President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti was assassinated in an attack in the early hours of Wednesday at his home on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the interim prime minister said, creating a political void that threatens to deepen the turmoil that has gripped the country for months.
As foreign governments struggled to assess the situation, millions of Haitians anxiously huddled around radios and televisions, staying off the streets as they tried to understand what the coming days might bring.
Mr. Moïse’s wife, Martine Moïse, was also shot in the attack, the interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, said in a statement. Her condition was not immediately clear.
“A group of unidentified individuals, some of them speaking Spanish, attacked the private residence of the president of the republic and thus fatally wounded the head of state,” the prime minister said, but there was little solid information about who might have carried out the assassination.
In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Joseph said that he was the one running the country at the moment. Still, it was unclear how much control he had, or how long it might last. A new prime minister had been scheduled to replace Mr. Joseph this week, and the head of the nation’s highest court, who might also have helped establish order, died of Covid-19 in June.
The news of Mr. Moïse’s assassination rocked the Caribbean nation 675 miles southeast of Miami. In recent months, protesters had taken to the streets to demand Mr. Moïse’s removal. He had clung to power, ruling by decree for more than a year, with many — including constitutional scholars and legal experts — contending that his term had expired.
Armed gangs control many streets and have taken to kidnapping even schoolchildren and church pastors in the middle of their services. Poverty and hunger are on the rise, and the government has been accused of enriching itself while not providing even the most basic services. Now, the political vacuum left by Mr. Moïse’s killing could fuel a cycle of violence, experts warned.
More than two centuries ago, the country fought to emerge from one of the world’s most brutal slave colonies, one that brought France great wealth and that the colonial rulers fought to keep.
What started as a slave uprising at the turn of the 18th century eventually led to the stunning defeat of Napoleon’s forces in 1803. More recently, the country suffered under more than two decades of dictatorship by François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, and then his son, Jean-Claude, known as Baby Doc.
A priest from a poor area, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, became the first democratically elected president in 1990. But in less than a year, he was deposed in a coup.
Since a devastating earthquake 11 years ago, the country has not rebuilt, and many say it is worse off, despite billions of dollars of reconstruction aid.
On Wednesday, Mr. Joseph said that the president had been “cowardly assassinated,” but that the murderers “cannot assassinate his ideas.” He called on the country to “stay calm” and said he would address the nation later in the day.
He said the country’s security situation was under the control of the police and the army. But international observers warned that the situation could quickly spiral out of control.
Didier Le Bret, a former French ambassador to Haiti, said he hoped Mr. Joseph would be able to run the country, despite his lack of political legitimacy.
He criticized the international community for ignoring the volatile political situation in Haiti and said it should now come help the country “to ensure a smooth transition.”
Mr. Le Bret said the situation in Haiti had become so volatile that “many people had an interest in getting rid of Moïse.”
Harold Isaac, Elian Peltier and Constant Méheut contributed reporting.
The first shots rang out after 1 a.m.
For what some witnesses described as a half-hour, explosions echoed through the streets of the leafy, mountainous neighborhood that was home to President Jovenel Moïse and many of Haiti’s most affluent citizens.
At first, some nearby residents thought it was one of the twin terrors that plague the nation: gang violence or another earthquake.
But by dawn, as people huddled around radios and listened to television reports, the news slowly emerged that the president was dead.
As people waited for the government to provide them with an update on how it would move forward, that shocking news was one of the few things that was certain.
As the morning went on, videos circulating on WhatsApp painted an ominous scene — a formation of SUVs arriving on the street and spilling out armed men in military formation. One announced in Creole and English over a loudspeaker, “This is a D.E.A. operation.” The legitimacy of the videos could not be verified.
The interim prime minister, Claude Joseph, offered few details, aside from a rather cryptic comment that some of the attackers were speaking Spanish.
A businessman who lives in the same neighborhood as the president said he had been woken in the night by the sound of explosions around 1 a.m. Other residents said they had heard shooting between 1 and 1:30 and that it had lasted about an hour.
The normally clogged streets of the capital were ominously empty on Wednesday.
Banks and stores were shuttered; university classrooms vacant; the ti machann — market women — who normally line the shoulders of roads selling their wares were conspicuously absent.
Lines formed at some depots, with people stocking up on water — which is normally bought by the container in poorer areas — in case they end up hunkered down for a long time. Others huddled at home, calling one another to check on their safety and ask for updates. In some middle-class neighborhoods, people huddled on the sidewalk sharing their fears for the country’s future.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen now — everything is possible,” one man said while speaking to neighbors.
Jenny Joseph, a university student from the suburb of Carrefour, said the country would have to be on the alert. “Things are hard and ugly now,” she said. “For the next few days, things will be crazy in Haiti.”
The main two-lane road up to Pèlerin, the suburb where the president lived, was blocked by green camouflage-speckled trucks.
The president had a high level of protection. He regularly traveled with a large motorcade of more than a dozen armored cars and police guards. Many wondered how it was possible that assassins entered his home.
Advisers to Mr. Moïse told The New York Times that the country had closed the airport and many other points of entry early Wednesday as they tried to hunt down the team of assailants who assassinated the president.
Harold Isaac and Jacques Richard Miguel contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince, and Dieu-Nalio Chery contributed reporting from New York.
Jovenal Moïse had been struggling to quell growing public anger over his attempt to hold onto power despite the opposition’s insistence that his term had expired.
Mr. Moïse had been ruling by decree for more than a year. Many, including prominent jurists, contend that his term ended in February. Haiti has been rocked by protests against his rule, and also has suffered a surge in gang activity.
The opposition said that Mr. Moïse’s five-year term should have ended on Feb. 7, five years to the day since his predecessor, Michel Martelly, stepped down. When Mr. Moïse refused to leave office, thousands of Haitians took to the streets, setting trash and tires on fire as they demanded his resignation.
In response, the government announced the arrest of 23 people, including a top judge and a senior police officer, who the president said had tried to kill him and overthrow the government.
“The goal of these people was to make an attempt on my life,” President Moïse said at the time. “That plan was aborted.”
Mr. Moïse insisted that he had one more year to serve, because his term did not begin until a year after the vote that brought him to the top office amid accusations of electoral fraud.
The protests this year were part of broader unrest, with heavily armed gangs clashing on the streets and attacking police stations.
“While exact numbers are still unclear, preliminary estimates suggest that thousands of people have fled their homes and sought shelter with host families or settled in informal shelters,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said last month in a report on the situation.
President Biden said Wednesday that he was “shocked and saddened” by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti and the shooting of the leader’s wife, Martine Moïse. The sentiment from the American leader, whose administration has vowed to put a renewed focus on Haiti, came even as it faces difficult questions about U.S. policy goals and actions.
“We condemn this heinous act,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moïse’s recovery.”
Representative Andy Levin, a co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the assassination “a devastating, if not shocking, example of the extent to which the security situation in Haiti has unraveled.”
“For months,” Mr. Levin, a Democrat, said in a statement, “violent actors have terrorized the Haitian people with impunity while the international community — the United States included, I fear — has failed to heed their cries to change course and support a Haitian-led democratic transition.”
The committee’s lead Republican, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, likewise condemned the killing, saying in a statement that “there must be a full investigation and appropriate accountability for his murder.”
While the United States and other the nations have long supplied Haiti with much-needed aid and financial assistance, including helping the country recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake, Western powers have also exerted an overwhelming influence over the country’s political destiny.
The United States occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, and a series of coups in the 20th and 21st centuries were backed by Western powers.
France, in particular, has long had a difficult relationship with Haiti, a former slave colony that it ruled throughout the 18th century, turning it into an extremely lucrative territory. Anti-French sentiment is common in Haiti, where the first visit by a French president was not until 2010.
France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said in a statement that he was “shocked” by Mr. Moïse’s killing. “All light must be shed on this crime, which comes amid a very deteriorated political and security climate,” Mr. Le Drian said. He urged “all of the actors of Haitian political life” to observe “calm and restraint.”
The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, said through a spokesman that “the perpetrators of this crime must be brought to justice.”
He called on Haitians to “preserve the constitutional order, remain united in the face of this abhorrent act and reject all violence” and vowed that the United Nations would continue to stand with the country’s government and the people of Haiti.
Haiti has suffered a series of devastating events in recent years, including a devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake in 2010, a powerful hurricane in 2016 and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. Political turmoil in recent months led to thousands taking to the street demanding the removal of President Jovenel Moïse, who was killed in the early hours of Wednesday.
Despite public unrest and fragile political support, in the months before President Jovenel Moïse was killed he was pursuing an aggressive agenda that included rewriting the country’s Constitution.
Among the provisions he was pushing for was one that would grant Haiti’s leader immunity for any actions while in office, leading critics to charge that he presented a threat to democracy and was setting the country on a course toward authoritarian rule.
“We need a system that works,” Mr. Moïse said in a telephone interview with The New York Times in March. “The system now doesn’t work. The president cannot work to deliver.”
The United States, whose support is critical for Haiti, had called on the country to hold presidential and legislative elections as soon as technically feasible. It also opposed the effort to draft a new constitution along the lines Mr. Moïse proposed.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the Biden administration’s tougher stance during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June.
Even though many were critical of Mr. Moise’s approach to reshape the government, many Haitians say a new Constitution is needed.
The current one has created two competing power centers in the country — the president and prime minister — which often leads to friction and a fractured government.
The draft Constitution would have abolished the Senate, leaving in place a single legislative body elected every five years, and replace the post of prime minister with a vice president who answers to the president, in a bid to streamline government.