Deaths, protests in Haiti as Venezuela aid scandal increases calls for president to go
Thousands of angry Haitians marched in protest in Port-au-Prince on Sunday, decrying corruption and stepping up calls for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse, who has been implicated in two government audits on the misuse of billions of dollars in Venezuelan aid meant to help the country’s poor.
Though the protest started off calm, tensions mounted later in the day throughout the country. Protesters vandalized buildings with rocks, blocked roads, doused a former government official in the city of Jacmel with gasoline and tried to burn down a supermarket near one of the symbols of the graft: an old, abandoned movie theater that received, what critics say can best described as a $5 million paint job.
Police Spokesman Michel-Ange Louis-Jeune said a preliminary tally shows there were at least two deaths from gunshots, four injuries also from gunshots and 12 arrests were made. Reports of vandalism, which including rock throwing and setting vehicles and two buildings aflame were also reported.
Some opposition groups have said that the number of arrests are far more than what police are reporting. Concerns have also been raised about possible police repression after a video circulated on the WhatsAPP messaging platform showing a Haiti National Police officer stoning a protester with rocks as he laid face down in the hills above Petionville not far from Moïse’s Pelerin 5 residence.
The incident triggered immediate calls for an investigation despite the insistence of Petionville Police Commissioner Paul Ménard that “the video is not from today.”
As proof, Ménard in a Miami Herald interview pointed to the dirt road, saying the road near the president’s home is asphalted. But people familiar with the neighborhood said the incident is about 200 meters from the road leading to Moïse’s residence, and it is a dirt path.
“We are asking the [director general of the Haiti National Police] to launch an immediate investigation on the matter,” Sen. Patrice Dumont said. “This was an attempted murder if the person did not die.”
In a communique to the press, Police Chief Michel-Ange Gédéon said police were instructed not to use excessive force and he has instructed his inspector general’s office to launch an investigate into the incident.
The mounting tensions in Haiti come as opposition senators, political parties and the grassroots anti-corruption group known as Petrochallengers, promise to keep the pressure going until Moïse steps down from power. Some groups have called for a general strike on Monday and Tuesday.
“We are telling the people to ‘hold on.’ The fight isn’t easy,” Sen. Antonio “Don Kato” Cheramy said at a press conference on the Champ de Mars not far from the presidential palace. “Don’t let go.”
Moïse has not made any public statements since the corruption audit was released. But in private discussions, he’s insisted that he’s not going anywhere. As the protests got underway Sunday, business leaders and the French embassy in Port-au-Prince urgently appealed for dialogue..
The reiterated appeal for Moïse, the parliament and members of the opposition to talk, comes after Haiti’s Roman Catholic bishops on Saturday, issued the strongest denouncement yet on the poverty-stricken nation’s endemic widespread corruption, which was detailed by government auditors in an audit of Venezuela’s PetroCaribe oil program. The audit, encompassing 600-plus pages, was done by the Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes, and given to the president of the Haitian Senate on May 31.
“Our country is shamefully trapped in corruption at the highest level of society,” the Episcopal Conference of Haiti said. “Unabated corruption has become an endemic evil, a messy swamp, a degradation, an organized robbery. It has become a real social plague that is clogging our institutions, makes politics ill, threatens democracy and social peace, and thus seriously undermines, both from an ethical and an economic point of view, the development of our country.”
Without naming any names, the bishops said those implicated in the recent court of auditors report and a previous one issued in January, should “repair the social injustice” by submitting themselves to “the justice of their country, if it is the price to pay to restore the moral authority of the state and its leaders.”
The May 31 audit is the second installment of a three-part investigation into how Haiti managed billions of dollars in savings from the Venezuelan oil program between 2008-16. Among the most damning accusations, millions of dollars in aid money were mismanaged and embezzled during the administration of former president Michel Martelly, 2011-1016. This includes $5 million that was spent on a boarded up Rex Theater in Port-au-Prince. The only sign of improvement to the old movie theater is its outside paint job.
And then, there is the millions of dollars in road construction contracts given to Moïse ahead of the country’s 2015 and 2016 presidential votes.
Government auditors said before becoming president, Moïse collected at least $1 million for a stretch of rural road in northern Haiti that was paid for twice after the public works ministry issued the same contract to two of his 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 of Martelly, at the time, as its head, while Betexs, the second firm, listed someone else. Both Agritrans’ lawyer and an adviser to the president have denied the accusation, insisted that the companies are different and tried to cast doubts on the auditor’s methodology.
Auditors have said that a third report is forthcoming. Last week, they issued an appeal for added police protection after what they described as an assassination attempt when an armed man in a Toyota shot at two verifiers who were headed to the airport to examine its files.
While the Episcopal Conference of Bishops stopped short of saying Moïse, who still has three years left on his five-year presidential term, should step down to defend the accusations against him —others have in the building tensions and reaction to the report.
The anti-corruption citizens group Nou Pap Dòmi (We Won’t Sleep) addressed a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres saying that they do not recognize Moïse’s legitimacy as president. Similar letters were also shared with other foreign embassies in Port-au-Prince, the group said. Nou Pap Dòmi along with Petrochallengers are among the backers of Sunday’s protests.
Calling Sunday’s mobilization a success, Nou Pap Dòmi condemned the acts of violence and asked for Haitians to continue to mobilize until Moïse’s departure.
The growing calls for Moïse’s resignation coupled with warnings by some groups that Haiti is in for a repeat of February when protesters had it locked down for over a week, is creating consternation in foreign circles as diplomats worry about ensuing chaos and another transition just two years after the last one ended.
French Ambassador José Gomez in Port-au-Prince said the embassy regards the situation to be “serious,” and it warrants “a large national dialogue.” The European Union had issued a similar appeal days before the corruption report was issued, noting that Haiti faced major and urgent challenges, including worsening poverty, stalled investments, a domestic currency in a free fall and no functioning government two months after the prime minister was fired by the lower chamber of parliament.
“While witnessing the current political power struggle, our economy is rapidly dying, jobs are at stake as companies goes on survival mode, engendering an unprecedented economic crisis.,” said Daniel Jadotte, a Port-au-Prince businessman. “The youth is out of hope and their moral references challenged, as corruption and absence of the rule of law have become the new standard.
“Haiti need to be re-engineered,” he added. “The current constitution is showing its flaws and limits. The time has come to engage in a deep and sincere dialogue among us, to find the reset button and reformat the way we operate within all the layers of our failed society; yes the time have come and we are running out of time.”