He Went from Banana Exporter to President: ‘I Am Not a Dictator’

The president clung to power in a protracted political battle that earned him many enemies.

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It was a battle from the start for Jovenel Moise, the first Haitian president to be assassinated in more than 100 years.

Even before he took office, Mr. Moise had to fight accusations that, as a virtual unknown banana exporter, he was nothing but a handpicked puppet of the previous president, Michel Martelly.

“Jovenel is his own man,” he told The New York Times in 2016, shortly after winning election, trying to rebut the accusations. He promised to show results within six months in office.

After more than four years in office, he was killed in his home early Wednesday at the age of 53. He left a wife and three children.

In his last year in office, as protests grew and he declined to step down, he had to defend himself in other ways: “I am not a dictator,” he told The Times earlier this year.

So who was he?

Mr. Moise was the former president of the chamber of commerce in Haiti’s northwest region when he ran for president. When he emerged as a leading candidate, few people had ever heard of him. They called him “the Banana Man.”

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An election billboard for Mr. Moise, before the presidential vote in November 2016, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.Credit…Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters

He won a majority of votes in a crowded field where few people had bothered to cast ballots.

In interviews, Mr. Moise often recounted how he had grown up on a large sugar plantation in a rural area in the north and could relate to the vast majority of Haitians who live off the land.

He attended school in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and said he learned how to succeed by watching his father’s profitable farming business.

“My parents were not really poor; my father is a successful farmer,” he said in a different 2016 interview, while still campaigning. “I was raised on this enormous plantation.'”

But his time on that plantation, he said, had made him think more expansively.

“Since I was a child, I was always wondering why people were living in such conditions while enormous lands were empty,” he said. “I believe agriculture is the key to change for this country.”

He ran a large produce cooperative that employed 3,000 farmers.

During his time in office, Mr. Moise was widely accused of behaving like a strongman who tried to consolidate power. He sought to push through a new constitution that would have given his position more power and more terms in office.

Those plans were derailed by the pandemic and rising insecurity in Haiti over the erosion of basic government functions. In a dispute over when his term should end, he declined to step down and ruled by decree as the terms of nearly every elected official in the country expired and no elections were held. He was accused of working with gangs to remain in power.

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Mr. Moise in October 2020, attending a ceremony marking the anniversary of the killing of the national independence hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in Port-au-Prince.Credit…Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters

“I think that he was fairly ineffective,” said James Morrell, director of the Haiti Democracy Project, a group formed by former U.S. ambassadors that monitors elections in Haiti. “He became more and more abusive.”

Mr. Morrell, however, disagreed with other critics of Mr. Moise who had asserted he unconstitutionally extended his time in office.

Even those critics agree that Mr. Moise used his power in office to try to end monopolies that offered lucrative contracts to the powerful elite in Haiti. And that made him enemies.

“To some he was a corrupt leader, but to others he was a reformer,” said Leonie Hermatin, a Haitian community leader in Miami. “He was a man who was trying to change the power dynamics, particularly when it came to money and who had control over electricity contracts. The oligarchy was paid billions of dollars to provide electricity to a country that was still in the dark.”

The assassination of Mr. Moise is the first of any Haitian president since 1915, when President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was killed — an event that became part of the basis for the U.S. invasion of Haiti that year.

Simon Desras, a former senator in Haiti, said Mr. Moise seemed to know that his battle against the wealthy and powerful interests in the country would eventually get him killed.

“I remember in his speech, he said he just targeted the rich people by putting an end to their contracts,” Mr. Desras said in a telephone interview from Haiti, as he drove through deserted streets. “He said that could be the reason for his death, because they are used to assassinating people and pushing people into exile.”

“It’s like he made a prophecy.”

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