The stench of burning tires is hard to escape. Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is again littered with smoldering barricades. Towns across the country are in lockdown. Over a million people took to the streets this month in protest, effectively shutting the nation of nearly 11 million people down. Demonstrations turned violent amid accusations that Haitian officials pillaged a multibillion-dollar Petrocaribe development fund subsidized by Venezuela.

The opposition is calling for President Jovenel Moise to resign. But Moise is defiant, insisting that he “will not leave the country in the hands of armed gangs and drug traffickers.”

Haiti has been seized by demonstrations over the past year. Grievances range from the skyrocketing costs of food and gas to crippling austerity and elite graft and impunity. Oddly, the Haitian administration and the foreign donor governments funding it have seemed stunned with every new protest. The Petrocaribe fund scandal, however, is pushing the fragile country to the edge.

Last year, deep-seated anger escalated into stone-throwing encounters between protesters and police officers. The rage erupted online in August, when Haitian-Canadian videographer Gilbert Mirambeau posted a tweet in which he appears blindfolded and asks the simple question in Haitian Creole: “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a ???” — where is the Petrocaribe money?

Petrocaribe was launched over a decade ago as a way for Caribbean and Central American countries to buy discounted oil and receive credit financing from Venezuela. Funding from the program was expected to pay for education, health, agriculture and infrastructure projects.

The scale of alleged theft in Haiti is breathtaking. A 2017 Haitian Senate report said that, between 2008 and 2016, money generated by the oil-purchasing program was misused, misappropriated and embezzled by dozens of government officials and heads of private firms. In January, an auditor’s report concluded that almost $2 billion was diverted from the fund. A company tied to President Moise was accused of receiving irregular payments before he took office. Moise and the other current and former officials vehemently deny the accusations.

The initial report led Moise to fire his cabinet chief and 15 government advisers, but he did not require them to admit guilt. Under pressure from the opposition, the government said last month it would deepen investigations into alleged corruption. But Haitians are outraged by the slow pace of the investigations and lack of arrests of senior politicians and business people.

The scandal is all the more jarring given Haiti’s sharp economic and social disparities. Close to 60 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line of $2.41 a day. Two years ago, a bag of basic staples such as rice, beans, cooking oil and vegetables could be purchased for around $10. According to a monitoring system we set up back in 2004, the same basket of goods today is $19.60, almost double the price. The costs of everything from water and kerosene to transportation and school fees are soaring. Haiti’s already unreliable electrical grid is falling apart: areas that once received a few hours of electricity a day are now going days or weeks without access to energy. Across the country shops and banks are closing. Continue reading

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