Protests against Haitian President Jovenel Moïse re-emerged last week as part of a year long campaign demanding his resignation. The movement against Moïse gained international attention last July when protests sparked by an announced end to fuel subsidies ultimately led to the resignation of Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant*. A new government formed in October last year under Moïse-appointed Prime Minister Jean-Henry Céant lasted less than six months when he was removed in a vote of no-confidence a month after February protests. Moise, however, remains in office and has refused to address the concerns of demonstrators directly. This week he made only brief remarks, denying involvement in corruption and demanding that people stay calm – making clear his intent to use the police to maintain order.
In the midst of the latest round of demonstrations, the United States State Department did change its travel advisory for Haiti from Level Four (do not travel) to Level Three (reconsider travel). This will offer some relief for businesses dependent on travel and tourism and make it easier for aid groups to provide services.
The current protests were launched with a transportation strike last Monday. Jacqueline Charles reported on the death of a journalist during the protests in the Miami Herald:
Late Monday night, a well-known radio journalist, Rospide Pétion, was shot to death in Port-au-Prince, authorities confirmed. Pétion worked for Radio Sans Fin…Three of the individuals who allegedly set fire to vehicles belonging to Radio Télé Ginen were arrested by Haiti National Police, who also opened an internal probe into the death of the motorcyclist after the head of the presidential guards, Dimitri Hérard, was accused of firing the fatal shot at the intersection of Delmas and airport roads.
After a pause on Wednesday, protests resumed on Thursday, Moïse’s tepid address Wednesday evening clearly having no impact. From yesterday’s New York Times:
Thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse clashed with police Thursday as some tried to storm barriers outside the National Palace while others sought shelter as heavy gunfire echoed in nearby streets.
The demonstration came a day after Moïse broke his silence over the country’s recent unrest and rejected demands that he step down over allegations of officials misusing funds from subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela under the Petrocaribe program. He denied any wrongdoing.
The immediate cause of the latest demonstrations was a report issued on June 4 that further documented corruption, directly implicating Moise. From the Miami Herald:
Months prior to Haiti’s deeply flawed October 2016* presidential vote, the man who would become president, Jovenel Moïse, received millions of dollars for questionable road rehabilitation projects that a panel of Haitian government auditors say were part of embezzlement schemes that defrauded the country’s poor out of billions of dollars in Venezuelan aid meant to improve their lives.
At least $1 million was for a stretch of rural road in northern Haiti that government auditors said was paid for twice, after the public works ministry issued the same contract to two firms in late 2014. The firms shared the same tax identification number, government patent, technical staff and resume of projects in their portfolio, auditors said.
The only difference between the firms, auditors noted, was their heads. Agritans listed Moïse, a relatively unknown businessman and eventual handpicked successor to then-Haiti president Michel Martelly, as its head, while Betexs, the second firm, listed someone else. Agritrans received a $419,240 or 66 percent advance on the project — two months before the signing of its contract with the ministry of public works.
“For the court, giving a second contract for the same project… is nothing less than a scheme to embezzle funds,” auditors said about the project involving the Borgne-Petit Bourg-de-Borgne road.
While the media focuses a great deal on opposition to corruption as the primary motivator of the demonstrations, the issues go much deeper. As in any movement, there are factions with different goals and coming from various ideological perspectives in the protests against Moise. However, as the popular mobilizations continue, it is clear that corruption is not ultimately the concern. Rather, it is the grave inequality in Haiti, in which a narrow spectrum of the elite, often defended, or at least shielded by the international “community,” control the economic and political institutions of the country. Corruption is thus an indicator of a deeper social crisis. Increasingly the demands from the movement are directed at confronting these systemic issues.
A recent profile of youth activists, who have been critical in the evolution of the movement helps provide some context:
“But now, the PetroCaribe challenge is not something against a president. It’s not against a dictatorship,” she said. “It’s people asking for accountability, and this is a huge problem in Haiti. But it’s been a long time since we have had so many people coming together to ask for it. I think this is really new.”
The Petrochallenge movement is comprised of two groups: Nou Pap Dòmi, or “We keep our eyes open,” which is focused on government accountability in the short term; and Ayiti Nou Vle A, or “The Haiti we want,” a group that encourages ordinary citizens to get involved in shaping Haiti’s longterm future by encouraging civic engagement, online and offline. Both groups started in the wake of Mirambeau’s tweet.
For inspiration, the Petrochallengers have looked to other youth-led movements around the world that used social media, such as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and Y’en a Marre, a Senegalese movement created by young rappers and journalists to protest ineffective government and register youth to vote. They’ve also looked to France’s Yellow Vest protests[…]
Social media is a key component of the Petrochallenge movement, said Gaëlle Bien-Aimé, 31, a Haitian women’s rights activist, comedian and Petrochallenger. For example, people have tweeted photos of vacant lots and skeletal structures where some of the nearly $2 billion in PetroCaribe funds were supposed to have been spent.
For an excellent, detailed analysis of the roots of the protest, I highly recommend the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti’s (IJDH) recent report, “Haiti at a Crossroads: An Analysis of the Drivers Behind Haiti’s Political Crisis.” In this report, IJDH breaks down not just recent developments, but the historical/structural drivers of the crisis that are important for understanding the current moment. From the executive summary:
This report seeks to put the current crisis in Haiti into context by explaining the short-, medium- and long-term factors driving the unrest, including detailing some of the gravest human rights violations in Haiti during President Moïse’s tenure. In the short term, the PetroCaribe scandal galvanized civil society and was the spark that brought Haitians into the streets. In the medium term, the movement is a response to the Moïse administration’s broader abuses of authority and de-prioritization of the rights and needs of the impoverished majority. President Moïse assumed office without a true popular mandate, having been elected in a low-turnout process that left him beholden to foreign and elite interests and a patronage network over the impoverished majority. In office, his administration has engaged in human rights abuses, flouted the rule of law, and mismanaged the economy in ways that disproportionately impact the poor. In the long term, this administration’s failures are enabled by years of flawed elections, a dysfunctional justice system and domestic and foreign economic policies that have impoverished the majority of Haitians.
The drivers behind the movement reflect repeated failures by Haitian leaders to serve their people, but they are also the result of decisions made by actors outside of Haiti. While the international community has invested billions in building up rule of law institutions in Haiti, powerful governments and international institutions have also exerted influence on Haiti to forge ahead with problematic, exclusionary elections and to accept a system of justice that allows foreign and elite actors to operate above the law. The faults of the decades-long prioritization of short-term stability over rule of law are now cracking. If the international community is to support a sustainable way forward for Haiti, it must finally take its lead from Haitians and support systemic reform that will be long and difficult. Systemic reform is the only way for Haiti to emerge out of this crisis into a place of true stability.
As the protests continue into this week, pressure remains on Moise to step down. What a transition would look like were he to do so, is not clear. Elections for Haiti’s Parliament are scheduled for October and the current crisis will certainly weigh heavily on them. But absent major reform they are unlikely to settle anything or offer resolution to the underlying structural inequities that are driving the current mobilizations. The people of Haiti have always been on the leading edge of democratic mobilization in this hemisphere, from the revolution in 1804 to today’s confrontation with the brutal political structures and consequence of neo-liberalizaton. Too often, victory has been stolen through retrenchment of the elite and an international community that wants a compliance. It is hard to see how things will turn out this time. But the determination to create a new political and economic order is strong, and the protests will almost certainly continue until something significant changes.
An earlier draft mistakenly identified Laurent Lamothe as the prime minister who resigned in July of 2018. Lamothe is a former prime minister (2012-2014) who served under President Martelly – he has been implicated in the PetroCaribe scandal as well.
The date for elections in the Miami Herald article quoted above is incorrect. The original election was October 25, 2015 – the results were widely protested, and ultimately annulled. The new “deeply flawed” elections were held on November 20, 2016.
h/t to Reparations for Haiti (@ReparationsH ) for the call out and corrections.