After that, Cherizier went back to his neighborhood, which was plagued with these kidnappers and rapists. He went with his UDMO buddies to these gangs and said, “Listen, you guys, you got a choice: You can either stop what you’re doing, you can leave the area, or we’re going to kill you.” And they fled, most of these gang members. They went to other parts of town.

So Cherizier started to get a reputation as a vigilance brigade on steroids. He was very serious, a law-and-order guy. He started to develop a reputation, and he started to develop relationships with some of the opposition powers, such as the bourgeoisie who were opposed to Moïse.

But Cherizier began to enter into conflict with these guys, too. For instance, Boulos asked him to burn down a Toyota dealership that his people in the neighborhood had more or less provided protection and caretaking for for a long time. He was very shocked by this. He started to sour also on these bourgeois opposition figures.

Cherizier started to see that everything was rotten — not just the police, not just the government, but also the opposition, the bourgeoisie. He was radicalized more and more, and he saw that we have to change, as he now says, the whole rotten, stinking system — that it’s rotten from the head on down. He basically launched this movement to carry out a revolution, as he calls it, against the twelve families that rule Haiti.

Arvind Dilawar

Do you think the assassination of Moïse will force the presidential election that he was stalling?

Kim Ives

No. The assassination is meant to get into power a president who will do the bidding of the bourgeoisie. The opposition, which is dominated by the bourgeoisie, has been calling for a transitional government for quite a while, and now maybe they’ll get it.

The big question is: Is there anybody who has enough power or backing or sympathy from the people to carry out an overhaul of the state? Is there a president and a prime minister and a police chief who are going to have enough strength and smarts and wherewithal to stop this uprising from the shantytowns? I doubt it very much.

So that means they’re probably going to have to go to plan B, which is foreign military intervention. That is where Duque and the OAS come in. The bourgeoisie is going to be very happy to see them in there to guard their interests — which are practically concomitant with US business interests. In many cases, they are representatives of US corporations and, in some cases, even US citizens.

I think this assassination was essentially to set the stage for the repression, for the destruction of the G9 movement, and, if necessary, to bring in a foreign military force — the fourth one in the past century.