Haiti’s political and social crisis persists despite the deceptive calm

Haiti's political and social crisis persists despite the deceptive calm

At a demonstration in Port-au-Prince in October 2018, a man holds up a sign demanding that the fraudulent use of the PetroCaribe funds be brought to light.

(Milo Milfort)

6 and 7 July 2018. 17 October 2018. 18 November 2018. 7 February 2019. All these dates were marked by violent blockades on the streets of Port-au-Prince, and other major towns around Haiti, with thousands of demonstrators protesting against a system they accuse of condemning them to poverty and demanding better living conditions.

“These hermetic roadblocks have become the new form of social protest that people are using to express their pain, their disgust, their unhappiness, their abject misery and their distrust of the politicians,” says university professor Pierre Négaud Dupénor.

Now “we live in daily expectation of the next roadblock. That creates a sort of psychosis among both the economic actors and the citizens,” he continues. “This popular uprising against the socio-economic crisis is becoming more lasting, and structured. It is a reflection of the people’s desire to make themselves heard by any means possible, however violent.”

Since mid-February 2019 however, the country seems to have returned to calm. This has allowed activity to resume in Port-au-Prince and some provincial towns. The powers that be are happy, but they have not done anything to tackle the structural causes behind the protests which demanded, above all, an improvement in the socio-economic conditions of the Haitian people.

“You should not confuse time out with the end of the game…[.] It is a wound that is growing. And every time the demonstrators get more violent,” insists the political scientist Roudy Stanley Penn, who believes the problem has not been solved at all. “In fact, very little has been done about it”.

Deep crisis

Over six million people live below the poverty line (under US$2.41 a day) in Haiti, and more than 2.5 million fall below the ‘extreme’ poverty line (which the World Bank sets at US$1.23 a day). The national currency – the gourde – continues to depreciate, leading to double-figure inflation which exceeded the 17 per cent mark in May 2019, according to the Haitian Institute of Information and Statistics (l’Institut Haïtien de Statistiques et d’Informatique, or IHSI).

Stanley Penn believes that what is happening at the moment is that a country which does not actually produce wealth is regularly creating nouveaux riches, while the middle class is getting poorer, and the poor are falling into ever deeper destitution. “And the very poor are dying daily before our eyes,” says the political scientist.

At the root of this series of popular protest movements are a multitude of causes: falling purchasing power, the opacity of public spending, bad governance, galloping inflation and the devaluation of the national currency against the dollar. As a result, many Haitians are leaving the country in search of a better life elsewhere, sometimes risking their lives or their rights. About 10 to 12 per cent of Haitians live outside their home country, according to the Zile Foundation, quoting statistics from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), mostly in the Dominican Republic, Canada, the United States, Brazil and ever greater numbers in the rest of south America.

It was against this very negative background that in August 2018 a large youth movement, known as #PetroCaribeChallenge, was created on social networks before descending onto the streets of the capital.

It demanded that the Haitian authorities shed light on the use of nearly US$4 billion from the PetroCaribe Fund (named after an alliance between Venezuela and 17 Caribbean countries), which should have been invested in the construction of development infrastructure: such as hospitals, roads, airports and universities. Haitians have gathered in front of the Court of Auditors many times to demand that light be shed on how the money was squandered.

Following these protests, a specific audit of the management of projects financed by the PetroCaribe Fund by the Court of Auditors in January 2019 has revealed the extent of the embezzlement and squandering of the funds by a dozen ministers and top civil servants in Haiti’s public administration. The report, due to be completed last May, even pointed a finger at Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse.

Fighting corruption: a major challenge

Economist Emmanuela Douyon believes the structural problems are a long way from being solved. She thinks the response to the demonstrations has so far been purely political (Prime Minister Jen-Henry Céant had to resign on 18 March following a vote of no confidence) and have not tackled the protesters’ demands. “The Court of Auditors has only published a partial report. It is important to stress that it still has a lot to do to meet its constitutional mandate,” she says, recalling that the Haitian state had lodged a complaint and that the partial report had been sent to the courts.

The citizens’ collective Nou pap dòmi (‘We are not sleeping’) consisting mainly of the ‘Petro Challengers’, organised a sit-in on 26 April to demand yet again that the Court of Auditors completes its report. Other activities will be organised around the country to press for a trial, because the people want to see some individuals behind bars and their property seized. “There is a lot at stake with this trial, seen as a measure of the effort to fight the corruption and impunity holding back the country’s development,” says Douyon.

The opposition demonstrated in the streets of Port-au-Prince on 18 May to again demand the departure of President Moïse. Jean Bony Fatal, president of the Public and Private Workers Confederation (La Confédération des travailleurs des secteurs public et privé (CTSP) of Haiti) believes that the failure to bring charges against the President has led people to question the authorities’ desire to ensure that justice is done.

“It’s the same thing, all the time. The situation is just getting worse. Nothing changes. On the contrary, the cost of living is going up while unemployment is reaching record levels. No progress has been made,” says the trade unionist who is concerned about the impact of unemployment (which has already reached a record high of between 30 and 40 per cent, according to estimates) and the economic crisis on internal security.

“The peaceful areas are now giving way to lawless areas, which have been proliferating for months,” he laments. Cité Soleil, one of the poorest and most densely populated areas in Port-au-Prince, had previously enjoyed three years of calm; it has once again become a hotbed of violence between armed gangs, as recently pointed out by a UN report. Haiti is turning into a country divided into cartels of armed gangs that sow terror and dispute territories. The recently reactivated National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (CNDDR) has already identified as many as 76 armed gangs in the country. “This apparent calm is just a time bomb. It will explode sooner or later. If nothing is done, we will soon have a social uprising [worse than those before] on our hands,” warns trade unionist Fatal.

This story has been translated from French.