Beckett: Protesters demand change in Haiti

Haiti is at a crossroads. The country has been effectively shut down for over two months, as anti-government protesters have blocked roads and shuttered stores as part of what they call Operation Peyi Lòk (country lockdown). The protestors are demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse and calling for a transitional government. They are also demanding an end to what Haitians call lavi chè, the high cost of living – that is, to the crippling economic crisis that makes it nearly impossible for people to make a living or survive.

Background to the crisis

The protests began more than a year ago, after the release of an audit that implicated the current government, including President Moïse, in the misuse and theft of billions of dollars in development funds.

The missing funds were taken from the PetroCaribe plan, a regional fuel and development program in which Caribbean countries purchased Venezuelan oil at discounted prices with low-interest loans. Proceeds from fuel sales were meant to be used for social development projects, but in Haiti, some $2 billion of PetroCaribe funds are gone, and the government has incurred another $2 billion in debt from the program.

Haiti can no longer buy fuel from Venezuela, nor can it service its debt, since U.S.-imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela prohibit that country from accessing financial markets. The end of PetroCaribe has meant the Haitian government must now buy fuel from U.S. energy providers, but it does so without any reduced prices and must pay on delivery for imports, something the cash-strapped government cannot easily afford to do.

Since January of this year, there have been severe fuel shortages in the country, which in turn has led to gas rationing and escalating fuel and energy prices – all in a country with some of the highest energy costs in the region. With the government unable to pay its bills, there have been rolling blackouts, some lasting weeks or months. The fuel shortages and blackouts, coupled with near-daily protests, have forced nearly every shop, business, school, and hospital to reduce services or close outright.

As supplies run low everywhere, Haiti faces a looming humanitarian crisis.

A political deadlock

The country is now at a stalemate.

Moïse has refused calls for his resignation, despite the fact that more and more sectors of the country are joining the protests each day. But each day things get worse for most Haitians. Rising inflation and the fuel crisis have crippled the economy and made an already dire situation significantly worse. Tensions are high, especially after reports that the Haitian National Police have been using intimidation tactics and live ammunition to quell the protests. There have been recent reports, too, of human rights violations and documented cases of the police and government-aligned gangs killing reporters and antigovernment protestors.

Despite all of this, Moïse remains in power, although he has no broad basis of legitimacy, is in no position to impartially and credibly deal with the corruption scandal (since it names him and his allies), and has no plan for ending the crisis. Moïse has turned increasingly to repressive tactics to hold on.

Some outside observers have begun to call for international intervention, but there is already a UN political mission in the country and decades of UN and foreign intervention have had little measurable success. The protestors themselves are calling for Moïse’s resignation and for an interim government made up of a cross-section of parties and civil society groups to manage the transition to a new government. They have also demanded a full investigation into the corruption scandal and the prosecution of those found guilt.

Government against the people

The current crisis has deep roots, and stems in part from the legacies of debt and dependency in Haiti and from decades of economic policies that have left the country poorer and left the government with little to no capacity to address the most pressing needs of the Haitian people.

But part of the story has to do with a regional pattern of rising inequality that has spurred the rise of rightwing populism. In Haiti, the current and previous governments have presided over the restoration of the armed forces (disbanded after the fall of the Duvalier-family dictatorship) and the entrenchment of politically-aligned gangs. Under Moïse’s government, we have seen the restoration of the predatory state in Haiti.

It is now clear that there is no path through the crisis unless Moïse steps down, which he has so far refused to do. For now, Moïse remains comfortably in power largely due to support from the international community, including the United Nations and the governments of Canada and the United States, all of whom have called for a ‘national dialogue’ between the government and the opposition and insisted on the importance of upholding the elected government.

To take such a position is to mistake elections for democracy.

Moïse came to power under dubious circumstances. The presidential election of 2015 was so marred by irregularities that it was rerun the following year. Moïse won the second version of the election, although he did so with the one of the lowest recorded voter turnouts in Haiti.

Since he took power in February 2017, he has proven himself unable to govern. He has no ratified national budget and no ratified Prime Minister. He has indefinitely postponed legislative elections that were due to be held last month.

Now, dozens of members of parliament are about to have their terms expire, with no plan for new elections to fill their seats. In short, there is nothing constitutional or democratic about Moïse’s government.

It is time for the international community, including the Canadian government, to stand with the Haitian people and call for Moïse to resign. Only then can the Haitian people begin to address the many other pressing problems their country faces.

Anthropology professor Greg Beckett is a cultural anthropologist who studies crisis, disaster, and trauma from the standpoint of moral experience. His expertise centres around Caribbean, specifically Haiti, where he has worked for 15 years.