Former Haiti president, Michel Martelly
4th Annual NAAHP Conference. Photo Credit: Vania Andre

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

The #KotKobPetroCaribe movement started innocently enough by a group of young people who wanted to hold government officials accountable for debt being incurred that they would have to repay.

The Twitter-led movement had initially baffled me because it felt inauthentic. But, it was indeed very heartfelt. I spoke to several people, including fellow journalists who reassured me that this was a legitimate grassroots movement. The movement’s leaders realized that a novel, apolitical and peaceful approach was needed to hold the government accountable.

The leaders remained purposely incognito because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves and weaken the movement by being vulnerable to the ad hominem attacks that were surely to come. But despite their valiant effort, the PetroCaribe movement has been infiltrated, co-opted and left for dead.

As thousands of people took to the streets to protest government grift and mismanagement, many with other agendas, quickly used the manifestations as a way for them to settle their personal scores.

Moise Jean Charles, leader of the Pitit Dessalines political party drew attention by hoisting the controversial black and red flag during a protest in Cap Haitien. Then the coup de grace came when the movement somehow morphed into a cris de coeur, demanding the departure of President Jovenel Moise.

The PetroCaribe movement is no longer as effective as it was when it began a few months ago. To be sure, there are still marches being organized, but you can feel the fervor dying. Lately, these protests are about everything else but governmental accountability of the funds.

Protesters in the streets of Port-au-Prince. Photo Credit: Vania Andre

Here is a quick explainer on the PetroCaribe.

In 2006, the late President Rene Preval joined 18 other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean who received low-cost fuel from Venezuela. Under the agreement, government officials can sell the oil at a discounted price to resellers in Haiti, protecting Haiti from market fluctuation.

The proceeds from that sale were to be used for infrastructure and social programs. Repayment – at a low interest rate- to Venezuela won’t be due for another decade under the agreement. But there is little money left and no significant projects to point to.

The Preval administration used the money for its intended purpose. Major roads and other infrastructure projects have been built in the north and his successor, Michel Martelly, inaugurated some of his projects during his tenure.

But billions of dollars remained unaccounted for and scores of projects are incomplete or were never started in the first place while payments have been issued. The challenge with asking for accountability in a country where officials have had to answer to no one is that too many people in high-powered positions are implicated.

Many of those demanding for justice fail to realize that private sector officials are as complicit in this sordid affair as their government counterparts. To bring some semblance of justice, you would have to have respect for the rule of law and allow the system to take its course. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist in Haiti.

No one would allow it and the tactic now is to wait out these protests until they fizzle or this administration finishes its term in four years.  Moise is in a precarious political situation being a political neophyte with no base of support, owing his political fortune to his predecessor Martelly. Many analysts believe the bulk of the mismanagement occurred under Martelly’s watch.

Former Haiti president, Michel Martelly

For his part, Martelly remains defiant and has deflected questions by pointing out privately-built hotels as to where the money was spent. These ill-advised, false statements led to attacks on the hotels and forced the owners to demand Martelly retract his untruths.

While some people believe that the billions of dollars were outright stolen, I think most of the funds were mismanaged. For instance, Martelly was hell bent in turning Ile-A-Vache, a pristine island off Les Cayes, as a major tourist destination. The case became an example of what happens when hubris meet incompetence. The government spent millions of dollars drafting plans, including building an airport on Ile-A-Vache and another in Les Cayes. The government failed to get the residents support and the project died slowly after wasting millions.

There are scores of other projects like Ile-A-Vache, where money was earmarked and disbursed with nothing tangible to show for it. This is sad on so many levels, but it is an apt metaphor for what ails and will continue to nag Haiti.

So how can the Diaspora weigh in this movement despite its weakening state? Haiti like a sick patient that requires radical intervention. The country’s governmental and entrepreneurial elites should know that the country’s ostensible middle class, its Diaspora, will not sit by and support Haiti no matter what.

I’m heartened to see that there is beginning to be support to hold back the remittance we send to friends and relatives in Haiti. This money accounts for more than half of Haiti’s hard currency.

If we can coordinate this for one month, one week or one day, it will send a strong signal that we mean business. We must take radical action to make it clear to those in power in Haiti that enough is enough.

They may have derailed the PetroCaribe movement, but a new one – withholding the remittance movement should begin.

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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