In Haiti, after decades of legal banditry, a new revolutionary project arises to ask where all the money has gone.
On February 7, 2019, thousands of Haitians took to the streets of Port-au-Prince and the cities of Cap-Haitien, Gonaives, and Jacmel to demand the prosecution of government officials and business elites who had embezzled two billion dollars from the PetroCaribe program, a favorable oil loan agreement between Venezuela and a number of Caribbean partner countries intended to subsidize development and, after the 2010 earthquake, reconstruction.
Shaking tree branches with leaves, protesters marched to the beat of rara bands chanting “Jovenel! Today is February 7 and you must go!” The day holds particular significance for Haitians as it marks the anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship of the Duvalier family, back in 1986. Through a series of mass protests ongoing since February, Haitians have called for the removal of President Jovenel Moise, leader of the Parti Haitien Tèt Kale (the Haitian Party of Baldheads, or PHTK).
Moise had been implicated in a corruption report delivered by Haiti’s financial authority, the Cour Supérieure des Comptes et du Contentieux Administratif (Superior Court of Accounts and Administrative Litigation). As the former CEO of banana exporting company Agritrans S.A., Moise has been accused of embezzling money intended for development projects in Haiti. The company was already unpopular among some Haitians, as it had dispossessed landed peasants in order to establish Haiti’s first agricultural-export trading zone in the northeast of the country, despite protests by local organizations.
Posters across Haiti read, “Down with hunger! Down with the high cost of living!” “We are tired of Jovenel!” “The wasteful state and system need to disappear!” “Where is the PetroCaribe money? We are tired of asking for it!” “Tie up the looters of PetroCaribe!” One dissident even burned a US flag and called on Russia’s Vladimir Putin to take over the management of the country.
In Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, protesters burned tires and cars and erected barricades in the center of the city. The blockades paralyzed Haiti’s most important port and largest distribution points. They interrupted transportation and international trade passing through the capital to the rest of the country. On February 7, protesters declared a countrywide lockdown: “Peyi Lòk,” the local term for a general strike. Some torched gas stations while others raided stores for food and goods.
All commercial activities ceased for the next ten days. Dozens of unarmed rebels were killed by the police corps and other security forces attempting to retake the streets. The Haitian human rights organization Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (National Network for the Defence of Human Rights, RNDDH) reported that forty people were killed and eighty-two injured.
On June 9 2019, thousands again took to the streets of Port-au-Prince, Saint-Marc, Gonaives, Cap-Haitien, Miragoane, Jacmel, Cayes, and Jérémie to demand Moise’s resignation. In the following weeks, hundreds in Port-Au-Prince marched from the French to US embassies and paraded around the Palais National. Protesters honored radio journalist Rospide Pétion, an outspoken critic of government corruption who was murdered on June 10.
With continued gas shortages and the president’s stubborn silence, another wave of protests ensued on September 16, leading to another ongoing “peyi lòk.” In the months since, barricades have frequently gone up in Haiti’s major cities.
Back in February in a communiqué posted on the US Embassy’s website, the Core Group was already applauding the “professionalism of the Haitian National Police,” and decried the “loss of life and property damage caused by the unacceptable acts of violence” of protestors. (The Core Group is comprised of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, the ambassadors of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the European Union, the United States, and the Special Representative of the Organization of American States, or, OAS.)
President Moise followed suit with his own address to the nation on February 14, imploring Haitians to patiently wait for new developments instead of protesting, striking, and rioting. Warning of civil war, he denounced the opposition parties for marching alongside drug dealers and gangsters who “rape young girls, murder young men, and burn police officers.” Claiming the same “social origins” as the masses, he decried their victimization by “the system,” and emphasized his pride in the police. Moise ended his speech by invoking God, inviting the opposition to sit down in dialogue with him, and thanking the international community for their support in the “domain of security.”
The Masses and Their Discontent
Behind the February 7 march were three major coalitions: the opposition political parties; the Konbit Òganizasyon Politik, Sendikal ak Popilè (Konbit of Political, Syndicated, and Popular Organizations) — which is composed of various grassroots organizations, unions, and intellectuals — and the PetroChallengers, a network of young Haitians using social media to bring attention to the PetroCaribe scandal. This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of the organized forces involved in the movement. However, the PetroCaribe scandal became the point around which many different political factions — including some who had already been protesting the state for over a decade — could converge.
Established by Venezuela in June 2005, PetroCaribe was an attempt to challenge the political and economic hegemony of the US over the Americas. As an energy cooperation agreement, PetroCaribe was intended to provide preferential payment arrangements to some Caribbean and Latin American countries for petroleum and petroleum products. Unlike the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela does not require countries receiving their loans to adopt austerity programs. On the contrary, the agreement, which includes favorable loan terms such as deferred payment over twenty-five years at interest rates as low as 1 percent, would enable Haiti to invest those savings in social programs and necessary infrastructure such as roads and hospitals. Haiti joined the PetroCaribe energy bloc in 2007, after popular pressure on then-president René Préval.
Haiti has since borrowed an estimated $4.2 billion for development, yet not one project has been completed. A constellation of unfinished bridges, partial roads, and half-baked soccer stadiums dot the country’s landscape. No new hospitals, schools, housing, or sewage and trash systems have been built, even after the 2010 earthquake. Had they been used to finance social programs or subsidize basic commodities, what could these funds have meant for daily life in Haiti, especially amongst the most vulnerable?
Nearly 60 percent of Haitians live under the poverty line, with the equivalent of $2.41US per day. The country has a 40 percent unemployment rate and a minimum wage varying from $2.54 to $9.45 US per day, a maternal mortality rate of 529 deaths per 100,000 live births and an infant mortality rate of 59 deaths per 1,000 live births, and a life expectancy of sixty-four years. There is less than one hospital bed per one thousand people. Some 7.4 million of the country’s 11 million people are without electricity. On the Global Climate Risk Index of 2018, Haiti was ranked among the most susceptible to the deleterious effects of extreme weather events related to climate change.
The majority of Haiti’s population serves as surplus labor that migrates temporarily or permanently to Port-au-Prince, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Miami, New York, Montreal, Brazil, and Chile to labor in textile factories, sugarcane fields and other plantations, fast food restaurants, and private homes. Two out of every one thousand people leave the country. These transnational workers, with varying legal statuses, send $2 billion in remittances to relatives in Haiti each year. Those remittances are significant for both ordinary Haitians and the country’s economy as a whole, since Haiti’s Gross Domestic Product is just over $8 billion.
The Scramble for Haiti
In 2004, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced into exile after a coup d’état. Aristide, a Liberation Theologist, had been Haiti’s first democratically elected President in 1991, after decades of dictatorship by the Duvalier dynasty. He was deposed by a military coup after less than a year in office. Restored to power in 1994 with the assistance of the US military, Aristide was elected president again in 2001.
Following the 2004 coup, five thousand Brazilian-led United Nations Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH) troops landed on the island. The MINUSTAH surveilled and murdered residents in Haiti’s popular neighborhoods, where armed supporters of the deposed leader had organized a resistance. It was in this context that the Core Group, an alliance of Western powers with interests in shaping Haitian policy from within and without, was formed.
In 2011 the Core Group assisted the PHTK’s rise to power with President Michel Martelly, a neo-Duvalierist and popular singer. Martelly declared Haiti “open for business” — especially for extractive and export-oriented enterprises like agribusiness, tourism, mining, and textile factories in free trade zones. A self-described “legal bandit,” he amended the 1987 constitution, allowing for dual citizenship and thus foreign ownership of land. Martelly also welcomed former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier back to the country after twenty-five years of exile.
Since Martelly’s election, the state has been collecting $1.50 from every Western Union or MoneyGram wire transfer coming into the country. Martelly hasn’t spoken out against the deportation from the Dominican Republic of more than three hundred thousand Dominicans of Haitian descent since 2013, including ten thousand unaccompanied children. Immediately following his election, Martelly fired the Conseil Electoral Provisoire (Provisional Electoral Council), responsible for organizing elections. He eventually dissolved the legislature and began to rule by decree. It was under Martelly’s administration that two-thirds of the PetroCaribe funds were laundered.
A Renewed Cycle of Struggle
In this climate, many were suspicious of the 2016 election of the PHTK’s next candidate, Moise, who also happened to be under investigation at the time for money laundering. Opposition parties rejected the results and were joined by thousands of protesters in the streets. An interim government was put in place during this crisis. Senator Youri Latortue formed a commission to investigate the management of PetroCaribe funds. The resulting August 2016 report accused high dignitaries such as Martelly’s first Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe. A second commission in 2017 produced a stunning 647-page elaboration of the first findings. There is an additional irony, however, in Senator Latortue heading an anti-corruption commission, as he had been a participant in the army coup d’état against Aristide and is accused of leading death squads during the military’s rule. Wikileaks has also revealed Latortue’s connection to drug dealing and kidnapping.
Despite all this, President Moise managed to hold onto power. He inherited a fractured state and has attempted since to concentrate all forms of power around himself, under the protection of the international community. In October 2017, he agreed to extend the UN mandate: the United Nations Mission Justice Support for Haiti (MINUJUSTH), now led by India, replaced the MINUSTAH. That same year, Moise began to reconstitute the Haitian armed forces, which had been abolished by Aristide in 1994.
Using the earthquake as an opening in 2010, movement organizations initiated a new wave of resistance to neoliberalism and the occupation. In November 2011, the militant labor organization Batay Ouvriye organized an international conference in Cap-Haitien with organizations from Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, France, and the US that culminated in a march to denounce the UN occupation.
In October 2013, the socialist feminist federation Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (Haitian Women in Solidarity) held symbolic parliamentary sessions to decry the absence of women in the state, the state’s collaboration with the UN occupation, its cooptation of the Ministère à la Condition Féminine et aux Droits des Femmes (Ministry of the Feminine Condition and Women’s Rights), and its destruction of national production.
Since 2013, organizations like Mouvement de Liberté d’Égalité des Haitiens pour la Fraternité (Movement of Liberty and Equality of Haitians for Fraternity), based in the popular neighborhood of Belair, have coordinated street protests against election fraud, corruption, and occupation.
In July 2018, Moise ordered the eviction of Haitians occupying land behind his private residence, parcels of land which had been occupied for over a century. That same month he had announced yet another rise in gas prices, following his decision earlier in the spring to withdraw from the PetroCaribe agreement as a result of US sanctions against Venezuela. Haitians protested these injustices with a three-day, nationwide shutdown.
The resulting movement, nicknamed the PetroCaribe Challenge, with its accompanying blockades and marches, is now the latest moment in an unfolding sequence of resistance against both neoliberalism and an emerging authoritarianism.
The PetroCaribe Challenge
The PetroCaribe Challenge was launched in mid-August 2018 when artists in Haiti and its diaspora began using the hashtag #KotKòbPetroCaribeA (“Where is the PetroCaribe money?”) on their social media pages. On-the-ground demonstrations were called a few days after the launch of the online campaign. Challengers mobilized on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram through memes, informational videos, and press releases. With relatively educated people between 15 and 54 making up almost 60 percent of the Haitian population, more than half of the population living in urban areas, and almost 6.5 million people with access to cellphones, social media became the natural terrain for people to organize themselves.
On October 17, the anniversary of the death of Haiti’s founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the PetroCaribe movement’s second march rallied more than one hundred thousand throughout Haiti. Protests took place in Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien, Gonaives, and Jacmel, as well as in Miami, New York, Montreal, and Paris. In New York, The Committee to Mobilize Against Dictatorship in Haiti (KOMOKODA) intensified its weekly protests in front of the Haitian Consulate and outside venues where Martelly and his band perform. Recently, Solidarity Québec–Haiti successfully lobbied Montréal’s Mayor Valérie Plante to deny Martelly’s band entry into Canada.
Anti-corruption demonstrations in Haiti have typically been led by organizations of the traditional working class. But the current political landscape is more complicated, with the emergence of new middle-class actors. These are professionals in their late twenties to late thirties, many with a college education, some of whom have lived or studied abroad in France, the US, and Canada. PetroChallengers grew up under the terror of the paramilitary groups who protected the military junta that deposed President Aristide in 1991. They are, at best, ambivalent about the deposed leader who ushered in neoliberal reforms upon his return from exile. They are a generation whose elementary- and secondary-school history books overlooked the realities of the Duvalier dictatorship and the Cold War in Haiti. They grew up listening and dancing to Michel Martelly’s “King of Konpa.” (Konpa is a genre of Haitian music born in the 1970s. While songs typically focus on love and sex, Martelly was one of the first to take on political issues in his music.) They perhaps trusted him to deliver on the promise he made during his inaugural speech in 2011, to assist the growth of the middle class, which he called “the economic engine of a country.”
Women are visibly at the center of the PetroCaribe movement. Many PetroChallengers are members of preexisting political organizations, notably the Sèk Gramsci, but many were affiliated with Ayiti Nou Vle A, the group that initiated the social media campaign in August of 2018.
Disparate PetroChallengers have, since December 2018, assembled into the collective Nou Pap Dòmi and often meet at Yanvalou, the LGBT-friendly café in downtown Port-au-Prince, around the corner from the Cour Supérieure des Comptes. To disassociate themselves from the political machinery, they define themselves as “engaged citizens,” comprising a social rather than political movement.
The movement’s messaging, largely in the form of short informational videos and posters about unfinished infrastructural projects, is primarily in Kreyòl, the language common to all Haitians, and is shared across social media platforms to connect people across the island. Challengers make use of historical dates to plan and execute their actions, which consist mostly of sit-ins and marches. For instance, one sit-in which took place in front of the Cour Supérieure des Comptes, was on April 26, the anniversary of a bloody massacre in 1963 committed by Duvalier’s Tonton Makout (bogeymen).
What PetroChallengers demand is a full investigation of the spending of Venezuelan solidarity funds and the subsequent indictment, trial, and imprisonment of the culprits, a clique of government officials and business elites.
Ultimately, they seek to expose the opaque corruption which props up the Haitian state, and to heighten the contradictions of the system. As Haitian-American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us, the Haitian state is not a failed or weak one. It functions as it was designed to since its inception: to oversee the contradictions of capitalist accumulation for some, and marginalization, repression, and premature death for most.