Two years into his presidency, Jovenel Moïse of Haiti remains unable to temper political and social instability, given chronic frustrations with the government and over corruption allegations. Moïse, whose term is scheduled to end in 2022, pledged to serve the remainder of his term but the odds are not exactly in his favor: just a quarter of Haiti’s 45 presidents completed full terms. On top of that, the country is in dire economic straits as the president urges the parliamentary approval of a new prime minister—his fourth since taking office—to form a government.
AS/COA Online explores the challenges Moïse faces amid a Venezuelan oil-related corruption scandal and political gridlock in the leadup to of October legislative elections.
The Petrocaribe scandal
One matter fueling public ire is a corruption scheme involving missing funds from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe energy program. In 2007 then-Presidents Hugo Chávez and René Préval inked a deal where Caracas would sell Port-au-Prince discounted oil under favorable terms. But in May 2017, just three months into Moïse’s term, government auditors released a report outlining alleged embezzlement and fraud that showed that at least $2 billion—equivalent to 25 percent of the country’s annual GDP—disappeared from state coffers between 2008 and 2016. Although he wasn’t yet president, there were questions about the legality of Moïse’s dealings during that timeframe.
During the 2016 campaign, the Haitian financial crimes agency known as UCREF released a report about alleged money laundering by then-candidate Moïse. The agency said it was investigating claims that Moïse, as a private citizen and businessman, and his wife received more than $5 million of Petrocaribe funds intended for public infrastructure projects—which were never completed—between 2012 and 2013. On the eve of his February 2017 inauguration, a government prosecutor filed a request for discovery, including requests to depose the president’s wife and key witnesses, and to audit bank statements and payment records.
In April 2018, Venezuela stopped shipping the cheap 60,000 barrels daily—nearly 70 percent of Haiti’s fuel needs—due to its own economic crisis and plummeting oil production. This forced Haiti to buy petroleum products at full price on international markets. To raise funds, the Moïse administration attempted to raise fuel prices by 20 percent and then again by 50 percent a year later, sparking demonstrations.
Haitians face unemployment rates topping 40 percent and nearly 60 percent live in poverty. Fed up with corruption, they took to social media with the hashtag #PetrocaribeChallenge in the summer of 2018 to demand answers about disappearing funds. Since Moïse took office over two years ago and amid fuel price hikes, protests and clashes with police have claimed at least 40 lives.
Moïse won by a landslide but faced hurdles from the beginning. In November 2016, the businessman won Haiti’s presidential election with almost 56 percent of votes in the first round after he trounced the runner-up. Still, that election was a do-over after results from the original vote in October 2015, which Moïse also won, but those results were invalidated following fraud allegations and protests.
While Moïse’s party occupies the largest portion of seats in the National Assembly—31 of 119 in the lower chamber and 11 out of 30 in the Senate—no single party has a majority, and the president relies on alliances to legislate. Moreover, Moïse’s administration has seen two prime minister picks resign, a third never receive confirmation, and now awaits the confirmation of a fourth. On July 22, Moïse nominated Fritz William Michel, a finance ministry official, who proposed a gender-balanced cabinet that, like Michel himself, awaits parliamentary approval. That confirmation may not come easy: Moïse’s prior choice, Jean Michel Lapin, failed to win it since his March nomination and opposition legislators used tactics like moving furniture out of the Senate rather than give him the OK.
A delay in the confirmation has costly consequences: the country is operating without an approved 2019 budget, which, in turn, holds up millions of dollars in aid, including a $229 million IMF loan.
The international response and what’s next
The president appointed a national dialogue commission to address the country’s crisis. Then came a high-level Organization of American States (OAS) delegation visit to Haiti in June 2019 to lay a framework for the dialogue. The OAS proposed—and Moïse agreed to—a commission of international financial experts to audit the past management of the Petrocaribe money. The United States, which has stood by Moïse’s government, encouraged the national dialogue while committing to working with Haiti towards a more secure future.
Haiti is scheduled to hold local and legislative elections on October 27 in which voters will elect one-third of the Senate, all members of the Chamber of Deputies, and all local officials. However, the certainty of that election date remains in question without a government and approved budget in place.