What’s going on in Haiti and what Canada has to do with it

"We, the Haitian people, are telling the president that we will not go back into a dictatorship," says democracy activist Vélina Elysée Charlier

“How do we report on these events in a way that reflects the facts but avoids the stereotypes?” asks host Jesse Brown on today’s episode of CANADALAND, a look at the current political and democratic crisis in Haiti and Canada’s connections to it.

“I think one of the key traps in how we report about Haiti is to paint, basically, international powers as the source of the solution,” explains CANADALAND’s Quebec correspondent, Emilie Nicolas, whose own academic research looks at the linguistic links between that province and Haiti. “And that’s something we see a lot in Canada — you know, ‘Canada’s gotta go out there and save Haiti from itself.’ Well, that’s kind of the original issue: people coming in and trying to do that.”

“Instead,” she says, “what is more helpful is that when you report the issues, report also on people who are mobilizing against the issues who are also Haitian themselves. And you show also that there is a civil society that is not standing for it.”

Late last week, managing editor Andréa Schmidt spoke with Vélina Elysée Charlier, a Port-au-Prince-based activist with Nou Pap Dòmi, which she describes as a collective of citizens fighting against corruption and impunity, and for social justice and human rights. Only brief portions of that interview ended up in the final show (which also includes the voice of Jean Jafrikayiti Saint-Vil from Solidarité Québec-Haïti), but we’d like to share more of what she had to say about what’s going on in her country and how she and her fellow citizens have been organizing to resist it.

The following is an edited and condensed transcript of Schmidt’s interview with Elysée Charlier.

Can you explain the PetroCaribe scandal for an audience that maybe hasn’t heard about it?

Basically, what Venezuela did is that they sold oil to different countries, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America, at very low rates. And part of the money saved was supposed to be on loan to the country, to go directly into development funds. But in Haiti, billions of dollars — that were supposed to go towards development — went into foolishness. It went into rubbish projects. And it was the biggest financial scandal in Haiti’s history.

The money was clearly stolen — most of it was embezzled by the ruling party, the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (PHTK). And particularly, some of it was embezzled by Jovenel Moïse, who is the current president.

So the scandal is the money that was stolen and the lack of accountability. And for the past three years, us Petrochallengers, and the group that I am a part of, Nou Pap Dòmi, we’ve been asking for accountability and we’ve been asking for a proper trial, so that those who stole the PetroCaribe money can face justice and face charges and that justice can be served. It was money that was supposed to go towards the ones that are more needy, because Haiti is a very poor country and we have many people that are living with less than two dollars a day. And then you think, as much as $4.3 billion was just stolen, it vanished, and nothing good happened out of it.

Why have people been protesting in Port-au-Prince lately?

The current president’s term ended on February 7th of this year. Now we as Haitians are telling him that his term has ended and he must leave power. And the entire country is asking him to leave power, because he’s a president that’s corrupt, is heavily involved in many massacres that have happened in the country, and has been ruling by decree for the past year or so. He missed five elections that he was supposed to be holding to renew the parliament, to renew the municipalities. But what he is saying is that because his initial election was contested and he actually took power in 2017, he’s saying that his five-year term is going to end in 2022.

And we, the people that you have been seeing in the streets, the Haitian people, are telling him that we will not go back into a dictatorship. Because since he’s been ruling by decree, he has been doing things that remind us a lot of the dictatorship.

“Just last week, we had three of our employees that were kidnapped in Haiti.”

Particularly, there is a decree where he has a national intelligence agency that would only be reporting to him. Without identifying themselves, they could check your car, they could check you, they could get into your house, and you could get arrested by anybody in the streets and you wouldn’t know why.

So all of the protests that you’ve been seeing, they are part of a big political, economic, and social crisis that Haiti’s been going through for the past three years, but particularly for the 10 years that the party in power, the PHTK, has been ruling the country. So it is us asking the president to leave because his term has ended, and he failed to hold elections.

At the same time as this impunity for massive corruption, there’s been rising insecurity in Port-au-Prince and around the country. Can you speak about how that is also playing into the protests and the anger that we’re seeing on the streets?

Haiti today has become an unliveable place. The regime that we have in place — and not only the regime, also many opposition politicians that were once in power, for example — they didn’t do anything to control the gangs. So today this country has become a gangster state. We are living in a country where, on average, there’s eight to 12 kidnappings per day. In the last two years, there were 11 massacres. The most known one is the one from La Saline, where about 71 people, including children and women, were killed.

And it is also well known to us, the citizens, that the government and the corrupted politicians and the corrupted private sector are using the gangs to keep power. Historically in Haiti, the way you take power is that you have money, you have guns, and then you have the gangs. And there is a clear relationship, where it goes as far as the president telling — live on radio, in front of journalists — that he is regularly talking to gang leaders. And the gangs have become uncontrollable. And that’s what we are seeing. We are being killed by the second. We are being kidnapped by the second, and they are asking for ransoms that are as high as millions of dollars.

Just last week, we had three of our employees that were kidnapped in Haiti. My husband co-owns a film company, and they are shooting their second movie. And when we were coming back from the countryside where we were shooting, three of our employees were kidnapped. Two Dominican citizens and one Haitian were kidnapped. They spent five days with the kidnappers and then another three days with the police before we were able to have them released. So this is how Haiti is.

And we have a lot of illegal guns that are coming into our ports, coming straight from the United States of America.

So the protests are not only against dictatorship, they are also against kidnapping, they are against impunity, and they’re against insecurity.

What do you think needs to happen for Haitians to trust elections?

You know, we are democrats in Haiti. In most of the groups, the activist groups, the civil society groups, we are all democrats. So of course we value and we want elections. What we are saying is that no fair and honest election can happen for as long as Jovenel Moïse remains in power.

What we’ve been seeing in the last 10 years is that there’s so much instability and that’s caused directly by the current regime, the PHTK. It has caused massive human rights violations, and all of those are because of bad elections. We spend a loop of five years going in the same circle, of elections being contested. They put in a president, anyway, and the president is contested, so we go into a round of protests until the next election.

We believe that this regime has become dictatorial. We believe that Jovenel Moïse doesn’t want to leave power, because it is obvious by all of his actions that he doesn’t want to do elections. So for us, for free and fair and honest elections to happen, we would need to see a transitional government, one that would give back to citizens faith in elections.

The last election, the one where President Jovenel Moïse was elected, the participation of the people was only between 18 to 20 percent. So it goes to show you how Haitians no longer believe in elections, because generally we know that it’s the international community, led by the United States of America, that is mostly handpicking who they want to be president. And that person is the person who is going to best serve their interests and not the interests of Haiti and Haitians. We would need to see an electoral council that we would trust, that would warrant legality and legitimacy. We would want to see a complete cleanup of the country’s electoral infrastructure.

“In the Montreal neighbourhood of Outremont, many of the people who were working with the Duvaliers came and bought houses and paid for them in cash.”

We would need to see improvement of the security situation. We would need to see a police force that is at the service of the population, securing the streets and not helping the politicians and not being used to commit massacres and human rights violations.

And we would want to see the justice system become stronger, so that they can have fair arbitration of the electoral process.

We would need to see all of that happen before we could even trust that there could be an electoral process that’s going to be fair, that’s going to be honest.

And we would want to see, as a civil society, as Haitians, less domination by the U.S. over our own elections. At the moment, Haiti is really a country that is almost led by the United States. No decisions can happen in this country without the embassy or the State Department being involved in it. And that’s not what we want. Haiti is an independent country, and we want to be able to live and do stuff as Haitians — the way that is good for Haiti and not the way that serves other peoples’, other countries’ interests.

So it’s not rushing and going into an election that is going to solve the problems of Haiti. That’s why we want to see a transition. We want to see a transition that would allow us to break with the bad political practices, with the bad economic practices, with that same loop that we are going in over and over and over again, where elections are contested.

But we are forced into elections by the UN, by the OAS, by the States, because they are paying for the elections, so they kind of force us, despite the fact that we, the people, are telling them that this is not the right climate and we do not trust that electoral process.

So we are always going in that same circle because the so-called friends of Haiti don’t — or do not want to — understand that we do not trust whatever regime is in place to run a fair and honest election.

We are living in a country where, today, what decides whether you get power is whether you have money, you have guns, and you have the gangs. So for anything to happen that would be good for Haiti, it will have to go through a transition where we actually face the reality of the bad practices that we must break with, so that we don’t go back into the same circle.

How would you characterize Canada’s role in this? 

In Haiti, Canada follows the lead of the U.S. So whatever the U.S. is doing, you would see Canada backing it up. And at the moment, the U.S. is really taking very bad decisions about Haiti — well, they don’t really care about Haiti, they never really cared about Haiti — and sadly, Canada is doing the same thing.

It is obvious that the current president is corrupt. It is obvious that millions of people are going into the streets to protest against the president and say that he is leading us into a dictatorship and we no longer want him. It is obvious that the civil society and most of the politicians are clear that his mandate is over. And that claim that his mandate is over is backed up by the CSPJ, which is the justice system. It’s backed up by the bar association. It’s backed up by the whole civil society.

But still, we are seeing countries — so-called friends of Haiti, including Canada — who are looking at Jovenel Moïse, who is in rebellion against his own people and is selling whatever is left of Haiti to the Haitian elites and the international community. And Canada is not doing anything and not saying anything. They are strangely very quiet when there are human rights violations in Haiti. They are also very quiet when it comes to the end of the presidential term.

Have you followed any of the reports about the wife of Haitian Senator Rony Celéstin buying a $4.25 million house outside of Montreal?

You know, I’m not surprised. I was partly raised in Montreal, and in the neighbourhood of Outremont, many of the Tonton Macoutes, or the people that were working with the Duvaliers, they came and bought houses and paid for them in cash. So it is, historically, that Canada, especially in the real estate sector, has been welcoming money that in Haiti we call “bad money” — money that was not made honestly, money that’s probably made from corruption or from using the system, the weak system, in Haiti to your advantage.

So honestly, I’m not surprised, because we saw it after the Duvaliers, and the same thing is happening again.

Top photo of Vélina Élysée Charlier via her Facebook page.

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