The middle-of-the-night assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse at his home near Port-au-Prince early Wednesday is a shocking and brutal act that will be felt far beyond the island nation.

In Miami, with its deep connections to Haiti, this bloodshed comes as cataclysmic news. It will no doubt create even greater fears that the country, already hurting for so long, will now descend into chaos.

It's not yet completely clear what happened. Initial reports indicated the attackers spoke Spanish and that some claimed to be with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, though sources told the Miami Herald those DEA claims were false. Interim premier Claude Joseph quickly condemned the attack, which also seriously injured Moïse's wife, Martine, as "odious, inhumane and barbaric."

It follows months of unrest and violence in Haiti, a poor nation of about 11 million. Since January 2020, Moïse, 53, had been ruling by decree, after the country failed to hold elections. Opposition leaders have been demanding that he step down amid a constitutional crisis and allegations that he used armed gangs to stay in power.

The assault occurred just one day after Moïse named a new prime minister to take charge of the government and prepare the country for elections in two months, including for president.

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Even as the country has grown increasingly dangerous, with kidnappings on the rise along with gang violence, the Biden administration has been pushing for free and fair elections there. But not everyone agreed. In February, members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken urging the U.S. to back a transition government in Haiti. The lawmakers said the human rights situation there was perilous, and accused Moïse of flouting democracy.

In May, the U.S. extended 18 months of Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to Haitians already living in the United States, an important acknowledgment that conditions in the country had grown too unstable for citizens to return safely.

The assassination of Moïse will now force new clarity in U.S. policy on Haiti. The U.S. is Haiti's biggest donor. The administration is well aware that there have been worrying signs for months that Moïse was becoming the region's newest strongman. Still, the U.S. has continued to push for "free and fair" elections" in a country with too much turmoil to pull that off.

We don't yet know what the full ramifications of this assassination will be. We don't know in what direction the country will go nor exactly what the U.S. role will need to be. But there is no doubt, as we wait to learn more, that this horrific execution of the president of Haiti means the U.S. must step up, clearly and strongly, to back democracy in that tortured nation.

©2021 Miami Herald.

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