Haitian Protests Grow Over Massive Embezzlement of Petro Caribe Funds

Even for seasoned observers of corruption around the world, Haiti is difficult to contemplate, as both the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and “a constant and heart-rending site of recurring catastrophe.”  For more than half a century, the equation for Haitian life has been defined by three constants — poverty, corruption, and violence — with occasional revision by massive natural disasters.  During that period, one of the few variables in that tragic equation has been popular uprising, which succeeded in ousting “President-for-Life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986 after a 15-year reign in which he and his family and inner circle embezzled as much as $900 million from Haiti’s coffers.

Within the past year, popular uprising has again become a prominent feature of Haitian society, thanks largely to what may be even more massive embezzlement than the Duvalier regimes.  In 2005, Venezuela established Petro Caribe, an energy cooperation agreement to provide certain Caribbean and Latin American countries, including Haiti, with a preferential payment arrangement for petroleum and petroleum products.  Venezuela then signed a series of agreements with Haiti and other nations, providing those countries with a substantial flow of funds from low-interest loans.  Since 2017, however, Haiti learned that various Haitian authorities had apparently embezzled between $2 billion and $3.8 billion  of those Petro Caribe funds.

In November 2018, after several months of rising popular outrage expressed through social media and public protests, a special commission of the Haitian Senate issued a voluminous report that accused more than a dozen former government officials (including two former prime ministers and several former ministers) and the owners of private firms (including one allegedly owned by Haiti’s current President, Jovenel Moïse) of embezzling the Petro Caribe funds.  President Moïse, who originally had promised to pursue corruption when he took office in 2017, had promised in October 2018 to “get to the bottom of the scandal,” but showed no resolve in pursuing the matter.

This month, new developments reignited popular anger.  Last week, Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors issued a report that connected “former ministers and senior officials to economic mismanagement and the possible misappropriation of [Petro Caribe] funds,” and identified “a company that was formerly headed by Moise as a recipient of funds from a road construction project that never had a signed contract.”  Yesterday, the intensity of popular protests reached as new peak, as thousands of protestors flocked the streets of Port-au-Prince, demanding President Moïse’s resignation for his failure to investigate the Petro Caribe scandal.  As those protests continued today, in the city of Gonaives police opened fire on protestors, and two people were killed and 18 others injured.

At this point, there is no indication that President Moïse intends to resign, that embezzling officials will be prosecuted, or that the protests will subside.  All that seems certain for the moment is the continuation of Haiti’s misery, with no relief in sight.

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