Haiti Update 9/27/2019

On Wednesday morning at 2:00 a.m. Haiti’s President, Jovenel Moïse, addressed the country on television – yes, a.m. Moïse is once again under intense pressure to step down. The point of his early morning address was to make clear he was not going to step down and to ask for unity.  He said

“We have a responsibility to assume our responsibility in front of the nation and history…It is because of this I am extending my hand to all of the forces of the nation, for us to sit together to form a national unity government that has the capacity and legitimacy to address together the urgent problems the country is undergoing.” 

The context for the address has many layers. The most immediate was the failure of the Senate to affirm his appointment for Prime Minister, Fritz William Michel, earlier this week. Michel’s confirmation has been contentious following a variety of allegations of corruption. 

The tensions in the Senate session on Monday spilled over in the street as people gathered to protest the confirmation vote. From The Guardian

The senate president, Carl Murat Cantave, had given instructions to the police that only senators would be allowed into the senate precinct with one driver and two police-appointed security agents. 

Within hours he was criticising the police on Radio Magik9, saying they could not contain the crowds and there was chaos in the yard. Separately the senator Jean Rigaud Belizaire complained the senate’s rooms had been smeared with a liquid resembling faeces.

Senators, realising that the session would not happen and the ratification would have to be delayed again, began trying to leave to shouts of “thief, thief, thief.” Cantave himself was reported to be confined to parliament, having to retreat in his car under a barrage of rocks.

In the midst of the protest, Moïse ally Senator Jean Marie Ralph Féthière opened fire with a handgun outside the Senate building as he tried to get in his car, shooting a reporter and bodyguard. 

The Wednesday morning address did not specifically say Moïse would withdraw Michel’s nomination, but suggested it was likely (blaming the Senate for failing to act). From the Miami Herald:

Moïse did say that after multiple attempts by the Senate at a ratification vote, he had concluded that the chamber was not up to the task of fulfilling its constitutional duty to give Haiti a legitimate government. Two successive governments, Moïse noted, had failed to win Senate confirmation over the past six months and six hearings had to be aborted. One government was headed by Michel, and the other by Prime Minister Jean Michel Lapin, who resigned prior to Michel’s naming on July 22.

Another layer to the current iteration of crisis is the lack of fuel in the country. The fuel shortage is enough on its own to garner anger. However, the entire structure of the fuel delivery system in Haiti simply serves as a reminder of the cronyism at play throughout the economy.

For nearly 11 years Haiti was able to access subsidized fuel shipments from Venezuela. By purchasing at a discounted, concessional rate, the government could resell the fuel with a mark up to fuel distribution companies within Haiti, using the “profit” to fund investment in development projects. The “PetroCaribe” framework had some promise, but last year Venezuela was forced to stop the program under increasing sanctions from the United States. In the wake of that disruption, evidence came to light that much of the PetroCaribe money was simply redirected to government friends given contracts for projects that were never finished, or, in some cases, never started. PetroCaribe money was not a grant – but in essence a loan, albeit at very low repayment rates. So, Haiti’s government has a large debt to Venezuela (which is not in a position to forgive much, if any of it at the moment), and nothing really to show for it in terms of new development. The anger around the PetroCaribe scandal has been a major factor in demonstrations against the current government – which has failed to indict anyone – for over a year now.

As the PetroCaribe program began to unravel, other energy traders have stepped in, but no longer at concessional rates. International energy traders sell fuel to the government, which in turn sells to domestic distributors. If the distributors get behind in payments, the government does not have the money to pay traders for new shipments. The government’s intermediary role is also complicated because of its policy of subsidizing fuel costs in an effort to keep prices down – which requires a reimbursement to companies. The government has not been able to keep up with these payments – leading to a suspension of the delivery of fuel by international traders back in February/March of this year, and again this August. 

There are a number of reasons for this: A decline in overall economic activity and limited collection of tax revenue – always a struggle in the best of times – is a big part of the problem. Also, the price of oil is increasing internationally due to a variety of crises, not least of which is ongoing tension in the Middle East, none of which have anything to do with Haiti. On top of this, the gourde continues to lose value against the dollar – currently trading at 96 gourde to 1 dollar. As fuel is sold in gourdes in the local market, but purchased in dollars on the international market, over time the state’s debt increases significantly. Gas prices have been forced up more than double the price in gourdes. The government will likely be forced to introduce some kind of rationing scheme to ensure that it is able to keep payments flowing. Both measures are obviously very unpopular. Undermining all of this is an “unofficial” market in fuel that is commanding much higher prices – and thus providing a huge incentive to cheat on the margins.

Stepping back a bit further, the fuel situation is replicated throughout the economy as the cost of basic goods continues to increase with the collapse of the gourde. Items are either traded from international sources, or fuel prices are putting upward pressure on domestic trade. Either way, costs are fast outpacing what people are making. This speaks to the importance of supporting local agriculture, as it can provide some stability in price and access to food. This is a chief benefit of the program we support in Gros Morne. But Haiti is a long way from achieving this level of food sovereignty on a national level. Indeed, under international pressure from the United States and international financial institutions, Haiti has become more dependent on food imports. Such restructuring of the economy over the last 30 years, not any specific Moïse policy, is what underlies the current crisis. 

Jane Regan writes in NACLA,

Haiti has seen its share of upheaval, but never a president who lasted this long in the face of such dire conditions, according to Haitian human rights advocate Marie Yolène Gilles. 

“At my age, I’ve seen a lot of crises,” Gilles, 59, explained. “This is the worst I have ever seen. This is the first time I’ve seen a completely ungoverned country. All of the state institutions are sick.”

The director of the human rights advocacy group Je Klere Foundation, Gilles is no stranger to political unrest, violent coups d’états, and foreign occupations. A former journalist, she remembers the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, the fall of interim governments, and two coups against Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991 and 2004.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a president successfully cling to power like this,” she said. “Even though people are dying, people are disappearing, people are suffering.”

As Regan reports, Gilles and others seem clear that Moïse is still in office because the United States wants him there. Officially, the United States has put its emphasis on elections as the way out of the crisis. But elections are not happening anytime soon. This leaves a huge question about what the United States will do. Prolonged periods of crisis in Haiti have often ended with the president put on a plane by U.S. government officials and/or the military being called out to “provide security.” For now the U.S. seems to be banking on Moïse riding out the crisis until new elections can be called, however long delayed. It doesn’t seem like much of a strategy. But then, the less the United States does at this point, probably the better.

As for the president’s early morning address – it was greeted with renewed protests Wednesday morning, and throughout the the week.

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