Carole Concha Bell reports for Byline Times on the protests in Haiti against corruption, which have been violently repressed, and on the events leading up to them. This piece, entitled Haiti’s Embezzled Millions: The Revolt Against the President’s ‘State Terrorism’ was originally published on December 22, 2020.
Haiti is not unfamiliar with violent uprisings and unrest – it was born on the back of foreign interference, fearsome dictatorships and the massacre of political opponents.
However, since the US-backed installation of Jovenel Moïse in 2004 as President, the unrest has been relentless, with violence and the repression of dissenters reaching a bloody crescendo in recent weeks.
The Caribbean country is the poorest in the western hemisphere with around 65% of the population living below the poverty line, health services only reaching 40-60% of the population, and high infant mortality rates. It is also vulnerable to natural disasters and historically suffers from high levels of corruption permeating its political, economic and legal institutions.
“Since the bloody kidnapping coup d’etat of February 29 2004, against democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, national and local representatives and people have continually taken to the streets,” Pierre Labossiere, founder of the Haiti Action Committee based in California, told Byline Times. “Thousands were killed in a campaign by right-wing death squads, the Haitian police and UN occupation forces to stamp-out popular democracy and impose successive ultra-right governments that implement neoliberal policies.
“For the past nearly 17 years, people in cities and rural areas have experienced a rapid increase in miserable living conditions: ‘lavi che’ or the high cost of living, starvation wages, drastic reduction of basic services in education, health care, access to potable water, electricity and sanitation to name only these.”
The main source of the recent public outcry stems from the embezzlement of as much as $2 billion from Venezuela’s ‘Petro Caribe’ programme by Moïse and his predecessor, Michel Martelly. This was initially intended to assist Haitians by improving infrastructure, health, and education services but the subsidies from the programme were never passed on to the general public.
This has led to growing anger and protests, in which demonstrators have been violently repressed by Haiti’s US-funded and trained police force.
Petro Caribe was an oil alliance overseen by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, involving 18 other Central American and Caribbean states. It was set up in 2005 as a response to the ravages of extreme neoliberal policies in the region and Haiti was one of the later states to join in 2007.
As part of the programme, Venezuela offers oil to member countries who must pay-off 60% of the bill within 90 days. The remaining 40% can be financed over 25 years at 1% interest. This huge energy subsidy was supposed to aid debt and poverty-ridden states. But six different Haitian governments stand accused of embezzling $2 billion of the oil cash instead of spending it on vital infrastructure projects.
The Moïse administration alone is thought to have mismanaged at least $1 billion of the funds, leaving ordinary Haitians to pick up the tab through high taxes and disproportionate living costs. The funds that should have been used to rebuild the country’s infrastructure following the ravages of tropical storm Laura and hurricane Eta, plus the onset of Coronavirus, have simply vanished.
“People are seeing their tax money dilapidated by Government officials becoming very rich quickly as basic services such as trash removal are no longer or sparsely provided,” said Labossiere. “Strikes by sanitation workers, teachers, healthcare workers who have gone unpaid for months are frequent. Empty lots stand where a hospital should be providing services to residents dying for lack of basic healthcare… Teachers go unpaid for months, schools are lacking basic supplies.
“NGOs, Government officials and members of Haiti’s ruling elite have been named in the various reported scandals… Recent scandals involve millions of dollars for COVID-19 that are similarly unaccounted for as hospitals and health care workers lack PPE and basic supplies.”
Human Rights Under Attack
In November, Haitian activists and students took to the streets enraged by rampant corruption and soaring levels of poverty. The police responded to the protests with disproportionate force.
One of the students, Grégory Saint-Hilaire, died from shotgun injuries when Haitian police security forces illegally entered the university in Port-au-Prince, fuelling more rioting. Saint-Hilaire was an outspoken pro-democracy activist. Monferrier Dorval, a respected lawyer and head of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association, was also gunned down this year, just hours after speaking out on a live radio programme.
“Protestors want an immediate end to the regime of Jovenel Moïse,” Laboisse added. “They want a transition government of public safety headed by competent, honest citizens that will address the immediate needs of the population. They want Jovenel Moïse arrested and prosecuted for corruption and crimes against humanity – he is named in the official Government reports on corruption.
“Protestors are demanding an honest government that is accountable to the people of Haiti. People want an end to state terrorism experienced in police brutality, killings of peaceful protestors, unannounced home demolitions and land grabs.”
Main image: A demonstration in Port Au Prince, Haiti, on 7 December 2019 – SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Image