Haiti authorities opened fire on Haiti rioters on Friday as protests against President Jovenel Moïse came to a head.
The protests began in February. As inflation crippled the country’s economy, many accused President Moïse’s administration of stealing approximately four billion dollars meant to aid the suffering population. The money in question was a product of “PetroCaribe,” a program that allowed Haiti to purchase $4 billion in oil from Venezuela but defer payment for up to 25 years.
Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez created PetroCaribe in 2005 at the height of the country’s oil production — almost a decade before its economic collapse in 2014. The program was meant to support alliances against the United States by offering temporarily “free” oil so the money could be used by poorer countries for the development of infrastructure.
In reality, Chávez used the program to purchase political alliances throughout the Caribbean, many of which remain to this day, and the program is facing growing charges of being part of a sprawling corruption scheme that benefitted those in control of the “development” funds.
Haiti was one such benefactor. The money saved was reportedly marked to provide a sorely needed economic boost to the poorest country in the Americas as well as fund social programs to deal with the rampant poverty and hunger slowly killing its citizens.
Haiti is still reeling from the 2010 earthquake that slew more than 200,000 and, as a product of United Nations mismanagement, has resulted in a cholera epidemic that continues to rage out of control. The Petrocaribe money was intended to bring relief and perhaps find new ways to house the approximately 38,000 people still living in the squalor of post-quake “displacement camps.”
It never made it.
“That money was supposed to go into development projects, especially in agriculture and infrastructure, so that we could start developing the country from the bottom up,” said Vélina Elysée Charlier of Nou Pap Dòmi, a group of Haitian political activists within the online “PetroCaribe Challenge” movement started by videographer Gilbert Mirambeau.
The movement spread like wildfire on social media and prompted an audit by five members of the Haitian Senate in November 2017. The findings were dismal. Under three separate administrations, the money saved through PetroCaribe was diverted from the people and into the pockets of the powerful, the audit found.
Officials misreported funding, manipulated exchange rates, and failed to employ the companies contracted to work on the various projects through proper bidding processes.
Demonstrations triggered by these findings have now spiraled out of control, resulting in this weekend’s violence that included the ransacking of a police station in Cité Soleil. Looters left the station without its metal roof and built barricades against law enforcement from debris and burning tires.
According to reporting by Al Jazeera, “angry crowds also looted several stores, banks and money transfer offices, ATMs and pharmacies” in Delmas and Petion Ville, two of Port-au-Prince’s wealthier neighborhoods.
“People are taking whatever they can to make their houses better because they are tired of getting soaked when it rains,” protester Steven Edgard told Agence France-Presse.
Haitian authorities responded with tear gas and live ammunition; at least seven people were killed in the chaos, countless others injured.
Moïse was scheduled to speak at the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly last week in an appeal for calm but canceled the visit amid the protests. In an address to the people of Haiti, Moïse said he “heard the scream of the people. I heard and I noticed your despair.”
“I extend my hand to all the forces of the nation to form together a government of national unity,” Moïse said, continuing:
Let’s have the courage to dare to unite. Let us have the courage to reject the practices that have nourished our adversities.
My dear fellow citizens, I ask you for a historic truce to begin the institutional, social and economic reforms essential to national development.
I promised myself not to respond to political violence with violence. I respond to political violence through dialogue. [emphasis added]
Citizens continue to demand Moïse’s removal from office. “Where is the PetroCarbide money?” a reporter asked Charlier.
“Nobody knows,” she answered. “Nobody knows because the people in power stole it.”
The demonstrations continue.
“In Port-Au-Prince, public services, shops, and businesses are closed. Public transportation is on a standstill,” a reporter from Al Jazeera on the ground in the Haiti capital, said. “Demonstrators have blocked roadways using anything in their disposal from debris to burning tires since early on Friday.”
“Every morning that I wake up in this country I am scared,” Charlier said. “So if I am scared, I’d rather be scared because I am fighting for a cause that I believe in.”