On Tuesday this week, in Port au Prince and in Washington D.C., people gathered to talk about the crisis in Haiti. In one meeting, demands for restitution and accountability rang out from the voices of activists gathered from around the world. In the other, a mixed message of a need for change in the U.S. position, but no mechanism or real direction for how that should happen. In one meeting, a passionate call for justice and a new social order. In the other, political posturing more attuned to partisan differences in the U.S. than the crisis in Haiti.
The first convergence was a collection of civil society organizations, mostly with deep roots in organizing for human rights and broader social equity in Haiti - groups that work within Haiti and organizations that partner across borders. This gathering was primarily focused on creating a framework of accountability concerning foreign intervention in Haiti - specifically the 15-year UN occupation of the country. From the People’s Dispatch:
Since December 7, over 100 Haitian and international delegates have been participating in the International Colloquium “Occupation, Sovereignty, Solidarity: Towards a People’s Tribunal on Crimes of the MINUSTAH in Haiti,” to continue on the long road to justice. The colloquium, organized by Platform to Advocate Alternative Development in Haiti (PAPDA), the Office of International Lawyers/ Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (BAI/IJDH) and Haitian Movement of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (MOLEGHAF), seeks to bring to account the people and structures culpable in the 15 years of UN occupation and the crimes committed by the MINUSTAH.
Participants at the meeting included representatives from organizations in Puerto Rico, who joined in discussions about international debt, and the need for restitution. Representatives from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina were also present to contribute to the broader discussion on creating a people’s tribunal to document the crimes of the United Nations and other foreign entities.
During the 14 panel discussions and workshops organized as part of the colloquium, international delegates hailing from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, the United States, France, Martinique, Mexico, Nepal, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela, as well as Haitian delegates from over 100 organizations, reaffirmed their bonds of solidarity, shared strategies to ensure justice and expressed their support for the victims and survivors of the atrocious crimes committed by the MINUSTAH.
This first convergence was thus an act and a statement of solidarity to press for accountability for decades (if not centuries) of foreign intervention in Haiti. Though not strictly speaking a response to the current crisis, there is a clear linkage between that history of intervention and the political and social cleavages evident in the streets of Haiti today as people are still protesting conditions and demanding that president Jovenel Moïse resign.
The second meeting was a U.S. House International Relations subcommittee hearing titled “Haiti on the Brink: Assessing U.S. Policy Toward a Country in Crisis.” Exactly what Haiti is on the brink of was not really clear. Apparently this was the first such hearing in nearly 20 years. When one thinks about all that has happened in Haiti in the last 20 years - and the United States' deep involvement in much of it, it is telling that this is the first time there was an official public discussion in Congress about U.S. policy since the Clinton administration. Unlike the first convergence discussed, the framework for this meeting was not accountability, certainly not on the part of the U.S. government. The witnesses in the hearing covered the gamut - from representatives of the International Republican Institute to Pierre Esperance of the National Human Rights Defense Network.
The strongest statement came from Maxine Waters, who emphasized the lack of accountability of the Moïse government regarding the La Salin massacre in November of 2018.
In April of this year, I led a delegation to Haiti, which met with residents of the Lasalin neighborhood of Haiti’s capital and surrounding areas, who described acts of unconscionable violence that occurred in November of 2018. The Lasalin massacre resulted in the deaths of at least 71 civilians, in addition to the rape of at least 11 women, and the looting of more than 150 homes. Survivors expressed concern that government-connected gangs, working with police officers, carried out the attacks to punish Lasalin for participation in anti-government protests.
The protests in Lasalin – as well as many other anti-government protests throughout Haiti since the summer of 2018 – were sparked by the disappearance of millions of dollars of assistance provided to Haiti by Venezuela under the PetroCaribe program. Through PetroCaribe, Venezuela sold oil to Haiti and allowed them to defer the payments for up to 25 years and pay a low rate of interest on the debt. Haiti was supposed to sell the oil and use the money to pay for social programs. Instead, at least $2 billion went missing. That is almost a quarter of Haiti’s total economy for 2017. The corruption in government was confirmed in a report delivered to the Haitian senate by official auditors on May 31, 2019. This corruption occurred under the leadership of Haiti’s current president, Jovenel Moïse , as well as his predecessor, Michel Martelly. Haitians began demonstrating against this government because they knew that they never saw the benefits of the PetroCaribe program.
Waters noted that the Trump administration continues to support Moïse and, absent any mention of corruption, is simply pressing for a dialogue with opposition groups - who have thus far refused - as the only strategy on the table. Waters concluded: “The president of Haiti needs to take responsibility for the current political crisis in his country, and the protests will not stop until he does.”
It is doubtful that much will come from the Congressional hearing. Though it was one of the best attended subcommittee hearings anyone can remember, there seems to be little momentum in Congress to tackle anything substantive regarding Haiti. The administration itself seems to have no plan other than sticking with Moïse and calling for dialogue. In doing so, the United States is basically demonstrating that there is no sympathy for the concerns of those protesting. If this lack of imagination means that the United States stays out of further intervention into this crisis, that is not really a bad thing. However, the Trump administration’s reflexive defense of Moïse is in essence a form of intervention in and of itself.
At some point Haiti’s destiny will be decided by a group of people sitting at a table trying to reach a compromise about the future. Those people will be driven to that table by events in the streets. But once there, will activism inspire and frame the conversation, or not? If not, there seems to be little hope of real change. Process and participation matter. This week we got a glimpse of that. The official discourse is offering little, and must be opened up to new voices if change is going to happen.