PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — Amidst such uncertainty, David Hale, the US Undersecretary for Political Affairs, visited the struggling nation earlier in March to meet with political leaders, the private sector and civil society. Hale’s visit is a direct result of Haiti’s violent street protests over rising food prices. The protests were halted in mid-February 2019 after government leaders announced measures aimed at addressing the crisis.
While the US state department signals US interest in playing a benevolent role in helping the country address the crisis, events one week prior saw the same state department maneuvering to repatriate five American citizens and two permanent residents from Haiti to the US after being arrested for the possession of illegal weapons.
The fact that the men have not been charged is clouding the message of the visit. Moreover, the revocation of visas of some members of the opposition by the US embassy in Haiti is seen as plain interference and undermines Washington’s image as a credible mediator to the crisis.
Andre Michel, a high-profile member of Haiti’s radical opposition, reiterated that President Jovenel Moïse’s resignation is key to addressing the crisis and that Washington’s support for an “inter-Haitian dialogue” led by the president reflects its misunderstanding of the crisis on the ground.
Hale’s visit may have provided Moïse with a diplomatic boost, but it’s uncertain whether he will be able to rely on Washington’s ambivalent support to stay in power and bring lasting solutions to the country’s profound crisis.
One of the key solutions put forward by Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant — to reduce the price of rice on the local market — has not gone into effect, as prices did not drop as far as expected.
Local rice growers are furious over the government’s decision to subsidise rice importers in order to flood the market with cheap rice as a way to soothe social tensions.
Haiti’s foreign affairs minister Bocchit Edmond recently met USA Rice Federation leaders in Arlington, Virginia, inviting American farmers to dump cheap rice into the Haitian market for people to access at affordable prices.
Citizens, however, view the move as the same old “short-termism” that has destroyed the country’s agrarian base and strangled the local economy instead of focusing on efforts that could help reduce Haiti’s dependency on US imports:
Haitian rice growers produce only 80,000 metric tons of rice per year, while the country imports about 500,000 metric tons annually, with 90 percent of those imports originating from the US. Local producers feel hurt that the government has not used that opportunity to boost local production as one of the prime minister’s promised measures.
Challenges to national dialogue
Meanwhile, President Moïse, who has faced his harshest test since being sworn in as Haiti’s 42nd president in February 2017, went ahead with the installation of the Committee for the Facilitation of the Inter-Haitian National Dialogue as a way to tackle the crisis and put the country back on track.
But Moïse’ troubles really began back in July 2018, when citizens flooded the streets of Port-au-Prince to demonstrate against the government’s attempt to raise fuel prices. Beyond the country’s socio-economic crisis, Haitians were angry about the alleged corruption surrounding the country’s involvement in Venezuela’s PetroCaribe regional energy programme, a preferential rate scheme hailed as a model of south-south cooperation and a financial boon for Haiti’s development when it joined in 2006.
This all came back to haunt Moïse in the form of the #Petrochallengers who have protested against years of corruption that has led to US $3 billion in losses:
Deepening socio-economic crisis
Moïse appointed Ceant as prime minister in September 2018 with the hope of confronting the crisis, but demonstrations continued throughout the rest of the year, reaching a fever pitch between October and November.
Now, the crisis has deepened as socio-economic conditions go from bad to worse — and though the protests have halted, Haitians’ claims for a “tabula rasa” (clean slate) which, for many, mean not only Moïse’s resignation — but a profound system change — could be a driving force for how the situation continues to unfold.
The #PetroChallengers, along with groups in the political opposition, has demonstrated no interest in being represented in Moise’s working group for dialogue between political stakeholders and civil society. They criticise the committee for its lack of proper representation and two of its original members have already opted out. In this way, the #PetroChallengers may have the president exactly where they want him.
The February unrest has impacted the country in many ways. Haitians suffered a shortage of basic necessities during the protests, increasing the economic stress on an already vulnerable population. According to an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report, at least 27 people died and more than 77 were injured during the protests. Major airlines, including Jet Blue, Air Canada and Air Transat, have either reduced or suspended international flights to the country.
Even the traditional national carnival has been retracted this year by the Haitian government. The pressure to deliver has never been so high during Moïse’s first two years in office.
This article written by Joseph W. Alliance originally appeared on Global Voices on March 7, 2019