A few hundred demonstrators participated in a sit-in in front of the high court of auditors in the Haitian Capital Friday, August 24, 2018, to protest the embezzlement of $2 billion of Petrocaribe funds. Photo Credit: Patrice Douge

By Bianca Silva

Fed up with corruption and lack of transparency, people inside and outside Haiti are turning to Twitter to ask the question “Where’s the money?” using the hashtag #PetroCaribeChallenge.

The social media campaign follows an investigative report released by the Haitian senate commission in late 2017 where more than a dozen Haitian officials were accused of embezzling $2 billion from Petrocaribe funds provided by Venezuela between 2008 and 2016 that could’ve gone toward rebuilding the country following the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  

The origins of the #PetroCaribeChallenge hashtag can be traced to August 14 when filmmaker Gilbert Mirambeau tweeted a photo of himself blindfolded and holding a carton saying “Kot Kob Petro Caribe A?” expressing his concern for the 11 million people lacking access to housing and proper healthcare.

Petrocaribe is a oil-based program created by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2006 providing impoverished countries subsidized oil on a one-percent interest rate over the span of 17 to 24 years, while allowing them to use the savings to jumpstart their economies and fund projects.

This isn’t the first time Haitian public officials haven’t been held accountable for their actions or squandered Petrocaribe funds.

Prior to 2010, Haiti had accumulated $396 million in debt which Venezuela eventually forgave. Additionally, a 2004 investigation launched shortly after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide went into exile by Senator Paul Denis found that $17.4 million was transferred abroad by Aristide and his people.

Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul PhD, a sociology professor and founding director of the CUNY-wide Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College, states that the longstanding history between the two countries is partially a factor in Venezuela providing funds to Haiti.

“Venezuelans feel they are indebted to Haiti because without Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador would have never become independent countries,” he says.

A message circulating on WhatsApp explains the impact Petrocaribe funds could have had on Haiti. According to the text, 10 universities, three major hospitals, better agriculture and 600 kilometers of roads could have been constructed to improve the quality of life for citizens.

Dr. Ludovic Comeau Jr., a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and former chief economist of the Bank of the Republic of Haiti, mentions there’s a deep history of public officials getting away with corruption.

Protester holding up sign that reads “Where’s the PetroCaribe money?” Photo Credit: Patrice Douge
Protester holding up sign that reads “Where’s the PetroCaribe money?” Photo Credit: Patrice Douge

“There has been a serious problem of impunity in the country for decades now,” he says, later adding: ”In the past couple of decades, those practices of misusing public funds, even embezzling public funds have been so ingrained in the country and we absolutely have no accountability.”

Even with the data out there to support the facts, can social media become the catalyst for officials to finally face consequences? For Saint Paul, change isn’t as simple as using the newest technologies to express a certain sentiment.

“I think these forms of virtual protests like #PetroCaribeChallenge, many times, people participate in a way to generate immediate buzz but at the same time translate into something of “citizen laziness,” he says. “If we want to hold our oligarchs accountable, we can certainly use a hashtag and that’s great but it’s not enough to transform it into something more positive.”

On Aug. 24 however, hundreds of people took to the streets of Port-au-Prince to denounce corruption in the Haitian government, and demand information on where the PetroCaribe funds went.

Comeau also seems to be skeptical in regards to whether the use of social media could ultimately aid in ending corruption and indicting public officials.

“It could be a charade trying to due process,” he says. “If that were to happen, that would be a signal that we are turning the corner and that the culture of impunity is coming to an end. If that’s the case, that would be a clear signal to everybody that the game is over.”

Although Saint Paul isn’t against the use of social media to express frustration, he believes more needs to be done if Haiti wants its cycle of corruption to end. On Friday, citizens were seen marching the streets of Haiti demanding answers from the government.  

“#PetroCaribeChallenge needs to go beyond social media to translate to manifestations and peaceful protests in the streets of Port-au-Prince and in other communities where Haitians live,” he says. “There should be peaceful protests that serve as a coaction to take to the Haitian parliaments, to members of the supreme court and administrative departments to tackle petrocaribe.”

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