15 July 2021
Haiti, Jordan, Venezuela.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Military precision? Hardly. Interim prime minister Claude Joseph called it “a highly co-ordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group”, but there was little evidence of either training or co-ordination in the assassination’s aftermath (although whoever killed Jovenel Moïse must indeed have been heavily armed – the president was hit by 12 high-calibre gunshots and died instantly). The suspects were soon rounded up (nineteen of them were captured, three were killed and only six remain at large) and no new regime appears to have seized power.
The murder of President Moïse of Haiti has raised many questions, few of which have been answered. Why didn’t the suspects have a sensible escape plan? Why were there so many of them in the hit squad? Why didn’t they keep a low profile after their arrival in Port-au-Prince weeks before the assassination? How did they manage to penetrate the heavy security of the presidential residence? Why were there no injuries among the presidential guards, or any other evidence of resistance? Who is behind the attack and why didn’t they attempt to seize power following the successful assassination?
Two of the suspects are apparently Americans of Haitian descent; the others are Colombians, ex-army veterans allegedly turned mercenaries. Some of them claim that they were hired to arrest the president, not to kill him; others say that they were hired as body-guards for high-ranking politicians; others claim that they were sent to the presidential residence to save Moïse that night, but were too late. Equally confusing are accounts of their actions before the attack (arriving in Haiti last month, they made no attempt to hide or lie low but lived openly in the upmarket Pétion-Ville neighbourhood) and after the attack (captured in the open, or found hiding under bushes, or attempting to seek refuge in the Taiwanese embassy). Reports that a doctor from Florida has been arrested as the suspected mastermind have only added to the confusion.
So many questions, so few answers; it’s hardly surprising that speculation has run riot. “The suggestion, circulating in both Colombia and Haiti, is that the group was never an elite assassination unit, and was instead duped into appearing like one” reported Stephen Gibbs in The Sunday Times. “The theory is that the former soldiers were scapegoats for a planned killing of the president by his internal enemies, who killed Moïse shortly before they arrived, or during the initial mayhem”.
President Moïse must have had plenty of enemies close to home. A political outsider elected in 2015, he had been ruling by decree for the last eighteen months, ignoring parliament, and had apparently postponed legislative elections; proof, according to his critics, that he was becoming increasingly authoritarian; or proof, according to his supporters, that he was determined not to deal with the businessmen, gangsters and shadowy power-brokers of Haiti’s notoriously corrupt political establishment. He recently accused twenty-three people (including a police inspector, a judge and a former presidential candidate) of plotting to kill him and overthrow his government; they were arrested but later released.
But coups d’etat are almost always confusing affairs. There were rumours of an attempted coup in Jordan earlier this year, when King Abdullah’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah, was put under house arrest. Two Jordanian businessmen were arrested and charged with plotting against the king; this week they were found guilty of incitement against the political system, sedition and drugs charges, and sentenced to fifteen years in jail. But any part played by Prince Hamzah has never been clarified; he has, apparently, been dealt with “within the royal family” and has made a public pledge of allegiance to his half-brother. Equally confusing was the coup attempt against President Erdogan of Turkey five years ago, the manifestation of a complex power struggle around which accusations and counter-accusations continue to flow.
However, the events in Haiti this week also call to mind last year’s attempted coup in Venezuela, which might shed some light on the mystery. A group of Venezuelan dissidents backed by Silvercorp mercenaries tried to enter the country by sea, seize the Simon Bolivar international airport, and either abduct or kill Nicolas Maduro. But the authorities were expecting them; they were captured in their boats before they could even land. The plan had its roots in exiled President Guaidó’s attempts to assess the possible options for removing Maduro from power, but Guaidó rejected any such plan when it became clear how unlikely it was to succeed and how unreliable its agents were. But those agents decided to push ahead anyway. It had no official support in Washington and was soon infiltrated by Maduro regime operatives. It was underfunded and badly planned. It was doomed to failure, and fail it did. It was as confusing as this week’s events in Haiti, an unlikely story which surely couldn’t be taken at face value. Surely no military operation – launched by professional mercenaries – could be so badly-planned, so reckless, so amateurish? Surely there’s a more sinister story lurking behind this invented but ludicrous smoke-screen? Well, as it happened, it could be taken at face value – it was indeed an amateurish farce, a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy. It seems that the ‘Day of the Jackal’ world of mercenaries and coups is inhabited by reckless gamblers, losers, madmen and fantasists, not by practical and ultra-efficient technicians.
This column has touched on this territory before (remember Louis Napoleon’s bungled attempts of 1836 and 1840 in 18th Brumaire?) and generally favours cock-up over conspiracy as an explanation for most mysteries, so wouldn’t be at all surprised if the unlikely events in Port-au-Prince turn out to be exactly what they at first appeared to be, after all – nothing more than an amateurish tragi-comedy – in spite of all those rumours currently circulating in Haiti and Colombia.
Cover page picture of Jovenel Moise – VOA Creole Service (Creative Commons).