Before Jovenel Moïse got on the ill-fated path that led him to become Haiti’s head of state, people around his hometown — near Port-de-Paix in the northwestern region — knew him and his wife Martine as smart, practical, approachable entrepreneurs.
“I used to work with him in the mud,” said Jislon Joseph, 50, a farmer. “We had this tool that used to get stuck and had to pull it out with mud. We slept and ate dry bread with Jovenel — then he became president.”
With such memories of Moïse being common around these northwestern parts, news of his June 7 assassination has struck the area particularly hard. In exclusive interviews with The Haitian Times in the days following the high-profile murder, several distant relatives, including Joseph, workers at the couple’s businesses and townspeople said they were shell-shocked.
“I spent two hours unable to recognize anyone,” said Joseph in Creole, meaning he was in a daze. “We’re shocked that our father died. There’s so much pain for everyone in the area. People are sick, have diarrhea, they’re stunned, they’re drinking tea.”
Joseph, who lives in Chansolme, a village in the northwestern department where Martine was raised, said he and the First Lady’s mother are cousins. He and others interviewed said President Moïse and his wife lived in Port-de-Paix, the largest town in the northwestern department. The pair had completed their education in Port-au-Prince, then moved to the area to pursue development projects.
Over their 19 years together in the area, the Moïses started several businesses successfully, including JoMar Auto Parts, JoMar Plus Dous (Even Sweeter). He also partnered with Culligan Water, a water distribution company, to provide potable water in the northwest.
Moïse later founded Agritrans SA, a business that produced and exported plantains, earning him the affectionate moniker “neg bannann.”
So prominent was the couple that when then-President Michel Martelly visited the area and asked if they were ready to support Moïse as his successor, a majority of people answered a resounding yes, Joseph and others said.
“We made his campaign, we voted him in,” said Herold Casseus, 62, of Ti Croix, another area near Port-de-Paix. Casseus said.
Once he was elected, Moïse heavily focused on the northwestern department. He built some roads, provided electricity for longer periods daily and supplied more water to the northwest communes — parts long known in Haiti for being overlooked and underserved. Moïse was also constructing an airport in Port-de-Paix, residents said.
“After hearing that a president who cared for us like that died, I was devastated,” Casseus said. “Even cold water doesn’t taste good in my mouth. People in my house too, it’s everyone in the area — kids and grown-ups.”
Even culturally, in February 2021, Moïse brought the 2021 National Carnival of Haiti to Port-de-Paix when organizers canceled it in Port-au-Prince because of COVID-19 fears in 2020. For many, it was a joy to participate in a cultural extravaganza they had only heard about or had to trek to Port-au-Prince for days to attend.
“He held our hands,” Casseus said. “That’s what we loved the most about him. He held northwest up. He gave us advice. Now we don’t have any support. We don’t have hope anymore. Even some of the roads that he was building, we don’t have hope that they will be completed.”
After the assassination, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph is in the charge of Haiti. Elections are scheduled for September 26. Some residents of the northwestern department are hoping that a president similar to Moïse will be elected.
“With President Jovenel we saw that the country was moving forward,” said Fleureustie Ledaneson, a Chansolme resident. “President Jovenel died so that will slow down the country’s development. But I believe that if God gives us as a gift another president with a good heart like President Jovenel the country will move forward.”
Samuel Volcy and Versanne Shenaider reported from northwestern Haiti.