(The first of three parts)
Haiti is in the midst of an escalating political crisis that has repeatedly paralyzed the nation. Tens of thousands have been taking to the streets to protest President Jovenel Moïse’s corruption, economic mismanagement and impunity for human rights abuses.1 While the demonstrations have largely been peaceful, some protests have resulted in property damage, and clashes with police have at times turned deadly.2 During the ten days of protest in February that placed the country in lock-down, at least 34 people died and over 100 people were injured.3 People were unable to leave their homes to access food, water and other basic necessities, placing an already-vulnerable population on the brink of a humanitarian emergency.4
The current wave of protests started in the summer of 2018 in response to a deteriorating economic situation and widespread government mismanagement, including revelations that senior government officials across administrations embezzled billions of dollars from a subsidized oil fund known as PetroCaribe.5 The movement is unprecedented in recent decades in its persistence and broad support base that spans a diverse range of social sectors. Protesters are demanding President Moïse’s resignation — a call that is backed by a coalition of political parties, many civil society organizations, and Senators and Deputies including from the President’s own political party.6 The President has in turn forced the removal of Prime Minister Jean Henry Céant, which resulted in a Parliamentary no-confidence vote that ended Céant’s tenure on Mar. 18, 2019.7 President Moïse is now forming a new government for the third time during his two years in office.8
The reshuffling of the cabinet is unlikely to resolve the current crisis. Protesters are demanding systemic reforms to increase government accountability and responsiveness, to reign in widespread impunity for corruption and human rights violations, and to give Haiti’s impoverished and marginalized a meaningful voice in governance.9 To fully understand the political crisis, it is necessary to understand how political failures over the last several years have set the stage for the current protests, and how those failures are enabled by longer-term structural injustices.
This report seeks to put the current crisis in Haiti into context by explaining the short-, medium- and long-term factors driving the unrest, including detailing some of the gravest human rights violations in Haiti during President Moïse’s tenure. In the short term, the PetroCaribe scandal galvanized civil society and was the spark that brought Haitians into the streets. In the medium term, the movement is a response to the Moïse administration’s broader abuses of authority and de-prioritization of the rights and needs of the impoverished majority. President Moïse assumed office without a true popular mandate, having been elected in a low-turnout process that left him beholden to foreign and elite interests and a patronage network over the impoverished majority.10 In office, his administration has engaged in human rights abuses, flouted the rule of law, and mismanaged the economy in ways that disproportionately impact the poor.11 In the long term, this administration’s failures are enabled by years of flawed elections, a dysfunctional justice system and domestic and foreign economic policies that have impoverished the majority of Haitians.
The drivers behind the movement reflect repeated failures by Haitian leaders to serve their people, but they are also the result of decisions made by actors outside of Haiti. While the international community has invested billions in building up rule of law institutions in Haiti,12 powerful governments and international institutions have also exerted influence on Haiti to forge ahead with problematic, exclusionary elections and to accept a system of justice that allows foreign and elite actors to operate above the law.13 The faults of the decades-long prioritization of short-term stability over rule of law are now cracking. If the international community is to support a sustainable way forward for Haiti, it must finally take its lead from Haitians and support systemic reform that will be long and difficult. Systemic reform is the only way for Haiti to emerge out of this crisis into a place of true stability.
II. Immediate Triggers
While the economic and political situation in Haiti has been deteriorating for several years, the mass demonstrations that have come to characterize the crisis were triggered by several immediate factors. The first round of protests erupted in July 2018 in response to a Government announcement to end fuel subsidies that would have sharply increased the cost of transport, cooking and other basic needs.14 The following month, protesters returned to the streets to demand accountability for corruption, propelled by a social media post by a Haitian filmmaker asking “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a???,” or “where is the PetroCaribe money???.”15 The demand for accountability for the missing funds went viral on social media and sparked the mass mobilization in the streets that have continued regularly since. In February 2019, while the country was in virtual lockdown during PetroCaribe demonstrations, the arrest and subsequent unlawful release of a group of heavily-armed foreign mercenaries further underscored the ability of the rich and powerful to operate above the law and became another rallying point for demonstrations.16
A. Fuel Price Hike
In July 2018, simmering tensions exploded into massive protests after President Moïse announced a fuel-price hike that would have devastated Haiti’s poor majority17 who are already struggling to survive on $2 per day.18 The price increases — between 38% and 51% — were required earlier that year by the International Monetary Fund as a condition of its bailout of the Haitian Government.19 President Moïse responded to the protests by suspending the price hike and replacing then Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant to placate protesters.20 But he did not take further measures to address the rising costs of living and predatory corruption that made the price hikes so devastating in the first place. The failure to address these deeper drivers made the situation ripe for further uprisings. IJDH Director Brian Concannon warned at the time that “if Haiti’s government does not confront poverty and corruption, more unrest will follow.”21
B. PetroCaribe Corruption Scandal
Protests erupted again the following month, and have now coalesced around demands for accountability for the disappearance of an estimated $3.8 billion from the PetroCaribe fund, which holds revenue from a low-interest fuel loan program from Venezuela intended to finance socioeconomic development in Haiti.22 Official investigations have implicated much of Haiti’s political class, including numerous high-level officials throughout recent administrations, in the corruption scandal.23 In November 2017, the Haitian Senate’s Special Commission of Investigation released a 650-page report that identified 15 former ministers and top officials suspected of corruption and misappropriation of the public funds, resulting in the loss of $1.7 billion.24 From May 2011 to January 2016, President Moïse’s predecessor and patron President Michel Martelly allegedly spent about $1.256 billion of the $1.7 billion (74% of all the money the Haitian government took over a decade from the PetroCaribe Fund) to finance projects that were either not finished or never started.25 President Moïse is also personally implicated, accused of overbilling the government on a $100,000 contract to install solar lamps back in 2013.26
The implication of so many high-level officials in and close to this government has thwarted accountability at every level of government, even within supposedly autonomous agencies.27 At the legislative level, the Senate obstructed investigations by blocking a vote on the Commission report for four months.28 Senators with the majority party then passed a resolution condemning the report as politically-motivated in a clandestine session convened after opposition senators had left the building.29 In a move described as “exposing the cowardice of the Senate”, the resolution referred the dossier to the Cour Superieur des Comptes et du Contentieux Administratif (CSCCA), a governmental body that had already signed off on the contracts in questions at the time they were awarded.30 The CSCCA did issue an audit report in January 2019 that appears to be a serious attempt to advance the investigation.31 The report demonstrated that many state entities are delaying or denying the cooperation that the CSCCA needs to complete its work. Because of this, the CSCCA only addressed projects where it had enough information. In April 2019, the CSCCA announced that a follow-up report was further delayed due to inadequate resources to complete the investigation.32 At the executive level, President Moïse unlawfully fired the director of UCREF, the financial crimes unit that produced an investigative report during the 2016 elections implicating President Moïse in money laundering, and replaced him with an unlawful “interim” director more favorable to Moïse.33 The new Parliament dominated by President Moïse’s allies then passed a law that granted the executive de facto control over the entity, greatly undermining its independence.34 Finally, at the judicial level, criminal prosecutions have been slow to advance. As of October 2018, private citizens had filed over 60 complaints in court, which are now before an investigative judge assigned to the matter.35 According to a March 26, 2019 statement from civil society group Fondasyon Je Klere, the judge ordered the freezing of bank accounts associated with some of the individuals and companies implicated in the scandal, including Haiti’s former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and several former ministers.36 But no officials have been held criminally accountable for wrongdoing related to PetroCaribe to date.37
Civil society is pushing for accountability from the streets in Haiti to social media around the world.38 Massive protests were held in August, November and December 2018, and February 2019, and are expected to continue. President Moïse has mostly responded to the protests with silence, declining to address the concerns of the opposition. During the ten-day lockdown in February, he waited until day four to issue a five-minute statement that was widely criticized for lacking in substance.39
C. Arrest and Release of Foreign Mercenaries
At the height of the February protests, the arrest and subsequent unlawful release to the United States of seven heavily armed foreign mercenaries further roiled the nation.40 Haitian police intercepted the men in an unlicensed vehicle with a cache of automatic rifles and pistols outside the Central Bank.41 The men allegedly told the police they were “on a government mission.”42 They were arrested on weapons trafficking charges and held in Haitian jail. On the order of the Minister of Justice, a close ally of President Moïse, they were later transferred into U.S. custody and taken to Miami, where U.S. authorities released them without charge.43 One of the men involved, ex-Navy SEAL Chris Osman, publicly lauded the release operation in a social media post, stating “I have seen the weight of the U.S. Government at work and it’s a glorious thing”.44
While many of the details remain murky, subsequent journalistic investigations suggest that the men were in Haiti to provide security for a Haitian businessman with close ties to the President, who was moving $80 million from the PetroCaribe fund into an account that the President controls in order to further consolidate power.45 Osman has publicly contested this account, countering that the group’s understanding of the mission was to provide security protection during the signing of a multimillion dollar infrastructure contract.46 While the true motives may not be known, the incident — eerily evocative of the U.S. marine occupation of Haiti in 1914 that started with a seizure of Haiti’s gold reserves at the Central Bank47 – sowed further anxiety at a time of intense insecurity in Haiti. The U.S. government’s interference with the Haitian justice system sparked particular outrage,48 and contravened the U.S.’s own policy of not intervening when U.S. citizens are before the Haitian criminal justice system.49 As the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux wrote in a letter to the U.S. Ambassador denouncing the interference, the action undermined stability, sovereignty and the rule of law.50 It was a vivid reminder of the ways in which power interests operate above the law in Haiti, thus adding fuel to an already roiling fire.
- Evens Sanon & Danica Coto, Haitians Seek Basic Necessities in Aftermath of Government Protests, PBS, Feb.18, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/haitians-seek-basic-necessities-in-aftermath-of-government-protests.
- Anthony Esposito, Haiti Police Fire Rubber Pellets at Mourners as Protests Resume, REUTERS, Feb. 22, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-haiti-protests/haiti-police-fire-rubber-pellets-at-mourners-as-protests-resume-idUSKCN1QC01Y; Tom Barnes, Police Clash with Demonstrators Demanding Haiti President’s Resignation Amid Deadly Protests, THE INDEPENDENT, Feb. 11, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/haiti-protests-port-au-prince-violence-death-toll-president-jovenel-moise-corruption-a8773491.html.
- U.N. Secretary-General, United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, U.N. Doc. S/2019/198, (Mar. 1, 2019), https://undocs.org/S/2019/198 [hereinafter U.N. Secretary-General 2019 report].
- PBS NewsHour: Violent Protests in Haiti may Mean a Humanitarian Crisis, PBS (Feb.16, 2019), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/violent-protests-in-haiti-may-mean-a-humanitarian-crisis.
- Jacqueline Charles, Haiti Owes Venezuela $2 Billion – and much of it was Embezzled, Senate Report Says, MIAMI HERALD, Nov. 15, 2017, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article184740783.html.
- Hillary Leung, Haiti: President Says He Won’t Resign, Protests Grip Capital, TIME, Feb.15, 2019, http://time.com/5530334/haiti-jovenal-moise-protest/.
- Jacqueline Charles, Haiti’s Latest Government Falls after Six Months as Lawmakers Fire Prime Minister, MIAMI HERALD, Mar. 18, 2019, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article228084084.html.
- Jovenel Moise nomme Jean Michel Lapin comme Premier minister, LE NOUVELLISTE, Apr. 9, 2019, https://lenouvelliste.com/article/200285/jovenel-moise-nomme-jean-michel-lapin-premier-ministre.
- Aaron Richterman, You Can’t Understand Haiti’s Protests Without Understanding History, WBUR, Mar. 11, 2019, https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/03/11/haiti-protests-anne-beckett-aaron-richterman; Brian Concannon, Jr., If Haiti’s Government Does Not Confront Poverty, Corruption, More Unrest Will Follow, MIAMI HERALD, July 17, 2018, https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article215003785.html.
- FREEDOM HOUSE, FREEDOM IN THE WORLD 2017 – HAITI (2017), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/haiti.
- U.S. DEP’T OF STATE, HAITI 2018 HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT (2018), https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/289548.pdf.
- USAID has spent over $470 million on rule of law and governance in Haiti since 2010. Jake Johnston, Where Does the Money Go? Eight Years of USAID Funding in Haiti, CTR. FOR ECON. & POLICY RESEARCH (Jan. 11, 2018), http://cepr.net/blogs/haiti-relief-and-reconstruction-watch/where-does-the-money-go-eight-years-of-usaid-funding-in-haiti [hereinafter Where Does the Money Go?]. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), whose mandate included strengthening the institutions and rule-of-law structures of the Government of Haiti, spent over $7 billion in Haiti from 2004-2017. Jake Johnston, UNSC Votes to Gradually End Haiti Mission — And Start A New One, CTR. FOR ECON. & POLICY RESEARCH (Apr. 13, 2017), http://cepr.net/blogs/haiti-relief-and-reconstruction-watch/unsc-votes-to-gradually-end-haiti-mission-and-start-a-new-one )[hereinafter UNSC Votes] (noting Security Council voted to replace MINUSTAH with a smaller mission after 13 years a $7 billion spent); See S.C. Res. 1542 (Apr. 30, 2004), https://undocs.org/S/RES/1542(2004) (setting out MINUSTAH’s mandate).
- Inst. For Justice & Democracy in Haiti, Haiti’s November 28 Elections: Trying to Legitimize the Illegitimate 7-9 (2010), http://ijdh.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Election-Report-11-23-2010.pdf ; Haiti Election Primer, Part 5: The International Community, HAITI ELECTIONS, Nov. 20, 2016, http://haitielection2015.blogspot.com/2016/11/haiti-election-primer-part-5.html; see also Nat’l Lawyers Guild & Int’l Ass’n of Democratic Lawyers, Haiti’s Unrepresentative Democracy: Exclusion and Discouragement in the November 20, 2016 Elections 2 (2017), http://www.ijdh.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Haitis-Unrepresentative-Democracy.pdf; Irwin Stotzky & Brian Concannon, Jr., Democracy and Sustainability in Reconstructing Haiti: A Possibility or a Mirage?, 44:1 UNIV. MIAMI INTER-AM. L. REV. 1 (2012), available at https://repository.law.miami.edu/umialr/vol44/iss1/3/.
- Haiti Fuel Protesters’ Anger turns on President Moïse, BBC NEWS, July 9, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-44764921.
- Jacqueline Charles, ‘Where did the Money Go?’ Haitians Denounce Corruption in Social Media Campaign, MIAMI HERALD, Aug. 23, 2018, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article217110220.html [hereinafter Haitians Denounce Corruption].
- Matthew Cole & Kim Ives, U.S. Mercenaries Arrested in Haiti Were Part of a Half-Baked Scheme to Move 80 Million for Embattled President, THE INTERCEPT, Mar. 20, 2019, https://canada-haiti.ca/content/us-mercenaries-arrested-haiti-were-part-half-baked-scheme-move-80-million-embattled.
- Jacqueline Charles, Haiti Fuel Price Jump Was ‘Guaranteed to Lead to Backlash,’ U.N. Poverty Expert Says, MIAMI HERALD, July 16, 2018, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article214982420.html [hereinafter Haiti Fuel Price].
- Overview, World Bank, (last visited Apr 12, 2019), https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/haiti/overview.
- Charles, Haiti Fuel Price, supra note 17.
- The Government suspend its decision!, HAITI LIBRE, July 7, 2018, https://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-24889-haiti-flash-the-government-suspend-its-decision.html; Haiti’s Prime Minister Quits Amid Protests Over Fuel Plan, ASSOCIATED PRESS, July 14, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/world/americas/haitis-prime-minister-jack-guy-lafontant-quits-.html.
- Concannon Jr., supra note 9.
- Charles, Haitians Denounce Corruption, supra note 15.
- Lucy Papachristou, Haiti: Top Officials Fired After Anti-Corruption Protests, ORGANIZED CRIME & CORRUPTION REPORTING PROJECT (Oct. 28, 2018), https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/8788-haiti-top-officials-fired-after-anti-corruption-protests.
- SÉNAT DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE D’HAÏTI, RAPPORT DE LA COMMISSION SENATORIALE SPECIAL D’ENQUETE SUR LE FONDS PETRO CARIBE (2017), available at https://www.scribd.com/document/364151103/Rapport-Petro-Caribe-Octobre-2017; see also Jake Johnston, Haitian Government on the Defensive Following UN Welcoming of Corruption Investigation, CTR. FOR ECON. & POLICY RESEARCH, Mar. 7, 2018, http://cepr.net/blogs/haiti-relief-and-reconstruction-watch/haitian-government-on-the-defensive-following-un-welcoming-of-corruption-investigation [hereinafter Haitian Government on the Defensive].
- Kim Ives, The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency, COUNTERPUNCH (Sept. 18, 2018), https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/09/18/the-roots-of-haitis-movement-for-petrocaribe-transparency/.
- Johnston, Haitian Government on the Defensive, supra note 24, at para. 2.
- Fonds Petrocaribe: des Haïtiens Demandent des Comptes à la Classe Politique, RFI, Aug. 20, 2018, http://www.rfi.fr/ameriques/20180820-fonds-petrocaribe-haitiens-demandent-comptes-classe-politique [hereinafter Fonds Petrocaribe].
- Jake Johnston, Haitian Government on the Defensive, supra note 24.
- Collectif 4 Décembre et al, Scandale Petro Caribe : Des Organisations de la Société Civile Exigent Toute la Lumière sur la Dilapidation des Fonds, (Feb. 8, 2018), https://drive.google.com/file/d/14eaRb7mxwd1TpGgQ4ZOGFsO4-Qk0Xvx9/view; Johnston, Haitian Government on the Defensive, supra note 24.
- Johnston, Haitian Government on the Defensive, supra note 24; Collectif 4 Décembre et al,, supra note 29, at 2.
- Cour Supérieure des Comptes et du Contentieux Administratif, Audit Spécifique de Gestion du Fonds PetroCaribe,, Jan. 31, 2019, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b9f2b7c3917ee4972f3f2d0/t/5c53bdabeef1a194097d4a44/1548991930156/PETROCARIBE++31+JANV.+19.pdf.
- Haïti – PetroCaribe : La CSC/CA ne pourra pas remettre son rapport d’audit à la date prevue, HAITI LIBRE, Apr. 24, 2019, https://www.haitilibre.com/article-27545-haiti-petrocaribe-la-csc-ca-ne-pourra-pas-remettre-son-rapport-d-audit-a-la-date-prevue.html
- Moïse lacked authority to replace the director as a new law that would grant the executive de facto control over the entity had yet to be approved. See Kim Ives, Illegally Ousted Anti-Corruption Chief: “The President Had to Find Someone Who Was More Obedient.,” HAITI LIBERTE, July 19, 2017, https://haitiliberte.com/illegally-ousted-anti-corruption-chief-the-president-had-to-find-someone-who-was-more-obedient/.
- Jake Johnston, Did Trump Take a Page Out of Haiti’s Presidential Playbook?, HAITI LIBERTE, July 4, 2017, https://haitiliberte.com/did-trump-take-a-page-out-of-haitis-presidential-playbook/ [hereinafter Haiti’s Presidential Playbook].
- The #Petrocaribe Challenge Mobilization Continues, Despite Apparent Government Attempts to Intimidate Protestors, ALTERPRESSE, Oct. 16, 2018, https://canada-haiti.ca/content/petrocaribe-challenge-mobilization-continues-despite-apparent-government-attempts; Robenson Geffrard, PetroCaribe: 33 Plaintes Déposées, le Juge d’Instruction Attend les Réquisitions du Parquet, LE NOUVELLISTE, Mar. 19, 2018, https://lenouvelliste.com/article/184857/petrocaribe-33-plaintes-deposees-le-juge-dinstruction-attend-les-requisitions-du-parquet.
- Proces PetroCaribe Mesures Conservatoires : le Juge d’Instruction Montre ses Muscles, Radio Television Caraibes, Mar. 26, 2019, available at https://rtvc.radiotelevisioncaraibes.com/notes-presse/proces-petrocaribe-mesures-conservatoires-le-juge-dinstruction-montre-ses-muscles.html.
- Johnston, Haiti’s Presidential Playbook, supra note 34, at para. 1.
- Fonds Petrocaribe, supra note 27.
- Sandra Lemaire, Haitian President to People: ‘I Hear You’, VOICE OF AMERICA, Feb. 14, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/a/haitian-president-to-people-i-hear-you-/4788024.html.
- Jake Johnston, Our Boss Will Call Your Boss, CTR. ECON. & POLICY RESEARCH, Mar. 2019, https://cepr.shorthandstories.com/haiti-contractors/index.html#home-TsHv1afen0 [hereinafter Our Boss].
- Jacqueline Charles, Haitian police arrest five Americans who claimed they were on a ‘government mission, MIAMI HERALD, Feb. 18, 2019, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article226440260.html.
- Johnston, Our Boss, supra note 40.
- Cole, supra note 16.
- Jacqueline Charles, ‘We’re not Mercenaries. We’re not Murderers,’ says Ex-Navy SEAL Arrested in Haiti, MIAMI HERALD , Mar. 21, 2019, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/haiti/article228211849.html.
- U.S. Dep’t of State, Office of the Historian, U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915–34 (last visited Apr. 17, 2019), https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/haiti.
- Jacqueline Charles & Jay Weaver, Americans Arrested in Haiti with Arsenal of Guns Won’t Face U.S. Charges, MIAMI HERALD, Feb. 21, 2019, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/crime/article226572869.html.
- See ARREST OF A U.S. CITIZEN, U.S. EMBASSY IN HAITI (2019), https://ht.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/arrest-of-a-u-s-citizen/. Another recent incident also raises questions about the U.S. government’s interference in the Haitian justice system. In January 2019, the U.S. Embassy intervened to secure the release of an American military officer arrested and charged in Haiti for gang-rape. He was returned to the U.S., where he was apparently released without charge. See Lawyers condemn illegal U.S. removal of Americans arrested for weapons charges and rape in Haiti, THE CANADA-HAITI INFO. PROJECT, Mar. 16, 2019, https://canada-haiti.ca/content/lawyers-condemn-illegal-us-removal-americans-arrested-weapons-charges-and-rape-haiti
50. Letter from Bureau des Avocats Internationaux to Amb. Michele Sison, “Open Letter to the US Ambassador to Haiti to Denounce the US Embassy’s Interference in the Internal Affairs of the Haitian Justice System,” (Feb. 28, 2019), available at http://www.ijdh.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/ENG-Dossier-des-mercenaires-americains.pdf.