The Caribbean nation was swept into disarray on Wednesday following the gangland-style murder of President Jovenel Moise. Haiti’s interim authorities have requested the deployment of a contingent of US and United Nations troops to protect key infrastructure and prevent the situation from being destabilized any further.
Haitian opposition figure Reginald Boulos hired a senior Washington lobbyist to help build up his political party and ‘encourage’ President Biden and other US leaders to support the creation of an interim Haitian government two days before President Jovenel Moise’s assassination, Politico reports, citing the lobbyist and Boulos himself.
The lobbyist, Art Estopinan, is well-known in Washington circles, with his consulting group boasting its ability to reach “successful outcomes” for clients seeking advice or the right connections with federal officials. Estopinan’s resume includes former chief chief of staff to ex-Florida GOP congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a powerful ex-chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Other ‘accolades’ include pressure campaigns in favour of a harsher US stance on Cuba and Venezuela, and lobbying work for companies and non-profits ranging from Amnesty International and Orius Biotech to the Qatari government.
Estopinan told the newspaper that he was hired by Boulos on Monday, about 48 hours before President Moise’s death.
Boulos, one of Haiti’s wealthiest businessmen, has an estimated net worth of $620 million, and an empire of grocery stores, car dealerships and hotels. His opposition MTV Ayiti Party has spent months attacking Moise for staying on as president past 7 February, when his term formally expired, according to Haiti’s Superior Judicial Council.
Boulos confirmed hiring Estopinan, but stressed that the opposition was not behind Moise’s murder. “We condemn the killing strongly, very strongly. It’s a sad time for Haiti. It’s a dark day for Haiti.”
The businessman also frankly admitted that he hired Estopian specifically “to give me access to the US administration so I can promote my vision of the new Haiti.”
Estopinan’s lobbying group had worked with Boulos before. According to ProPublica, the mogul gave the lobbyist $160,000 to lobby the House of Representatives and the Senate between late 2019 and May 2021 on the topic of “human rights violations in Haiti under the Moise regemen.”
Under the new contract, Estopinan is reportedly expected to ‘encourage’ the Biden administration, including the president personally and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to support an agreement under which Joseph Lambert, the president of Haiti’s Senate, would serve as an interim president. The lobbying is also expected to include influencing House and Senate foreign relations and foreign affairs committee members, as well as the House Haiti Caucus.
It’s not clear how such an arrangement would square with the current situation, in which acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph, a Moise appointee, is serving as the country’s de facto leader. Boulos’ vision envisions politician Ariel Henry to serve as prime minister instead of Joseph. Moise had appointed Henry as prime minister designate two days before being killed, but was not installed in office after the assassination exacerbated the country’s political crisis.
Under Boulos’s plan, Lambert would serve as president until February 2023, with the upcoming national elections scheduled for September to be delayed until 2022. Boulos himself is reportedly considering a run for the presidency. The businessman supported Moise’s election in 2016 but was later said to have had a “big fallout with him.”
Estopinan is not the only lobbyist hired by Boulos, and the magnate has also reportedly recruited Novitas Communications, a Colorado-based public relations firm, and Joe Miklosi, a Denver-based political consultant and former lawmaker, to lobby for and hold fundraising campaigns for the Haitian businessman inside the US.
A total of 19 individuals, including 17 Colombian nationals and Two Americans of Haitian descent, have now been arrested in the wake of Moise’s 7 June killing – which saw the president riddled with 12 bullets and during which his wife was also critically injured. Police believe a total of 28 foreign mercenaries were involved in the assassination plot.
Haiti’s interim authorities have requested the US and the UN to deploy troops to the island to help handle security in the wake of the assassination. Washington has not yet responded, with the UN saying it was “examining” the request. A two-week state of emergency was declared in Haiti following Moise’s death, with police given a broad range of powers to track down the remainder of the late president’s killers.
Aside from the fact that it was carried out by foreign hitmen, Moise’s assassination has been punctuated by other strange circumstances, including the fact that suspects were found in strange locations around the country, including the Taiwanese Embassy and a house connected to senior Moise ally Magalie Habitant (where the two suspected US mercs – James Solages and Joseph Vincent holed up). In addition, the two Americans have revealed to police that they worked as translators for the hit squad on behalf of a mysterious mastermind they identified only as ‘Mike.’