I first met Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in 2015 at a Miami hotel. I had gone to see my friend, then President Michel Martelly.
Martelly was nearing the end of his term, and we were talking about Haiti’s upcoming elections and, of course, about a successor.
We talked about continuity, as there is no back-to-back re-election in Haiti. Someone with the same passion that Martelly had for the people of Haiti was needed. The country needed someone who could continue doing the work started under his administration.
Martelly approached me and said in the calm voice he always has, “Damian, I want you to meet the next president of Haiti.”
Jovenel was quiet, yet gave me a firm handshake when we were introduced. Little did I know that I really was meeting the next president of Haiti.
We had a pleasant conversation, during which, among other things, he told me about his banana business and his vision for Haiti, I was mesmerized. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the promise of a rejuvenated agricultural sector and his desire for all Haitians to have the same opportunity he had had in starting a successful business. It was his banana business that made our team come up with his campaign slogan, “The Banana Man.”
Of course, many were taken aback by this slogan, as it was, to say the least, unconventional. I’ve worked on a lot of political campaigns, and even for me this was unusual. “Banana Man” was a stretch, but it worked.
In November 2016, Jovenel won the presidential election with 55% of the vote. On Feb 7, 2017, he began his five-year term as president of Haiti. Following his election, I continued to help Jovenel because I believed in his ideals, his passion and his love for Haiti and Haitians.
Jovenel wanted one thing, and one thing only. A better future for the people of Haiti. President Martelly had managed to break decades of failed policies and Jovenel wanted to continue this work, but it would prove to be difficult.
Many in Haiti did not support his vision or policies, but Jovenel was determined. He pushed through his agenda of revitalizing the agriculture sector, running water, and 24 hours of uninterrupted energy.
The Haitian special interests pushed back hard at his reforms and, eventually, he would say his life was at risk because of his maverick presidency. He said this publicly, and in private. I was always dismissive of his claims. Little did I know, his fears would materialize.
His passion to do the right thing created many political enemies. Among his plans for Haiti was a new constitution that would be more representative of the Haitian people’s desires and to reform a broken system to make it more accountable to the citizens. He was determined. This was to be his legacy. He had no agenda or personal interest in this new constitution. He just knew it was the right thing to do for the country he loved.
I am having a hard time coping with what happened on the dreadful night of July 7. Last week, I was supposed to meet with Jovenel in the same house where he was assassinated. While we were scheduled to have our usual political talks, I was also looking forward to hearing of his post-presidency plans. He always talked about how he would move back to the north of Haiti.
He did not deserve to leave us this way. I am sure in due time, those responsible for this horrible act will be held accountable.
Jovenel was a kind man, a gentle man, who cared about his people, and his untimely death needs to mean something. He wanted what is best for Haiti, a new constitution, elections, prosperity.
He was a husband, a father, a family man, a friend to many. The Haitian people, even those who may not have supported him, will come to realize how much he cared about them. He came from humble beginnings to become president of a country where social mobility is a rarity, if not an impossibility.
The Haitian people need to come together. Haiti must, once and for all, take to heart the words inscribed on their flag: Unity is Strength.
Damián Merlo is the principal of the Latin America Advisory Group and worked with Jóvenel Moïse on his campaign. He also managed former President Michel Martelly’s campaign.