By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Over the weekend, the Haitian parliament voted overwhelmingly for Jean Henry Ceant to lead as the country’s next prime minister. Legislators also ratified his cabinet, even though some had to pay their taxes retroactively and in the middle of the night in order to do so. I’m not making that up.
The ratification process went relatively smooth compared with other times when it has dragged on for months before a leader of the administration was approved by legislators. The fact that the process was not a tortured one is an encouraging sign. It signals that perhaps legislators and other leaders are realizing that the old game of delay is no longer acceptable and above all, counter productive.
What should also be no longer acceptable is the systematic and pernicious practice of corruption that has been a cancer on the country’s social and economic fabric. While Ceant’s plate is full of issues, tackling corruption requires immediate attention.
It is clear that Ceant is unable to tackle all of the challenges at once. So in this triage, the new prime minister owes it to the Haitian people to make stopping corruption his top priority. He has been handed a golden opportunity with the PetroCaribe movement that started on Twitter and moved on to the streets of some of the country’s large cities.
The PetroCaribe is the brainchild of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s late leader. Under the program, Venezuela gave Haiti and other Caribbean nations a sweetheart deal on oil prices. In addition to the low-cost oil, Haiti received roughly $4 billion in a low-interest rate loan.
Now the provenance of that money is in limbo and this government has struggled to explain publicly what has happened with the money. Former president, Michel Martelly made his usual irresponsible comments by pointing to privately-funded hotels as examples of where the government invested the PetroCaribe fund.
Of course, the loquacious Martelly later admitted that he was joking and that government funds did not help build the Marriot, Oasis and Best Western hotels as he had claimed. But even before he walked back his comments, mobs had surrounded these hotels and tried to burn them down.
Ceant should work in concert with President Jovenel Moise and make getting to the bottom of where the money went his top priority. They need to hire an international auditing firm to conduct a deep and thorough financial autopsy.
This idea is gaining traction in parliament. Gary Bodeau, the leader of the lower chamber and a deputy from Delmas has called for an investigation. I hope he doesn’t relent and take steps to ensure that the executive branch heeds his call for an inquiry.
As leader of the lower chamber of parliament, he can hold up many legislations and not move on them until Ceant and Moise select an auditing firm to take a deep dive into the financial records and let the country know how the money was spent. We must have the courage not to interfere in the process and be ready to punish those who misappropriated or outright stole money.
Haiti is a poor country with little resources. We lack basic infrastructure like roads, running water, electricity and adequate broadband connection. Yet, there are no projects to point to as shining example of what Haitian leaders can accomplish if they have unrestricted funds. Most Western countries’ aid to Haiti is administered through nonprofit organizations and not government to government. Venezuela’s accord was one of the rare direct governmental aid given to Haiti. Yet, the leaders have managed to reinforce the notion that they are not to be trusted with money by totally bungling the funds.
We all have a role we can play to help our beloved country turn around. I want to write about the Haitian economic miracle. I’m tired of this current narrative.
But lately there have been optimistic movements that if we remain vigilant can yield positive results.
The first pressure point remains the Haitian people who have shown their willingness to keep the government honest by taking to the streets and demanding answers. I think these protests, should continue and swell in numbers and scope. But they must remain peaceful. There is no reason to destroy lives and or property.
The other effort that must not relent is the social media campaign. It started rather organically a month ago on Twitter and has mushroomed to a full-blown pressure point. It should be expanded to other social media platforms and maximized. We are all affected by the grift and corruption that is so endemic in Haiti.
We in the Diaspora have a major role to play in this. While I urge the people on the ground in Haiti to take to the streets, I urge us to do something equally difficult. We should stop sending money to relatives until the government make good and hire a firm to lead an investigation.
The government depends on our hard earned money and includes it in its budget. That money allows officials not to worry about feeding more than half of the 13 million people who live in Haiti. The remittance is estimated to be $2 billion a year. In one year, we contributed more than the PetroCaribe fund to the country’s coffers.
Our money pays for Haiti’s food imports and is not reinvested in the country because we produce precious little of what we consume as a nation. I do not ask people for sacrifice that am not willing to make. If they know that they can’t count on this money, I guarantee you attitudes will change because they will be under pressure from the population until they do the right thing.
I deeply believe that we have to remain vigilant and all Haitians should be ready to fight corruption. Not to do so makes us complicit.
To abstain from this responsibility will ensure that Haiti remains the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” We have the ability to once again become a proud and respected nation and strive to reclaim our place as the “pearl of the Antilles.” The buck stops at the top. We’re watching Moise and Ceant.