The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency

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Hundreds of Haitians march in Port-au-Prince on Sep. 2, 2018 to demand transparency on what happened to PetroCaribe funds. Credit: Milo Milfort/Haïti Liberté

Haitians worldwide, both in Haiti and throughout its international diaspora, have been demonstrating over the past two months to demand: “Where is the PetroCaribe money?”

They are referring to a fund established in Haiti a decade ago by Venezuela, in conjunction with the Haitian government, which was supposed to finance projects to benefit the Haitian people. A November 2017 Haitian Senate investigatory report found that some $1.7 billion from the PetroCaribe Fund was either lost, squandered, or embezzled from 2008 to 2016. Its management “was marked by serious anomalies, irregularities, acts of malfeasance and fabrication,” the report said. Today, analysts estimate that some $3.8 billion of PetroCaribe money is missing or misspent.

The fund’s establishment was a remarkable act of international solidarity initiated by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and it was bitterly opposed by Washington. Under an accord signed in 2006 but not finalized and implemented until 2008, Venezuela agreed to provide Haiti with cheap petroleum products  – some 20,000 barrels a day – when oil was selling for about $100 per barrel. Furthermore, Haiti only had to pay 60% of its oil bill to Venezuela up front. The remaining 40% of petroleum revenues went into the PetroCaribe Fund, repayable to Venezuela after 25 years at only 1% interest.

Haitians hold former President Michel Martelly largely responsible, because he oversaw 74% of all Haitian government spending from PetroCaribe funds and let Haiti’s arrears to Venezuela grow. Credit: Milo Milfort/Haïti Liberté

But what happened to this fund which could have provided so much development to the Haitian people? In short, it was largely stolen. It happened like this.

Two years after the PetroCaribe accord began, Haiti was hit by the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010. Washington used the disaster to virtually wrest control of Haiti from President René Préval. It rammed through the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), which made former U.S. President Bill Clinton Haiti’s de facto ruler and treasurer. Clinton and his acolytes decided how the $13 billion in post-quake international assistance to Haiti was to be spent.

Préval passively resisted, increasing Washington’s dismay with him. After the first-round of Haitian presidential elections were held in November 2010, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forced out Préval’s candidate, Jude Célestin, who had won a spot in the run-off, and replaced him with U.S.-friendly neo-Duvalierist candidate Joseph Michel Martelly, a pro-coup konpa musician known as “Sweet Micky.” Martelly won the Mar. 20, 2011 election with less than 23% of the electorate voting, the lowest turnout for a presidential election in not just Haitian but Latin American history until then (Haiti’s 2016 election would beat that record.)

In the short space of five years from May 2011 to January 2016, President Martelly, with different prime ministers, burned through about $1.256 billion (74% of all the money the Haitian government took over a decade from the PetroCaribe Fund) to finance projects which were either not finished or not real. Martelly’s close friend and longest-serving Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe himself declared, before the Haitian people chased him from office in December 2014, that 94% of his government’s projects were financed by the PetroCaribe Fund.

The 2016 Haitian presidential election was nominally won by Jovenel Moïse, Martelly’s protégé. With the largest campaign coffers (thanks to the PetroCaribe fund), he came into office under indictment for laundering millions of dollars through his banana exporting business Agritrans (money that many analysts believe came from the PetroCaribe fund).

Demonstrators, like these in Haiti’s capital, know that they will never get the truth about or justice for the theft of PetroCaribe funds from the Moïse government. That would be asking a thief to arrest himself. Credit: Milo Milfort/Haïti Liberté

As part of its growing war against Caracas, the Trump administration last year imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela, including limiting bank transactions. As a result, the PetroCaribe program in Haiti was stopped in October 2017 because the Bank of the Republic of Haiti (BRH) could no longer make payments in foreign currency. This has been a tremendous blow to the Haitian economy.

Over the last seven years, Martelly and Moïse let Haiti’s payments for Venezuelan petroleum fall into arrears, and Haiti now reportedly owes over $2 billion in addition to the $1.7 billion withdrawn from the PetroCaribe fund. In 2010, Venezuela forgave some $295 million that Haiti owed it. That represented about a quarter of Haiti’s total $1.25 billion foreign debt. In November 2017, Venezuela allowed Haiti to use $82 million of the debt it owes Venezuela for social projects in Haiti. In return, Haiti is to reimburse Venezuela with food products.

So during the five years from 2006 to 2010, we saw President Préval sign and begin a very promising oil and development program in conjunction with Venezuela. But from 2011 to 2018, we’ve seen Washington hijack the Haiti state, using two subservient administrations to plunder the PetroCaribe Fund and create the political and economic crisis Haiti faces today.

From Jul. 6-8, 2018, tens of thousands of Haitians took to the streets of Haiti, burning stores and stopping all activity, because the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Washington’s sheriff for neo-colonial finances, had ordered the Moïse government to slash oil price subsidies, drastically hiking fuel prices, up to 51% in the case of kerosene.

History has shown that it is unwise to try to take back a gain won by the Haitian people.

The Haitian people rose up and formed Latin America’s first independent nation in 1804 after Napoleon tried to reestablish slavery in the colony of St. Domingue.

They rose up again, after overthrowing dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, when Washington tried to reestablish a neo-Duvalierist military dictatorship. That uprising culminated in the 1990 election of former anti-imperialist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first time modern U.S. election engineering was foiled in Latin America.

The sign reads “Where did the PetroCaribe money go please? Tie them, time them, tie them up!” Credit: Milo Milfort/Haïti Liberté

Today, the Haitian people are again rising up to demand a reckoning after the governments of Martelly and Moïse, in cahoots with Washington, France, and Canada, fronted by the IMF, try to take back the oil and development wealth that the Venezuelan people gave to Haiti, thanks to Hugo Chavez’s internationalist spirit.

Demonstrations are growing and spreading in Haiti, Montreal, and New York. A “Petro-demo” will take place in Miami on Sep. 15.

Demonstrators know that they will never get the truth about or justice for the theft of PetroCaribe funds from the Moïse government. That would be asking a thief to arrest himself.

But the call for transparency and restitution are fueling people’s growing conviction that the only way to break Haiti’s downward spiral of corruption and impoverishment is with a revolutionary movement to take back the government and treasury stolen from them in stages since the U.S.-backed coup d’état against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004.

Starting in 2005, Venezuela established the PetroCaribe alliance with 17 nations, mostly in the Caribbean. In many of those countries, the program has been curtailed in recent years under pressure from Washington’s aggressive sanctions and low worldwide oil prices.

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