In a Nov. 25 interview, Haitian Canadian writer Dany Laferrière bemoaned that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose to impose sanctions —without demonstrating clear guilt — against several Haitian heads of state, including former President Michel Martelly. According to the writer, the question of a president of the republic or the presidency is a symbol that should not be attacked without the appearance of clear, irrefutable justice. Otherwise, he said, “it is a cavalier act.”  

I tend to take the opposite view.  For a country as corrupt as Haiti, the president of the republic or the presidency is the primary entity to hold accountable.

Contradicting Dany Laferrière

In 2021, Haiti ranked 164 out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Among the factors that perpetuate the country’s abject poverty, excessive corruption carries significant weight. It constitutes the gangrene that corrodes the country. It hinders private investment and employment, withers the production of goods and services, triggers social unrest, insecurity, banditry/kidnapping and impoverishes the country.

The impact of financial corruption on the life, health and safety of people has as many harmful effects as acts of violence on a particular group. What is happening before our eyes in Haiti today is a concrete case. Therefore, financial crimes should be punished with the same rigor as genocide, starting with the most senior leaders because they should behave with a higher ethical standard.

That’s why such a corrupt country’s presidency should be attacked in a context of accountability.

An ‘earthquake’ these sanctions are not

Le Nouvelliste, for its part, described these Canadian sanctions as a political earthquake in Haiti. I rather see them as a timid and belated step in the right direction. 

Billions of dollars have been squandered, including the funds allocated for relief and recovery after the 2010 earthquake and the Petro Caribe project. In the latter case alone, evidence of widespread corruption in the mismanaged Petro Caribe fund is presented in an investigative report of more than 1,000 pages. People demonstrated in the streets for months to demand justice and the recovery of these funds. In addition, some former and current gang leaders have admitted to working for members of Haiti’s government and so-called Haitian aristocracy. These are all sufficient clues to indict the leaders of that time.

 Among the factors that perpetuate the country’s abject poverty, excessive corruption carries significant weight. It constitutes the gangrene that corrodes the country.

Despite all this evidence, how can Laferrière still say Canada acted hastily with these sanctions?

Given the paralysis of Haitian justice and the absence of powerful international mechanisms to bring the corrupt to justice, Canada’s sanctions may be considered as a form of indictment in the court of public opinion. It is up to these defendants to demonstrate that they are not guilty. 

This can be quite simple. To start, the defendants can present their declaration of assets before they came into power and after they left the seat of power. Substantial differences in wealth (for example, more than USD $1 million over two or three years) should be explained, particularly if the officeholder’s original wealth was meager. Failing this demonstration, these people should be duly judged.

That would be quite the shakeup.

Mobilizing toward justice 

Another big step would be formal indictments of the sanctioned actors in actual courts of law. But how to proceed?

Transnational entities such the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague prosecute heinous crimes such as genocide, while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna goes after crimes such as illicit drug trafficking, terrorism and corruption. There’s also the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCC) to which Haiti has been a signatory since 2003 and ratified in 2009. However, this convention is ineffective and not binding enough. 

My proposal from last year to reverse Haiti’s poverty consists of strengthening or giving muscle to the UNCC. It could be granted, for example, direct investigative power, with the support of a structured civil society, the national judicial system and the political party with official opposition status. To materialize such a proposal, in-depth reforms in the laws and regulations of these institutions are necessary. In addition, negotiations must be undertaken. A difficult task, for sure, but not impossible.

As some readers have pointed out, “this is no small feat” — and I agree. International institutions won’t wade into this of their own volition or unless they are constrained to do so. This is why it will take much social pressure, strategic cohesion (“tèt ansanm”), militancy and lobbying to move in that direction.

haiti presidents
Former presidents Jovenel Moise and Michel Martelly, pictured during the 2016 electoral campaign. (Reuters)

Unfortunately, we have not yet seen that either. Apart from a video of Dr. Jean Fils-Aimé circulating on social media and denouncing Dany Laferrière (a little too virulently, in my opinion), I have not heard of demonstrations or mobilizations of the Haitian diaspora to:  

  1. Support the Trudeau government for its imposed sanctions.
  2.  Demand that these sanctions be extended to other corrupt sectors. 
  3.  Condemn Dany Laferrière’s remarks. 

Is this due to an attitude of resignation or to the cultural influence of proverbs such as “Plimin poul la, pa kitel rele,” “Degajé pa peché” and “Imbesil ki bay, sot ki pa pran.” In The Haitian Dilemma, author Drelin Laguerre discusses some of our seemingly innocuous proverbs that are actually problematic. For example, the proverb  “Degajé pa peché” — which intimates that not calling out small thefts is ok — plants the seed for or contributes to a corrupt future citizenry.

If we set out to change our mentality and mobilize massively around this proposal or something relatively similar like this Facebook group called Fight the corrupts, who knows? As an end result, in the not-too-distant future, international institutions like the ICC or UNCC could move to the stage of prosecuting financial crimes.

Ruolz Ariste, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Université Laval in Québec. He is affiliated with the Department of Operations and Decision Systems. He writes opinion pieces about matters of interest to the community in Canada and the U.S. He is based in the Ottawa area.

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