Robert Muggah is the co-founder of the Igarapé Institute and SecDev Group. Athena Kolbe is an assistant professor of social work at the University of North Carolina
The familiar stench of burned rubber hung in the air. Haiti’s streets were once again strewn with smoldering barricades after more than a million people participated in demonstrations over the past month. At least seven Haitians were killed, and towns across the country were in lockdown. Protesters mobilized online and off in response to a spiralling corruption scandal involving the country’s President, Jovenel Moïse. At issue this time is malfeasance involving the Petrocaribe fund.
Protesters were adamant that Mr. Moïse must step down. Their demands began gathering steam after auditors revealed how billions of dollars went missing from the special fund set up to pay for oil from Venezuela at cut-rate prices. Investigations revealed how a company overseen by Mr. Moïse was richly rewarded through the Petrocaribe fund for a road construction project, in a deal for which no contract was signed. At least 15 former ministers and senior officials are caught up in the scandal along with the President.
This example is just the latest in the long-running story of a country crippled by government corruption. And amid all this corruption lies the central question of whether Haiti’s elites and foreign donors – including Canada – are prepared to drop their support of this government and give democracy a chance to take hold.
The small-scale protests organized on the WhatsApp messaging platform in early February that ballooned into mass demonstrations – some of which turned violent – are not the first time Haiti has experienced social media-enabled protest. In July last year, Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant announced a 40-per-cent hike in fuel prices during a World Cup match, and even before the final whistle had blown, Haiti’s streets swelled with defiant young men and women calling for Mr. Lafontant’s ouster. The Prime Minister resigned within the week.
Those protests flared up again in October and November and have led to last month’s crisis. While the recent headlines are focused on the Petrocaribe scandal, Haitians have plenty of other reasons to be upset, not least of which are energy shortages, rising food prices, the high cost of living and a government skimming millions of dollars in public funds.
But still, the most fundamental grievances are ultimately about entrenched corruption and the illegitimacy of the country’s leaders. Haiti is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, ranking 161 out of 180 countries according to Transparency International.
Many of the country’s power brokers are determined to maintain a status quo of inequality, and foreign governments have not always been helpful in addressing the problems. Long-standing donors such as the United States, France and Canada reaffirmed their support for Mr. Moïse, despite his brazen misuse of public funds and the lack of equality in the country.
Demonstrators were also marching to protest the flawed presidential elections over the past few years. In 2015 and 2016, the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian-based think tank, surveyed Haitian citizens about their faith in democracy and their personal experiences with the electoral process. Haiti had just undergone a heavily disputed election in which Mr. Moïse, a wealthy member of the country’s business elite, was pitted against the more popular Jude Célestin, a socially progressive but politically moderate engineer who was popular across Haiti’s sharply divided classes.
The election of Mr. Moïse was confounding for several reasons. Back in 2016, when we asked which of the two candidates respondents preferred before and after the first round of voting, 91 per cent selected Mr. Célestin. At the time, just 3 per cent of the 1,766 adults we randomly surveyed said they planned to vote in the next presidential election. Many of them said the process was neither free nor fair. Roughly 19 per cent said there was “no point” in voting, 15 per cent feared violence at the polls, and 13 per cent said they wouldn’t vote because “politicians don’t care about people like me.”
In the end, few Haitians even bothered to vote. The government agency overseeing elections reported that just 18 per cent of Haiti’s eligible voters participated in the first round of presidential elections, and slightly more than 21 per cent came out in the second round. There were also reports of extensive ballot-box stuffing during both rounds, with charred ballots found behind voting sites. And while the newly elected President was embraced by Haiti’s business elite and foreign donor countries that supported the country’s elections and subsidize the government budget, most Haitians viewed the elections as deeply flawed.
The reality is a large majority of Haitians have never considered Mr. Moïse to be their legitimately elected leader. Many are profoundly frustrated that democracy – just like the missing Petrocaribe funds – is being stolen from them again.
Even if Mr. Moïse does step down, there is turbulence ahead. Whilst the threat of violent demonstrations may have temporarily subsided, widespread anger will simmer below the surface, waiting for another opportunity to erupt. Protests will only come to a halt for good when all Haitians are confident that their vote really counts.