Once again, Haiti is back in the headlines with reports that play on the image of the country as a place of endemic instability, violence and corruption. Be wary of lazy reporting that does not attempt understand this crisis properly. This is a story that demands global attention.
Haitians have called for greater transparency for years, but since last July, those calls have grown louder and louder, following the Haitian government’s decision to raise fuel prices in order to qualify for a low-interest IMF loan. In the last two weeks, the protests have commanded the streets and the cameras, and placed serious pressure upon President Jovenel Moïse and his administration.
Between the words of those who hold a stake in current proceedings, and those who misrepresent them through negligence or by design, the HSG believes it is vital that the roots and character of the demonstrations, and what is at stake, be made clear. This is a brief guide to the main issues of the protests and the context in which they take place.
Why did the fuel rise spark such outrage?
Haitians have been faced with a rising cost of living for years and rely exclusively on motor vehicles for transport. Fuel prices, however, have largely remained steady, thanks in part to Petrocaribe. This programme saw Venezuela help to finance Haitian oil purchases and provided long maturity, low rate loans. Beginning in 2008, Haiti received billions of dollars of support from Venezuela. The money, however, has now gone.
Knowing the fuel rise would be unpopular, the Moïse administration decided to announce it during the Brazil v Belgium World Cup match, which had Haiti’s full attention, perhaps hoping a Brazil victory would temper dissatisfaction. However, Brazil lost. Returning home, Haitians learned of the decision.
Anger at this quiet announcement soon combined with questions regarding government corruption, as Haitians began to wonder why the government was so short of money that it needed the IMF loan, why it had defaulted on loan repayments to Venezuela, when little evidence could be seen as to how, and on what, the borrowed money had been spent, and why they were the ones paying this price.
“Kote Kòb Petrocaribe a?”
“Where is the Petrocaribe money?”
In Autumn 2017, a senate inquiry had revealed that $1.7bn of the Petrocaribe money was unaccounted for. It was clear that the responsibility for the disappeared money lay at the feet of the ruling party PHTK and its presidents Michel Martelly (2011-2016) and Moïse. Accusations of corruption increasingly focused on the latter, whose banana export business Agritrans has only ever made two shipments to Europe, has displaced and impoverished thousands, and has alleged links to the Petrocaribe loan.
Many were already angry at Moïse and the PHTK because of how he was elected. It was an aborted election, riddled with corruption, intimidation and intervention, and another example of democracy discouraged in Haiti in recent years. As Martelly’s handpicked successor, Moïse’s campaign had the use of government funds including what remained of the Petrocaribe loan.
In November 2018, paramilitary forces with alleged links to the government conducted a massacre in the La Saline neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince. 59 were killed. Nobody has been held accountable for this.
In the last two weeks, these frustrations have reached boiling point. Demonstrations in Port-au-Prince are now almost constant.
Who is protesting?
Most of the protesters seem to be from Port-au-Prince. There are numerous groups demonstrating, motivated by a host of issues that have caused anger over the past few years, including Petrocaribe, the tainted elections of 2016/7 and 2011 (both won by PHTK), longstanding rumours of government corruption, the continuing toll of cholera, the continuing failings of international aid and meddlers from abroad.
Unsurprisingly, politicians, militants and opportunists have joined protestors on the streets, echoing calls for the president to resign, and attempting to influence proceedings to their own advantage; the infamous Senator Youri Latortue, known for his longstanding nefarious political activities, has made himself very visible. For its part, the Moïse administration has made frequent overtures to notorious paramilitary leader Guy Philippe. The entrance of such figures does not at all bode well for those who wish for a return to relative tranquillity, or a move toward greater transparency in government activity.
How are the protests affecting daily lives?
Demonstrations are almost constant, the streets are barricaded, and there are frequent reports of gunfire and injuries. A journalist, Robert Sanon, has been shot.
The situation in Port-au-Prince becomes increasingly fraught; the city has been on lockdown for a week, shelves are bare, fuel reserves are low, prices are inflating, and drinking water is increasingly sparse. The latter is especially concerning, considering the continuing problems with cholera in the country since the disease was introduced into Haiti as a result of UN negligence in 2010.
How has the Haitian government responded?
Moïse originally retreated from view and tried to wait for the manifestations to pass. However, there are no signs of dissipation. In response, he has recalled ambassadors from the US and Mexico, and pressured his PM Jean Henry Céant to resign, in an attempt to mitigate the anger towards his administration.
On 18th February, five heavily armed US Americans were arrested in Port-au-Prince on the charge of “conspiracy.” They could be mercenaries, or private security, or traffickers; at this moment we can only speculate. However, the government’s very public decision to arrest them may be a diversionary tactic.
How have key international actors responded?
The so-called “Core Group” – principally the USA, Canada, the EU, and the OAS – have consistently supported PHTK over the past decade, having themselves been influential in the rise to power of the party, which promised to make Haiti “open for business”. Now they call, as in 2016, for fresh elections as a way out of the crisis, mimicking much of the Port-au-Prince intelligentsia. However, both groups fail to acknowledge the role that recent elections have played in the formation of the current crisis; especially considering the highly suspect past votes that have met the general approval of these groups. Some diplomats, including those from the EU, have been pulled out.
Moïse has appealed to Donald Trump to send international aid. This move has come as the Haitian government also decided to break its relationship with President Maduro in Venezuela and back opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim President Guiadó in a move to further ingratiate itself with Trump. Trump, in sending aid, demonstrates his continued support for Moïse. At the same time, the US government released a statement stating its commitment to “the Haitian people,” the “Haitian National Police” and to “holding those implicated in the PetroCaribe scandal accountable.” On 15th February, the USA landed 10 Marines in order to protect the embassy.
The Core Group has supported Moïse throughout his presidency, and a change in this policy is currently unlikely. However, there remains a great and increasing tension between calls for democracy and transparency and support of the current administration.
The situation continues to develop by the day. Haiti needs many vigilant eyes watching as events unfold. If you would like to follow events in Haiti, we recommend sources such as Alterpresse, the Center for Economic and Policy Research or CETRI.
Written by Antony Stewart and Andy Leak. Edits by Eve Hayes de Kalaf.