By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Last month, the United Nations rolled its tanks and soldiers out of Haiti and left behind a team of civilians ostensibly ready to help burnish law and order in the politically-troubled Caribbean nation.
And last week, the Haitian Senate unveiled a scathing report, meticulously detailing how various officials and administrations have plundered most of the $2 billion aid package from Venezuela, commonly known as PetroCaribe. The aid includes a low percentage loan and a fixed price on gasoline to Haiti. The idea was to provide Haiti with unrestricted funds that allow officials to use the money for development projects without the strings that come along with such aid.
PetroCaribe also shielded Haiti from the wild swings of the oil market that was contributing to the country’s economic destabilization. This was aid with dignity. It’s something Haiti has known little of from the international community.
The deal was brokered under the late presidents Rene Preval and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. It was a way for Chavez to wield influence in the region by providing favorable financial assistance to many cash- strapped countries in the Caribbean.
Instead of spending the money on worthwhile projects, scores of Haitian officials misspent, mismanaged and misappropriated the bulk of the funds, according to a report by the Senate.
The report, a whopping 647-page document, concluded that embezzlement charges should be filed against two former ex prime ministers, and several former ministers and owners of private firms.
Of course, many of those named have vehemently defended themselves, claiming that either the money was spent on emergencies following the January 2010 earthquake or that the report is a political hit job aimed at adversaries.
I don’t know how true the report is but I do know that the money was used as a piggy bank and spent on questionable projects. To be sure, part of the money was spent on worthwhile projects like new road construction in the northern part of Haiti and repairing roads in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
But there are also plenty examples of white elephants standing in the Champs de Mars square, downtown Port-au-Prince. Of the more than 40 government buildings that crumbled during the earthquake, very few have been rebuilt. Those who have, remain unfinished and a few are mired in controversy and accusations of opaque contracts.
The new UN mission, MINUJUSTH, which focuses on justice, human rights and police development, should take the report and ensure its accuracy and when accusations are corroborated, those named should be brought to justice.
This is a seminal moment for Haiti if it is to turn itself around. In Haiti, corruption is systemic and endemic and theft and embezzlement are seen as fine, as long as you share with others, you will be protected.
While most people in Haiti think of corruption as the exclusive domain of the political elite, corruption is omnipresent in every sector from top to bottom. I am not saying that Haitians as a whole are naturally prone to corruption. But the conditions leave people with little option for survival. When outside of Haiti, Haitians are seen as model citizens for the most part.
Civil servants are paid irregularly and most can go up to six months before getting a three-month salary retroactively. Never mind that workers have to pay for transportation, food and clothing to show up for work.
Under such a system you leave the workforce vulnerable to bribe and corruption. That is why it takes more than a year to get a passport, unless you’re willing to grease the wheels and get yours in front of the line.
The lack of payment is extended to police officers armed with a pistol and a badge to patrol the streets, unsure if they will be able to feed their family in any given day.
The private sector is not immune to this. Many journalists moonlight as PR for elected officials and private sector entities to make ends meet. They also ensure positive coverage of the people or organizations they’re working for.
When he assumed the presidency last year, Jovenel Moise railed against this sort of corruption and chose the passport office as Exhibit A to reform. He promised to cut down drastically the wait time for issuance of passports.
But the embattled president (his administration has been dodged by almost daily protests asking for his departure) has not revisited his initiative for a while and there have been no discernible improvements in the delivery of passports to regular folks.
We just need to make this problem a national priority and address the root cause and give people a chance to live with dignity. The UN’s latest mission can atone for the sins of its predecessor by helping the country deal with this scourge that is corruption. This report provides them with a blueprint.