Saturday 9 December 2023

From Emperors to Presidents: Haiti’s History of Political Killing Returns to Haunt It

Police kill four suspected ‘mercenaries’ and capture two others as President Jovenel Moise’s assassination threatens more chaos.

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Q REPORTS – The Assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise has resurrected the centuries-old specter of political bloodshed in the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation that was the first to throw off the shackles of European colonialism and slavery.

The Assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise has resurrected the centuries-old specter of political bloodshed in the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation. AP Photo

Jovenel Moise, who was assassinated in the small hours of Wednesday, July 7, was not the first victim of political violence in Haiti since winning independence from France in 1804.

General François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, the most prominent leader of the 1789-1804 revolution in the French colony, was betrayed and arrested by French General Jean Baptiste Brunet in 1802 after being invited to a parley. Brunet, acting on the orders of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother-in-law General Charles Leclerc, was too ashamed to be present when the leader was seized.

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L’Overture was transported to France and imprisoned at Fort de Joux on the mountainous border with Switzerland. Denied firewood for his freezing cell and medical attention during months of illness, the ‘Father of Haiti’ died less than a year later.
Imperial Intrigues

L’Ouverture’s successor as revolutionary leader was General Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Following independence on January 1 1804 he became governor-general of the new republic, but that September he declared himself Emperor Jacques I in imitation of Napoleon with the support of his generals.

Dessalines ordered a massacre of the remaining white French settler population which claimed thousands of victims. But members of his government, chiefly Alexandre Petion and Henri Christophe, plotted to overthrow the emperor. He was murdered on October 17 1806, some say by his own men, at Pont Larnage (now Pont-Rouge) north of the capital Port-au-Prince. His body was mutilated and dismembered and abandoned in the town square.

Haitian independence leader, first president and later emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806). Wikipedia / ROUZIER, S/British Librar

Petion and Christophe soon fell out and declared rival governments, Petion as first president — for life — of the Republic of Haiti in the south, and Christophe as president and then King Henry I in the northern State of Haiti.

Henry’s autocratic rule and resort to forced labour provoked rebellion, and he committed suicide on 8 October 1820 in ostentatious fashion — shooting himself with a silver bullet — to avoid coup d’etat and execution. His son and heir, tentatively titled Henry II, was bayoneted to death by rebels at the Sans-Souci Palace ten days later before he could be crowned King.

Following Henry’s suicide and his sons assassination, Petion’s successor Jean-Pierre Boyer reunified the country and conquered the quasi-independent Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic, to the east. Boyer’s attempts to impose a feudal-like agrarian system led to another uprising, and in 1843 he fled to Jamaica and later France.

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After several more years of political turmoil, General Faustin Soulouque was persuaded to assume the presidency as a puppet ruler in 1947. He soon turned against his backers, however, and formed his own militia to consolidate power. In 1849 Soulouque had himself crowned Emperor Faustin I as monarch of the Second Haitian Empire. A revolution against his reign erupted in late 1858, and the emperor fled to Jamaica on a British warship in January 1859.

Presidential Problems

The return to the republican constitution did not bring and end to political crises. Most of the presidents for the next half-century were overthrown by violence.

Faustin’s successor Fabre Geffrard ruled as president for eight years, before being overthrown by General Sylvain Salnave in 1867, who was later deposed and executed in 1969.

A later president, Michel Domingue, is considered by some historians to have been merely a puppet of his vice-president Septimus Rameau, who was assassinated on the street in part-au Prince on April 15, 1876, the day Domingue fled to exile in Jamaica.

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The US attempts to impose Washington’s hegemony in and around the Caribbean in the early 19th century affected Haiti as much as Spain’s former and remaining colonies. The first half of the 1910s were marked by a series of short-lived presidencies overthrown by force.

Cincinnatus Leconte had been in office for just under a year before he was killed when an ammunition explosion destroyed the National Palace on August 8 1912. Black US author Zora Neale Hurston wrote two decades later how the people of the capital believed he had been murdered, and the explosion staged to cover up his assassination. Leconte’s successor Tancrède Auguste assumed power the same day, but died suddenly two months later — some believe from deliberate poisoning.

The next president, Michel Oreste, was soon overthrown by forces led by the big landowners including his successor Oreste Zamor. Zamor’s presidency lasted four months before he was overthrown by Joseph Davilmar Théodore, who was soon forced to resign in favour of the pro-US Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.

Sam’s crackdowns on political opponents reached a bloody crescendo with his execution of 167 prisoners, including Zamor, prompting a revolt. The president fled to the French embassy, but the rebels dragged him out and beat him to death, leaving the population to dismember his corpse. US President Woodrow Wilson responded by invading and occupying the country for the next 19 years.

Like Father, Like Son

After several more coups, Hairti fell under 29 years of dictatorship by François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. Their voodoo-themed death squad the Tonton Macoute tortured and killed tens of thousands of Haitians suspected of disloyalty. Baby Doc was overthrown in 1986 in a popular uprising, but was evacuated on a US Air Force flight thanks to his good relations with the Reagan administration.

The military junta that followed made a short-lived attempt to return to democracy in 1988 with the election of Leslie Manigat, but removed him from power just months later.

A return to democracy in 1991 saw Jean-Bertrand Aristide of the Lavalas movement elected — only to be removed in a military coup seven months later. Protests in 1994 persuaded US president Bill Clinton to honour his pledge to return. Aristides’ successor René Préval was the first president in Haiti’s history to receive power constitutionally from his predecessor and serve a full term of office.

Aristide was elected again in 2000 but was deposed in another coup in 2004 when he was taken to Jamaica by US forces against his will and replaced with Boniface Alexandre, who Aristide had appointed as Supreme Court chief justice. Aristide lived in exile in South Africa until 2011 when he returned to lead his party again.

Moise’s killing claimed to be at the hands of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), drags Haiti back to the dark days of coups and assassinations once again.

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