Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch

The Overpass to Nowhere

2 months 2 weeks ago

In August 2015, President Michel Martelly inaugurated the Delmas viaduct, a four-lane overpass designed to ease the capital’s grid-locked streets. “This viaduct proves once again that together we can achieve great and beautiful things,” Martelly told the large crowd that had assembled. “More than a dream, more than a project, this viaduct is now one of the symbols of Port-au-Prince.”

Underneath the overpass, bands provided live entertainment throughout the hours-long inauguration ceremony which eventually turned into a political rally. Martelly’s term as president was coming to an end, and presidential elections were set to take place in a few months.

“This is the man I have picked to succeed me for my party,” Martelly said from the stage, calling up the man next to him for all to see. “His name is Jovenel Moïse.”

Nearly four years later, on May 31, 2019, Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors (CSCCA) released a 600-page investigation into more than $2.3 billion in Petrocaribe-related expenditures between 2008 and 2016, when Moïse eventually secured the presidency. The report identified nearly $2 million in questionable payments made to Moïse in late 2014 and early 2015. The largest came just days after he registered as the governing party’s presidential candidate.

As for the viaduct, Martelly was right. It has become a symbol of Port-au-Prince. A concrete symbol of government waste. And a rallying point for Haiti’s growing anticorruption movement.

On October 17, 2018 and again on November 18, 2018 massive anticorruption protests took place in Port-au-Prince and in provincial towns across the country. “Where is the Petrocaribe money?” They demanded. In the capital, before marching up Route Delmas -- which runs from the poorer neighborhoods downtown straight up the hill to the comparatively wealthy Petionville -- the various organizations and neighborhoods participating amassed at the overpass.

Now, approaching a year since the launch of their movement, organizers are planning another march for June 9. Armed with the CSCCA report, the question is no longer where did the money go, but what is the government going to do about it. There won’t be any confusion about where the demonstration will begin.

But the story of the viaduct itself reveals just how difficult it will be to ensure justice and accountability in Haiti – and abroad. It’s not just the Haitian government that may be reticent about following the money. The implications of the Petrocaribe scandal in Haiti are vast and extend far beyond the country’s own borders and its own political class.

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Plans for the Delmas viaduct have been around for decades, the brainchild of the politically connected local representative of the Canadian conglomerate SNC-Lavalin, Bernard Chancy. In 2005, SNC-Haiti completed a study on the viability of the project, but couldn’t find the funding to make it a reality.

In the meantime, SNC-Lavalin and its local subsidiary were becoming increasing involved in Haiti. The firm handled the design and construction of the new Canadian Embassy, inaugurated in 2004. It undertook the engineering studies and then supervised the construction of a number of other structures, including the Faculty of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine. The firm found itself on the UN’s approved vendor list, and on the receiving end of millions in Canadian foreign assistance funds.

In Canada, the firm became one of the Liberal Party’s most steadfast donors. But it had political connections in Haiti as well. A family relation of its Haiti representative, Michael Chancy, was a deputy agricultural minister in Rene Préval’s 2006-2011 government and then was one of the only senior administration officials to be retained in the new administration of Michel Martelly.

But according to a senior Haitian government advisor during the Préval years, SNC-Haiti, despite its political connections, was unable to convince Préval during either of his two terms in office to approve the viaduct project, which the president dismissed as “a rip-off.”

That didn’t stop SNC-Haiti from once again attempting to sell its pet project to the incoming Martelly administration though. And the earthquake presented an opportunity for Bernard Chancy and the Delmas viaduct.

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