Top State Department officials told congressional lawmakers Wednesday that they were helping facilitate the transport of Haiti’s first lady to Miami after she was wounded in the overnight attack that resulted in the assassination of the Caribbean nation’s leader, President Jovenel Moïse.
First Lady Martine Moïse was expected to depart for the United States in a medevac plane and land on American soil Wednesday afternoon, the diplomats told the members of Congress in a hastily organized private call.
The conversation — led by U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison and Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary of State for the department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs — revealed new details about the aftermath of the attack, the Biden administration’s efforts to account for Americans on the ground in Haiti, and the intense international coordination that unfolded in the hours after Moïse’s assassination.
“At approximately 1 a.m. this morning, mercenaries — and that is what the Haitian acting prime minister is calling them — or unknown attackers entered the president’s residence” in the hills above the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Sison told lawmakers.
Roughly 40-50 men were allegedly involved in the attack that killed the president and “severely wounded” the first lady, she said. And although “apparently some number of them have now been cornered” by the Haitian National Police near the president’s residence, law enforcement “have not yet moved on this group of perpetrators.”
“The situation is eerily calm in most parts of the city,” Sison said.
It was not immediately clear whether both Democratic and Republican members of Congress participated in the bicameral call, but it included lawmakers as senior as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who urged the State Department to appoint a special envoy to Haiti to monitor the tenuous political situation there and help the country’s “resilient” people.
“It’s overdue. It’s about time … It’s time for us to do something substantial,” Pelosi said.
As for the current state of communication between Washington and Port-au-Prince, Sison said she and interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph had “spoken four times since 4 a.m.,” and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had also agreed to a call with the acting prime minister that was scheduled to take place Wednesday afternoon.
In addition, the State Department “put out, before dawn, a series of messages” to the roughly 83,000 American citizens in Haiti “asking them to stand back,” Sison told lawmakers. She added that the 132 U.S. embassy employees in the country are “100 percent accounted for and are doing what they need to do in terms of keeping in touch with our American citizens.”
Earlier Wednesday, President Joe Biden denounced the “horrific assassination” and said the U.S. stood “ready to assist” Haiti amid the political crisis. Joseph was the first to announce that Moïse had been killed. He also said the first lady had been shot and hospitalized.
“We condemn this heinous act, and I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moïse’s recovery,” Biden said in a statement. “The United States offers condolences to the people of Haiti, and we stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti.”
As he departed the White House on Wednesday morning en route to Illinois, Biden said “we need a lot more information” on the situation, but added that “it is very worrisome about the state of Haiti.”
Even before the assassination, Haiti had grown increasingly unstable and disgruntled under Moïse. The president ruled by decree for more than a year after the country failed to hold elections, and the opposition had demanded he step down in recent months.
“The country’s security situation is under the control of the National Police of Haiti and the Armed Forces of Haiti,” Joseph said in a statement. “Democracy and the republic will win.”
The streets in Port-au-Prince were largely empty Wednesday, but some people ransacked businesses in one area. Joseph said police had been deployed to the National Palace and the upscale community of Pétionville, and that they will be sent to other areas as well.
Joseph condemned the assassination as a “hateful, inhumane and barbaric act.” In his statement, he said some of the attackers spoke in Spanish but offered no further explanation. He later said in a radio address that they spoke Spanish or English, again offering no details.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in an interview on CNN that Biden would be briefed on the attack later Wednesday by his national security team.
“The message to the people of Haiti is this is a tragic tragedy,” Psaki said. “It’s a horrific crime, and we’re so sorry for the loss that they are all suffering and going through, as many of them are waking up this morning and hearing this news. And we stand ready and stand by them to provide any assistance that’s needed.”
Haiti’s economic, political and social woes have deepened recently, with gang violence spiking heavily in Port-au-Prince, inflation spiraling and food and fuel becoming scarcer at times in a country where 60 percent of the population makes less than $2 a day. These troubles come as Haiti still tries to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew that struck in 2016.
The coronavirus has also taken a disproportionate toll on Haiti, with the country reporting more than 19,000 confirmed cases and 467 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the World Health Organization.
Haiti is still registering an average of roughly 73 new infections each day, according to data compiled by Reuters — a figure representing nearly a third of its peak infection rate — and the country has yet to receive its first coronavirus vaccine delivery from COVAX, the global vaccine aid program.
Just last month, Supreme Court Judge René Sylvestre died after being diagnosed with Covid-19, further complicating the presidential line of succession in the wake of Moïse’s assassination.
Opposition leaders had accused Moïse of seeking to increase his power, including by approving a decree that limited the authority of a court that audits government contracts and another that created an intelligence agency that answers only to the president.
In recent months, opposition leaders demanded that he step down, arguing that his term legally ended in February 2021. Moïse and supporters maintained that his term began when he took office in early 2017, following a chaotic election that forced the appointment of a provisional president to serve during a yearlong gap.
On Monday, Moïse appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to form a government, but Henry has not yet even been sworn in, as Sison noted Wednesday in her call with lawmakers.
And while Haiti was scheduled to hold elections this fall, “the political parties were to have registered for those elections from Tuesday to Friday of this week,” Sison said.
“Obviously, with this terrible development, whether free, fair and credible elections can be held in a situation where parties cannot register for those elections would be something that we would need to be looking at,” she added.
Alex Ward and the Associated Press contributed to this report.