Police in camouflage stand amid a crowd protesting against the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse

Haitians’ voices need to be heard in country’s rebuilding, former Amb Pamela White says

Pamela White served as US ambassador to Haiti from 2012 to 2015 and is now with the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine. She discussed the situation in Haiti with The World's host Marco Werman.

The World

Police stand amid a crowd protesting against the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse near the police station of Pétion-Ville in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 8, 2021.

Joseph Odelyn/AP

Haiti faces a political and security crisis after gunmen assassinated the country's president, Jovenel Moïse, early Wednesday morning in his home. Police have now killed four suspects behind the assassination and arrested two others, according to Haitian authorities.

Two men believed to be Haitian Americans — one of them purportedly a former bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince — are in custody, according to a senior Haitian official.

Related: Haitian asylum-seekers face discrimination in Tijuana migrant camp

The last time Haiti was thrust into turmoil by an assassination was more than a century ago when an angry group of rebels raided the French Embassy in 1915 and beat to death President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, ushering in weeks of chaos that triggered a nearly two-decadeslong US military intervention.

Prime Minister Claude Joseph assumed leadership of Haiti with the backing of police and the military, and on Thursday, he asked people to reopen businesses and go back to work, ordering the reopening of the international airport.

Related: Haitian American musician Nathalie Joachim pays tribute to underrepresented women of Haiti

Pamela White served as US ambassador to Haiti from 2012 to 2015 and is now with the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine. She discussed the situation in Haiti with The World's host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: First of all, what was your reaction when you heard that Haiti's president, Jovenel Moïse, was killed?
Pamela White: Someone called me at like 4 o'clock in the morning, and they said, "Have you heard it?" And I'm like, "Have I heard what?" And they said President Moïse has been assassinated. And I've known Haiti for many, many years because I first served there for five years from 1985 to 1990. So, you know, I've been very familiar with its rocky past. But, even remembering what went on when the United States and France and others managed to convince Baby Doc to leave the country, and the complete chaos that I experienced after that departure — this is another level and I feel deeply saddened, and, of course, for President Moïse's family.
Can you take us back then a little? I mean, in 2015, you were the US ambassador to Haiti when Moïse was just running for office. What can you tell us about him? How did he come to power?
Well, he was very good friends with President Michel Martelly, and President Martelly really brought him into the inner circle. He was, kind of, known up north as being a banana farmer. So, we didn't really know very much about him. You know, Moïse, the four or five times that I met him, struck me as being incredibly shy and uncomfortable in the political role which he had taken on. Here's the problem, I think, maybe the real root of the problem, and that is the voice of the Haitian people is not heard through elections. When Moïse was elected, I think it was 22% of the population even bothered to come outside their door. Of that 22%, he got 11% of the population to vote for him. So, he had no mandate ever.
I mean, the political instability has led to social upheaval. We've seen thousands of families taking shelter in Haiti, displaced by violent clashes between armed gangs. What's fueling those clashes between the gangs?
Well, the money. It's rumored — I have never seen any proof of this — but a lot of the private businessmen, the elite of the elite, each have their own private interest. And some of them fund these gangs. Sometimes, as horrible as it is to say, but the worse Haiti gets, the richer certain people get. Certainly, this was true during the earthquake. I mean, the richest of the Haitians made millions and millions off that earthquake. The richest take it off the top, and there's very little left to develop the country. I think that's what's happening. And people get very, very angry and they want that to be known. And politics has been wrapped up in violence in Haiti since Papa Doc left, and before. So, it was a long, long, long, long history. Even the police is infiltrated with corrupt individuals on the take. So, there's no security mechanism down there that really is working. And the justice system is in shambles, too. I mean, Moïse fired three or four Supreme Court judges, there is no parliament. So, everywhere you look, there is a void.
Ambassador, as you said, economic crisis and poverty have contributed to the deep political crisis in Haiti. The US has given Haiti billions of dollars in aid over the last decade. From your perspective, how impactful has that aid actually been?
Well, you know, I tell people that in the five years after the earthquake, we did miraculous things with the help of the Haitian people. We employed tens of thousands of people. We rebuilt roads. We rebuilt the port. We rebuilt the airport. We built schools. We trained teachers. We built a health delivery system that was, I mean, it wasn't perfect, but it was functioning. Some of my favorite people in Congress would say to me, "But, Ambassador White, why haven't you turned this around? Why haven't you turned this around?" And I would be, like, "Listen, after Katrina, we gave New Orleans $40 billion to rebuild one city, and Haiti was given $2 billion by the United States to rebuild Haiti. We did wonderful, wonderful things there after the earthquake. There's no doubt about it. But it wasn't enough money to get down deep enough to change the fact that people did not have the skills to build Haiti back better. And that was going to take years to do. And in the meantime, chaos starts raising its ugly head. And you can't do long-term development in the middle of chaos. You can't expect them to rebuild the country when they are afraid to go outside their door.
Hmm, $2 billion is not as much as the $40 billion that went to New Orleans, but $2 billion for Haiti, comparatively speaking, is huge. Critics say the bedlam in Haiti has been enabled over time by the US, perhaps with the best intentions, no doubt, but I'm wondering, what would you have done differently if you could have?
Well, yeah, my whole career, "I should have done this, I could have done that." But, I think maybe we should have concentrated more on two areas instead of eight areas. I mean, it does sound like a lot of money, but it's not a lot of money when you're doing big-time infrastructure. And the country was, you know, in shambles. There was enough rubble to fill dump trucks from Florida to Maine. That whole city was under. There was no parliament building. There were no schools. Tens of thousands of teachers were killed, tens of thousands of the health workers. I mean, you had a country that was trying desperately to move forward. And I do think that you can't abandon Haiti. But, I do know that without investing in security — both food security and physical security — Haiti is not going to move forward. I'm sure of it. And I do not believe elections will help it move forward at this time either.
Well, you spoke earlier about the wisdom of holding the elections in the midst of this crisis, if it continues. State Department Spokesman Ned Price says the view from Washington is that elections that are scheduled in Haiti this year should proceed. Other experts on Haiti say slow down. With the current instability and violent conditions, a push for new elections is dangerous. What do you think?
That's what I think. I think we have to find a mechanism to hear the Haitian people's voices. And I do not believe that an election will get that done. Even the last elections in 2016, 2017, they were very chaotic, also. And 20% of the people came out and voted. The rest said, "We don't believe in these elections, we don't consider them valid and we're not coming out." And then only 10% of them voted for Moïse. So, when you get to an election and that's the turnout you have and that's the interests of the Haitian people in the election at all, I think you have to look at it for a better solution.
So, let's talk about that solution briefly. How do you see the US role in trying to give Haitian people a voice? Is it unilateral or is it working through the UN? What's the next step here?
We have got to get talking about how Haitians feel that we need to rebuild Haiti. And people say that all the time, "This is the Haitians' problem to solve and that Haiti needs to take care of Haiti." Well, OK, how do we get that done? Especially at a time when elections, to me, seem so far-fetched when there are no mechanisms to oversee an election. There's no real judiciary, the opposition is there and they said they will not participate in an election under the current circumstances, so you don't even have any opposition. You don't have any really viable candidates. You just can't say let's have an election, and it miraculously happens. We say we don't, but the United States equates democracy with an election. And I don't. I equate democracy with people's voices being heard. And I don't think we found the right mechanism in Haiti to make that happen. And we've got to do that.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.