PORT-AU-PRINCE – I awoke to a text from a Haitian friend.
“The President of Haiti was just assassinated. Do not go out. Cancel all visits.”
It was 5:30 a.m. The roosters were squawking outside our orphanage. They normally do. But there was nothing normal about this particular morning. As the sun rose into a hot, cloudless sky, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere was suddenly, shockingly, leaderless.
I have now lived through two murders of sitting presidents. The first occurred in 1963, when I was a kid. This second happened last week, when I was in charge of 50 kids. There’s a big difference. It begins with knowing to be afraid.
What I remember most about John F. Kennedy being shot was being ushered into a room at school. A TV was playing. Teachers were crying. Soon we were all sent home, with a confused sense that something big had changed but we didn’t know what.
This time, I knew. The commando-style murder of President Jovenel Moïse was in so many ways a Haitian event: sudden, violent, confusing, full of accusations, rumors and questions. Questions like: If the president had a security team, how come none of them were even injured? How come the dogs weren’t hurt? Why were the assassins speaking English and Spanish? Who was responsible? Were there really 28 men? Did Moïse see it coming?
But these were queries for police and journalists. For people in the street, for the nannies in our orphanage, for the mothers and children scrounging for food and the teenagers on motorcycles scrounging for money, for the people who worry every day for their safety and survival here, the question was more direct:
What happens to us now?
Stranded in the dark without electricity
I’ve been thinking about that since Wednesday morning when I got that text.
In the hours that followed, the streets emptied, the airport was closed, the border was shut down and our place, the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage, lost all electricity. We were stranded in the dark. As Haitian police chased through neighborhoods after the alleged assassins, we were thinking about where we would find fuel for a generator, how much water we had stored, and how long it would be before the streets would be safe enough to try and buy food.
“You need more security,” my Haitian friend warned. By the end of the day, we had hired two plainclothes policemen, at an exorbitant rate, and determined that the safest place for all our kids, in the wake of a breach, would be on the roof of the building, where we could try to fend off an attack.
Haiti, remember, is a dangerous place under normal conditions. A recent rash of kidnappings and gang wars have left most people worried about random terror. Reports of a restaurant owner being abducted from his kitchen or students whisked off the street had everyone looking over their shoulder.
But the cold-blooded murder of a president? That was like a shovel to the back of the head. Can you imagine a sitting U.S. president being killed in his own home? By a swarm of assassins? What safety could you possibly feel for yourself?
Haiti was stunned. Normally, fear and anger spill quickly into the streets here. Protests — called “manifestations” — grow fast and turn ugly. Shots are fired and tires are burned, sending plumes of black smoke above an already jumpy populace.
But this time there was none of that. Since Wednesday, in fact, there has been little beyond silence in most of Port Au Prince. Traffic has slowed to a trickle. The normally bustling streets are sparse. You can feel disbelief as if it hung from the ceilings.
“Foreigners came into our country to kill the president,” a police chief told the news media.
“The president was assassinated by his own guards,” a politician told a radio station.
Nobody knows. Some alleged assailants were arrested, others were killed. Theories abound, from an inside setup to a foreign mercenary operation.
Meanwhile, the line of succession was a mess. Normally, the head of the Supreme Court would take over — except he recently died of COVID-19. Next in line would be the prime minister, except he had stepped down a week earlier and the new one was waiting to be confirmed by the parliament — which had been disbanded.
The truth was, there were less than a dozen people left in the government. And now their leader had been murdered in the dead of night, his body riddled with bullets and his eye reportedly gouged out.
This is what it really means to have “a government in disarray.” We forget that sometimes, in our rush to make American political arguments.
Haiti proves things can be worse
When Kennedy was killed, our nation mourned. Images of his toddler son saluting the coffin brought us to tears. It was, some described it, the end of Camelot.
But at least we had a Camelot. And a system. The vice president took over. Power passed peacefully. The alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was quickly captured, and soon after murdered by Jack Ruby. A commission was formed. It issued its findings. There was, amid the grief, a sense of order. Even so, many thought it was the most awful thing imaginable.
Haiti, as always, proves things can be worse. There is already a sense here that chaos is approaching. When the haze of shock lifts, people will realize there is an opening in the power structure and various factions will try and grab it. Violence is inevitable. Services will be interrupted. Offices will close. Streets will empty. Our embassy here, which shut down last week, will be jittery. There is no real plan for elections. The future of everything is clouded.
“The president was just assassinated. Do not go out. Cancel all visits.”
Every country has its own sounds. These are the sounds of Haiti, the sounds of fear mixing with the morning roosters. We might remember that the next time we think we have political problems.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.