Haitians want to know what the government has done with missing oil money

A protest over missing Petrocaribe funds in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in August. Anti-corruption street protests have become larger and more frequent since the summer, when grievances spread widely online.By Dieu Nalio Chery / AP

By Edwidge Danticat, The New Yorker, Oct. 19, 2018

This past summer in Haiti was one of the hottest I can remember. My husband and I and our two daughters visited my mother-in-law in a small town in the country’s south, where we spent the long, scorching days showing our U.S.-born niece, who was in Haiti for the first time, the sights, and watching World Cup soccer games in the back yard of a neighbor who happened to have a television and was charging people the equivalent of a quarter to watch each game.

The World Cup was an obsession in our area, as it was in the rest of Haiti, where the Brazilian team is a perennial favorite. There were Brazilian flags everywhere—on cars, motorcycles, and homes—not because Brazil had led minustah, the multibillion-dollar, decade-long United Nations peacekeeping debacle in Haiti, or because thousands of Haitians had migrated to Brazil during the past decade, but because most Haitians claim Brazil’s soccer team as their own and were hoping that the team would win its sixth World Cup in the last sixty years.

Alas, it was not to be. On July 6th, we drove to the home of a family friend in Port Salut, a beautiful coastal town about thirty miles from where we were staying, to watch Brazil face Belgium in the quarter-finals. So many of our friend’s neighbors had come to watch the game that he pitched a makeshift tent in front of his house to accommodate us all. When the match ended and Brazil lost, scoring only one goal to Belgium’s two, the young woman sitting next to me began sobbing. I thought she was a superfan who was overcome with grief at the loss, but as she rocked herself she said, “What am I going to do with all the merchandise?” She’d been hoping that the Brazilian team would make it to the finals, she said, and had got a high-interest loan to buy Brazil jerseys, flags, and bracelets to sell. Now the items would be practically worthless, and she was deep in debt. Her anguish was a reminder that the fate of some of the poorest people in Haiti is linked to factors far beyond their control.

Port Salut felt like a graveyard when we left it that evening, and not just because of the disappointment over the World Cup. During Brazil’s final match, the Haitian government had announced that, in order to insure that the country would qualify for low-interest loans from the International Monetary Fund, it was substantially raising the price of gasoline and diesel. Even the price of kerosene, which was used to light most homes in the Haitian countryside, was going up by fifty-one per cent.

We only heard the news on the drive back to my mother-in-law’s, when we began receiving messages from family members and friends advising us to get off the roads to avoid running into roadblocks that had been erected in protest. We encountered nearly a dozen on the way, most of them made from piles of rocks and flaming tires and being guarded by anxious young men. At a back-road riverbed—a last-resort detour—a young moto-taxi-driver, explaining why he and his friends would not let us through, detailed how the sudden gas hike would chip away at the life they were struggling to build for themselves and their families. “We want a future, but they keep snatching it away,” he said.

Twenty-four hours later, the government announced that it was reversing its decision on the gas hike. Days of nationwide protests followed nonetheless. Haiti’s President, Jovenel Moïse, made sometimes scolding and sometimes pleading speeches on television. His Prime Minister resigned. A new government was formed. But a lingering flame of anger remained. Or, at least, rekindled.

In October of 2017, a Haitian Senate report detailed how, between 2008 and 2016, funds that had been accumulated through Haiti’s participation in Venezuela’s oil-purchasing program, Petrocaribe, were misused, misappropriated, or embezzled by government officials and their cronies in the private sector. The Petrocaribe agreement, which Haiti signed in 2006, allowed the Haitian government to buy oil from Venezuela, pay sixty per cent of the purchase price within ninety days, and then defer the rest of the debt, at a one-per-cent interest rate, over twenty-five years. This debt has grown to almost two billion dollars over the past decade. The Haitian government controlled the sale of the oil and was supposed to use those funds for social and development projects, including sanitation and health, at a time when ten thousand Haitians had been killed and nearly a million had been affected by a cholera epidemicthat was introduced by the United Nations. The funds were also supposed to be used to build infrastructure and grow the agricultural sector—the supposed specialty of Moïse, who had nicknamed himself Nèg Bannann, or Banana Man, during his Presidential campaign. The funds could have been used, too, for education, one of the stated priorities of Moïse’s predecessor, Michel Martelly, whose government added a dollar-and-fifty-cent surcharge on each money transfer to Haiti from abroad to finance free and universal education. (These funds, totalling millions of dollars a year, remain mostly unaccounted for.)

The pilfering of the Petrocaribe funds has been a concern in Haiti for years, but it wasn’t until this summer, when the writer and filmmaker Gilbert Mirambeau, Jr., tweeted a photo showing himself blindfolded like a kidnapping victim, holding a handwritten cardboard sign reading “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a???” (“Where is the Petrocaribe money???”), that these grievances began spreading widely online. #KotKòbPetwoKaribea became a popular hashtag, and other Haitians posted images of themselves inspired by Mirambeau’s. Anti-corruption street protests became larger and more frequent, culminating in massive demonstrations on Wednesday in cities in Haiti and in the diaspora. In Port-au-Prince, there were reports of two deaths and clashes with police.

I attended a march of around a hundred people in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, where, between chants of “Where’s the money?” and “Catch the thieves,” the protest leaders were already talking about their next outing, on November 18th. That date will mark the two hundred and fifteenth anniversary of the Battle of Vertières, the last major conflict fought before Haiti won its independence from France, under the leadership of, among others, the Haitian founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines, whose death was also being remembered on Wednesday.

In a commemorative speech delivered near the site where Dessalines was assassinated, Moïse made empty promises about fighting corruption at the highest levels of power. But it seems highly unlikely that his government will perform a satisfactory investigation into the missing Petrocaribe funds—a probe that could implicate himself, his predecessor, and their friends and colleagues. It seems equally unlikely that Haitians will stop asking, on social media and in the streets, “Kot kòb Petrocaribe a?”—“Where’s the Petrocaribe money?”


Posted Oct. 27, 2018