The New York Times, OPINION, By Jake Johnston, Dec. 26, 2018
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — It started with a few keystrokes in a living room in Montreal. Gilbert Mirambeau Jr., a Haitian filmmaker and writer, took to Twitter on Aug. 14 to post a photo of himself, blindfolded, holding a piece of cardboard with a simple question written on it in Haiti’s Creole: “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a???” — Where is the Petrocaribe money???
He was referring to funds that had gone missing from some $2 billion in low-interest loans provided by Petrocaribe, a Venezuela-led oil-purchasing alliance of Caribbean states, since 2008 to help Haiti’s economy. It became a critical emergency resource in 2010, when an earthquake devastated the country.
A few days after the Mirambeau tweet, the popular Haitian rapper K-Lib tweeted his own picture, using the hashtag #PetroCaribeChallenge. On the 18th, an informal group of young Haitians who organized on Twitter and Facebook decided to make promoting the hashtag their first public action. The movement continues to build momentum and the campaign has hit Haitian streets.
On Oct. 17, huge crowds of Haitians from all sectors of society peacefully demonstrated with banners and shirts demanding an answer to Mr. Mirambeau’s tweeted question, which is still trending.
The result has been a remarkable challenge to the legacy of corruption and misgovernment that Haitians share and have felt powerless to effectively counter for many decades. The big question for this tiny, impoverished country has become whether the current movement will push the political scene toward functional democracy or drive the government into a new cycle of repression.
On Nov. 18, a day commemorating Haiti’s victory over Napoleon’s troops 215 years ago, citizens again hit the pavement, signaling that this movement will not go away.
But ensuring that this momentum leads to significant change will require all interested parties — Haiti’s government and business, its elite and the impoverished masses, along with the international community — to unite in the fight against corruption, the transactional status quo that extends beyond the nation’s borders.
After the 2010 earthquake here, foreign donors pledged more than $10 billion in aid. But less than 1 percent of the emergency aid spent in their names went directly to Haitians. The legitimate government, the private sector and civil society were cast aside in favor of for-profit aid companies in the United States and other foreign experts. It is a policy that evokes the dynastic Duvalier dictatorship in the mid-20th century, when “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” became international symbols of kleptocracy. Today it is a policy that has only served to weaken the state and perpetuate the corruption, this time on an international scale.
Seemingly in contrast at first, Petrocaribe put funds directly into government coffers, allowing the government to fill wide gaps left by the earthquake. But rather than helping develop a more effective aid regimen, the infusion wound up delivering a highly efficient patronage system. Nine years after the earthquake, there is still little to show for the billions received.
Last year, a Haitian Senate commission published a 650-page investigative report on the Petrocaribe program. It implicated much of Haiti’s political class in inflating government contracts, funneling money to ghost companies and a host of other financial improprieties.
And now, after the $2 billion scandal languished for a year in the hands of politicians, and with Haiti’s judiciary too weak to act, Haitians on their island and living abroad took it into their own hands.
The movement itself is improbable. It has no clear political leader. Yet more than half of the Haitian population is younger than 24, and by focusing on social media, the ever-growing diaspora is becoming more active in its country’s political future.
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