‘Saddest moment.’ NC community still reeling after assassination of Haiti’s president

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Dafney Tales-Lafortune woke up earlier than usual Wednesday, July 7, to several notifications on her cell phone screen.

“My whole body just started vibrating,” the 36-year-old said in an interview at her home in Durham.

The notifications were headlines and messages from family and friends, saying Haitian president Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated. His wife was also wounded.

Moïse’s death came after a tumultuous year and a half, filled with political strikes and opponents’ calls for his resignation. His five-year term was supposed to end earlier this year in February. Moïse, however, stated that he would remain in power until 2022. For many, he was seen as an illegitimate president.

“I could not believe it,” Tales-Lafortune said of the assassination. “It took me forever to process.”

The news also came as Tales-Lafortune, a Haitian American woman, was planning a July 24 round table on Haitian issues and culture. She thought of canceling it when Moïse was killed but changed her mind.

“We need this more than ever,” she said. “We’re going to have that round table and have, like, cathartic, you know, conversations and see how we can process and how we can rebuild.”

Serving Haitian food and culture

Tales-Lafortune is originally from Brockton, Massachusetts, south of Boston, known for its racial and ethnic diversity. Her parents migrated from Haiti during the Jean-Claude Duvalier regime in the late 1970s. The former president, known as “Baby Doc,” was the son of dictator Francois Duvalier, or “Papa Doc.”

In the Triangle, Tales-Lafortune and her husband, André, 41, own the Bon Fritay Haitian Food Truck.

“Bon fritay” means “good fried food” in Haitian creole. Their menu highlights street-food favorites like green plantains (bannan peze) twice-fried to a crisp, stacked between a layer of “griot,” or fried pork, and eaten like a sandwich. At Bon Fritay they call this type of food “manje kenbe,” or handhelds.

Tales-Lafortune says the food truck enables them to teach their non-Haitian customers where Haiti is located on a map and share stories about their culture.

“We talk to them about, like, the essence of Haitian street food,” she said. “We get more pleasure out of teaching people about Haitian culture and food, than just serving them food.”

Island of Hispaniola

Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. It has about 11 million people and is among the poorest countries in the world.

Census data show just over 2,000 Haitian-born people in North Carolina. Many came in late 2010 after a magnitude 7 earthquake west of the capital city Port-au-Prince that killed at least 200,000 people.

André Lafortune was born near Port-au-Prince in the neighborhood of Bel Air. In 2000, he moved to the United States to work and study.

“To see what’s going on down there, especially where I grew up, it’s just heartbreaking,” he said. “Jovenel Moïse’s assassination is just unbelievable. It’s something I would never imagine would have happened in this era.”

Haiti was struggling before Moïse was killed. According to the Associated Press, Haiti has faced political instability, poverty and gang violence since the end of both Duvalier regimes from 1957 to 1986.

Natural disasters, like Hurricanes Jeanne and Matthew, the deadly 2010 earthquake and the subsequent cholera outbreak, kept the country in perpetual recovery mode. The coronavirus pandemic was just the latest challenge.

For all those reasons, the assassination wasn’t quite as surprising for Pastor David Eugene, 66, who is a board member of a Raleigh-based nonprofit called Hearts and Hands for Haiti.

“It has never been quiet in Haiti,” Eugene said. “There’s always been violence. And over the past two months, violence has taken a different turn.”

Eugene has lived in the U.S. the past 40 years and, for most of that time, traveled to Haiti at least four times a year. But in the last few years, he’s only traveled once, in September 2020.

“This is the first time I’ve experienced this,” he said. “This is one of the saddest moments in my life.”

While Moïse’s leadership was far from perfect, he supported Haiti’s farmers, Eugene said. And the farming industry makes up the largest sector of the country’s economy.

Praying for political stability

Ricardo Richardson, a biology professor at N.C. Central University, returns at least twice a year to his hometown of Jean-Rabel in northwestern Haiti. For the past 10 years, he says, he’s been preparing to retire to a house he’s building there.

While that house is far from the capital, Richardson worries about unrest spreading after Moïse’s funeral Friday.

As part of the country mourned, Haiti’s police-backed Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph assumed leadershipy. Within days, he stepped down after a power struggle with Ariel Henry, whom Moïse had tapped to become the next prime minister.

Richardson hopes “the fragile government” strengthens and that a national election is held soon so that a new government is in place by this time next year.

“Maybe we’ll start functioning again,” the 62-year-old professor said. “All we are praying for is for the insecurity to end and for political stability.”

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