More than two months have passed since an innocuous tweet went viral and a social media campaign targeting government corruption in Haiti began. Using the hashtags #PetrocaribeChallenge and #KotKobPetwoKaribea (“where is the Petrocaribe money?”), the campaign has shifted the paradigm in Haiti and forced a reckoning over alleged fraud and mismanagement in the $2 billion Venezuela-financed Petrocaribe program. This anticorruption movement, which has brought together disparate groups ― both formal and informal ― from across the political and economic landscape of the country, now faces a critical moment.
A Country on Edge
Tomorrow, October 17, is expected to be the largest demonstration yet; a prospect that has the entire country on edge. The US Embassy has issued a security warning requiring employees to “shelter in place.” President Jovenel Moïse, who, despite being implicated in the wrongdoing, has pledged to support an investigation, visited police stations across the capital region over the weekend in anticipation of the protest. “In the camp of power, the panic is palpable,” warned Mario Andresol, the former chief of police. Some 1,500 officers will be deployed throughout the capital. Businesses have already begun boarding up windows. Reports of money being distributed to keep people away from the protests have circulated widely, as have mysterious audio and video clips warning of a bloodbath. “As October 17 approaches, the authorities are doing all the ‘bagay’ [things] to defeat the announced insurrection,” Andresol said.
By focusing on the possibility of violence, the government is attempting to intimidate the population into not participating, while laying the groundwork for blaming opposition political actors if things do go south. Last week, Schiller Louidor, an outspoken government critic, was hauled before a court to answer questions after using the term “Petro-dechoukay,” a reference to dechoukaj (literally “the uprooting,” but more easily translated as rioting). However, what likely scares the government more than the possibility of violence is a massive and largely peaceful demonstration; a demonstration that the government is not able to demonize or use to deflect attention from itself and its lack of response to calls for greater accountability.
The reality is that this movement appears to have tapped into a deep reservoir of political frustration, and not just among those who have taken the streets for years in opposition to the ruling party. With inflation in double digits, the local currency continuing to depreciate, and the cost of living rising each week, the country’s economic malaise has reached the middle and even upper classes of society. If those calling for an investigation into the Petrocaribe accounts are to be successful, they will need the support of a broad-based coalition. Nevertheless, there is also a palpable fear among those tepidly supportive of this movement and tomorrow’s protests who are also deeply distrustful of the popular organizations that have been leading the opposition in the streets. There will be a lot riding on tomorrow’s protest for the future of this burgeoning anticorruption campaign, as well as for a government attempting to stave it off.
Haiti formally joined the Petrocaribe initiative in 2007. Under the program, Haiti ― as well as more than a dozen other Caribbean and Central American nations ― received discounted oil, paying a portion of the bill up-front and converting the remainder into a long-term concessional loan to be used for government investments and social spending.
In contrast to traditional donor support that generally bypasses the government entirely, Petrocaribe serves as direct support to the government. As the price of oil rose throughout the early 2010s, the Petrocaribe program filled government coffers. From 2012 to 2015, Haiti spent an average of $270 million a year through the initiative, a critical source of financing for a government sorely in need of additional revenue. Haiti has spent some $1.8 billion of Petrocaribe-related funds since joining.
However, Petrocaribe has been plagued by a lack of transparency. While some have warned for years of the dangers posed by such expenditures without proper oversight, it was elevated to the forefront of Haiti’s political consciousness by an unlikely source: Senator Youri Latortue, whom a former US Ambassador once described as the “poster-boy for political corruption in Haiti.” Though few trusted Latortue’s motives to be anything other than craven politics, his efforts in many ways laid the groundwork for today’s anticorruption movement.