TROU-DU-NORD, Haiti — Northern Haiti feels like a place apart, its wide green fields and colorful churches seemingly worlds away from the gang wars and peril in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where political players are now vying for power in the wake of President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination.
But on Friday, as residents and supporters in Trou-du-Nord, Mr. Moïse’s quiet northern hometown, gathered for a local memorial Mass and march, the conversations here tightly echoed those in the capital — over the state that keeps consuming itself, over the country’s overfed elite, over the international actors who use Haiti as a pawn.
“We’re sending a signal to the oligarchy,” said Cubano Fils-Aime, a 31-year-old member of a local committee that organized the memorial for Mr. Moïse. “The bourgeoisie control everything that comes into the country — they control the state.”
Haiti is a shockingly unequal country. The rich live in mansions up in the hills above the capital, flying to Miami and Paris regularly, and controlling more than 64 percent of the country’s economy, according to the World Bank. Most of the poor — a large majority of Haitians — live in shacks with no running water, earning an average of $2.41 a day.
A small group of families have a lock on the country’s important economic sectors, from imports to banking, according to Fritz Alphonse Jean, a former prime minister and past governor of Haiti’s Central Bank. These were the “oligarchs” that Mr. Moïse continually railed against in speeches and interviews, claiming that they were bleeding the country dry.
But his critics said that he targeted only political opponents and that he still counted some oligarchs as allies. And by the time of his assassination, he was himself one of the elite, enjoying a gilded lifestyle in the hills above Port-au-Prince.
In the capital, where protests against him clogged the streets for years, Mr. Moïse was seen as being increasingly autocratic. He was accused of tacitly supporting the proliferation of gangs — that at first terrorized mostly the slums, but later spread to other areas — in order to stifle dissent. And he was intensely criticized for his plans to change the Constitution to consolidate power and allow himself another term.
But here in Trou-du-Nord, where journalists from The New York Times visited on Thursday and Friday, he was remembered mostly as the son of a sugar cane farmer and seamstress. He spent his early years packed in with many siblings into a modest two story home set on a dirt alley beside a tin shack — years before he was plucked out of obscurity and introduced to the country as the president-to-be.
As a younger child, he went to the local Catholic school, and played soccer under the shade of the flamboyant trees in its dirt yard, where goats and ducks roam today.
His sister-in-law Rosena Antinor Moïse, 65, is now the school’s director. She remembers the president as a laser-focused child, much like the man he became later. “Once he started something,” she said, “he had to end it.”
“Now that he’s dead, many people are saying he was a good president,” she said, adding that his violent death frightened her and others, and silenced many in the town. “I’m scared of a lot of things in this country.”
Trou-du-Nord is plunked down on Haiti’s great northern flats, once the center of the world’s most productive, and deadly, sugar cane farms. Half of the kidnapped Africans brought here by slaving ships died within a couple years, according to the historian Laurent Dubois.
Centuries later, long after the slaves threw off Napoleon’s troops and declared their country as the world’s first independent Black republic, this town remains an agricultural hub, with piles of green bananas cruising the main road on pickup trucks, the roofs of tap-tap buses and the backs of motorcycles.
Compared with the fear and hostility that suffocates Port-au-Prince, Trou-du-Nord feels almost idyllic for its relative openness and safety. I could leave my flack jacket in the car, and it was easy approach neighbors talking amiably from their open doorways or under their low-slung tin awnings. Men played soccer in the thin streets, without fear of being kidnapped.
Cars rounded the central streets with industrial-size loudspeakers strapped to their roofs — the Haitian version of mobile advertising. One blasted the gravelly voice of a former mayor on loop: “President, you’re gone — they killed the body, but they can’t kill your dream!” the speaker sputtered.
The Assassination of Haiti’s President
Leaning out the window of the car, the driver, Roneld Jean-Louis, said he had campaigned for Mr. Moïse and liked him. “The bourgeoisie wouldn’t let him get through,” he said.
The morning of the Mass, crowds wearing their Sunday hats, face-masks and white T-shirts bearing Mr. Moïse’s face pressed into the pews of the town’s central, breezy church, St. Jean Baptiste. The Rev. Bernard Etienne pronounced from the dais, “This death allows us to see that no one is spared, no one is safe.”
After the service, the congregants spilled into the street for a rally, with signs demanding justice, including the arrests of Haiti’s national police chief, Léon Charles, and Dimitri Hérard, the presidential palace security chief who was taken into custody this week. “They killed Jojo,” they chanted, referring to the president by his local nickname. “We’ll kill them, too.”
Despite their vocal support of the president, some Trouvians, as they are known, said that he hadn’t done much for them besides having the roads recently paved. He had moved away to Port-au-Prince for high school, and later moved to Port-de-Paix, where he was president of the regional chamber of commerce.
The banana plantation that gave Mr. Moïse his political nickname — Neg Bannann, or Banana Man — is just outside town. In 2015, shortly before launching his campaign, Mr. Moïse, accompanied by then-President Michel Martelly, proclaimed before television cameras that his company had made its inaugural delivery of bananas to Europe — a first for the country in more than 50 years. It embodied his promise of investment in the country’s agricultural sector.
Six years later, the farm looks all but abandoned from the road, with a few cows roaming under spindly trees, but no sign of banana trees.
Two months before his assassination, President Moïse was about 10 miles away in Grand-Basin, opening the Marion hydroelectric dam, which he promised would generate more stable electricity and irrigate 10,000 hectares.
“He didn’t finish it,” said Mackenson Messmin, a 38-year-old community development worker. “Regretfully, he’s dead and we don’t know if his dream will continue.”
Harold Isaac and Federico Rios contributed reporting.