Mass protests and a general strike against growing poverty, corruption, and demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse have shut down Haiti for the past two weeks. This mass movement is a direct continuation of the general strike that erupted last summer against proposed increases to the cost of fuel as well as the mass protests that took place last November in relation to a corruption scandal involving PetroCaribe funds.
The PetroCaribe Alliance was launched in 2005 by the Chavez government and would eventually include 17 countries in Central America and the Caribbean. At a time when oil was selling for over $100 per barrel, the PetroCaribe programme provided cheap oil and preferential credit terms to member nations. These could obtain oil at a fraction of the market price and pay the remainder over 25 years at very low interest.
Haiti joined PetroCaribe in 2006 when Préval came to power, much to the irritation of the imperialists. Without access to PetroCaribe, the Haitian government would have found itself in a very difficult situation as the high price of fuel would have gutted government coffers. Following the 2010 earthquake, Venezuela not only forgave $295 million in debt that Haiti had accrued since joining PetroCaribe but also provided funds for reconstruction and aid. These acts of solidarity on the part of the Venezuelan government were deeply appreciated by the people of Haiti.
Haiti has accumulated some $2 billion more in debt to Venezuela under PetroCaribe since then.
The idea behind PetroCaribe was that savings from the programme were supposed to be used for development and infrastructure investment – primarily into housing, healthcare and education. After many years, there has been no development and the Haitian people saw none of the social benefits expected from PetroCaribe. People naturally began to wonder where all the money had gone.
The Haitian Senate released reports in 2016 and 2017 indicating that nearly $2 billion from the PetroCaribe fund had been stolen by Haiti’s political elite. The reports showed that there were some $1.7 billion worth of no-bid contracts handed out by the government between 2008 and 2016. These projects were paid for using PetroCaribe money but were never completed.
The senate reports and a January 2019 report from the Superior Court of Auditors highlighted the disastrous management and embezzlement of PetroCaribe funds. Some 15 former ministers and senior officials of former-President Martelly’s government have been implicated, including the current president, Moïse himself. A company owned by Moïses at the time was paid to construct a road, but a contract for the project cannot be found.
The January report itself was incomplete and was unable to finish the investigation into the theft of PetroCaribe funds. A follow-up report is expected in April. Predictably, despite the flagrant theft of PetroCaribe funds, no charges have been made and there have been no arrests.
Spurred by a social media campaign called the “PetroCaribe Challenge”, a series of protests were held last year against the theft of PetroCaribe funds and the widespread corruption in the country. This movement culminated in mass protests and strikes that shut down Port-au-Prince several times late last year, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of the government and justice with regard to corruption and the theft of PetroCaribe funds.
The end of PetroCaribe
Haiti’s economic situation continues to deteriorate. The foreign aid that flowed into the country following the earthquake in 2010 and the hurricanes that followed has essentially dried up. It also seems that a lot of this money was also stolen by Haiti’s elites.
Haiti was already behind on payments to Venezuela under the PetroCaribe agreement. However, with US pressure on Venezuela growing in the form of sanctions, Haiti found itself unable to make repayments on its debts and Haiti’s involvement in PetroCaribe effectively ended in October 2017.
Venezuela now cannot provide subsidised fuel to Haiti because of the sanctions. The reality is that Haiti’s fuel subsidy, which most Haitians rely on to survive, could only be maintained because of PetroCaribe. With the PetroCaribe option closed, the Haitian government turned to the IMF, which saw an opportunity and tried to force the Haitian government to get rid of the fuel subsidy. The IMF has offered millions in loans in exchange for privatisations and the elimination of the fuel subsidy. The IMF argued that, because of the theft and embezzlement of PetroCaribe funds, the fuel subsidy had to be cancelled as it was disproportionately benefitting Haiti’s elites.
This could only enrage the Haitian people. Not only had the Haitian ruling class flagrantly stolen PetroCaribe funds intended for social development to benefit the poor, now the people were expected to pay for it too? The reality of the situation is that most working-class and poor Haitians cannot survive without these subsidies. The proposed cancellation of the subsidy led to an explosion of anger amongst the Haitian people, resulting in several days of mass protests and strikes in July 2018, and the resignation of the prime minister.
Now that Venezuela cannot provide subsidised fuel, Haiti has had to turn to US oil companies and pay US prices for fuel, which it cannot afford. This has led to a fuel shortage. The shortage is such that there are long lines at gas stations and it also means that people cannot afford fuel for cooking, or lighting and electricity. Haitian telecom companies don’t have enough fuel to keep their cell phone towers operational and utility companies cannot provide power. Because electrical output has been slashed to deal with the fuel shortage, many areas of the country now have only six hours of power per day, while others have none.
Scandalously, fuel is in fact being delivered to Haiti. There are currently tankers loaded with fuel owned by US energy companies sitting in the Port-au-Prince harbour. But the Haitian government is cash strapped and in arrears to these companies, who refuse to deliver the fuel until the debts are paid and payment is received in full, in US dollars.
Having lost access to cheap oil on credit, Haiti’s budget deficit is spiralling out of control, which has devalued the national currency against the US dollar. The inflation rate has been around 15 percent over the past couple years, increasing the costs of basic goods and putting things such as fuel, food, and transport out of the reach of most Haitian people.
One man on a demonstration told the press that “we can no longer stand this economic stagnation: we have no electricity, no security and now the sellers of flour and bread have decided to close their doors due to inflation. So now we are approaching a situation of hunger riots again”.
A woman explained that “when I was little, one hundred gourdes allowed us to eat until our stomachs were full. Now we cannot even buy coal to cook food,” adding that, “with Martelly, it was better. With Préval before him, we had enough food to eat. And under Aristide my children were going to school!”
Capturing the mood of the people, another demonstrator explained that “it’s been two years since [President Jovenel Moïse] promised to fill our plates, but I cannot eat lies”.
Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution
The last straw came on 10 January of this year, when at a vote of the Organization of American States (OAS), Haiti sided with the United States on a motion stating that the government of Nicolas Maduro was “illegitimate”.
This was too much for the people of Haiti. In the eyes of the Haitian working class and poor, Venezuela is the country that has supported and helped Haiti the most through the lending of aid, provision of funds for infrastructure projects, access to cheap oil, and the writing off of debts, etc. The revolutionary solidarity between the people of Haiti and Venezuela is real and tangible, and not easily forgotten by the people. The one country that had supported and helped Haiti was now being betrayed by the political elites after they had lined their pockets by stealing PetroCaribe funds.
There is a direct link between the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the developments in the Haitian Revolution. When cancelling Haiti’s PetroCaribe debt after the 2010 earthquake, Chavez himself explained that Haiti had no debt with Venezuela, explaining that it was in fact the other way around and Venezuela owed a historic debt to Haiti. Chavez undoubtedly had in mind the inspiration drawn from the Haitian Revolution of 1791 and Independence of 1804, but also the sanctuary and support provided by the Republic of Haiti for Simon Bolivar in 1815.
Moreover, the revolutionary movement in Haiti that saw the overthrow of the Duvalier regime and the eventual electoral victory of Aristide in the early 1990s was an inspiration to Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. The Bolivarian revolution, in turn, became a major inspiration to the people of Haiti in their struggle for freedom from capitalism and imperialist occupation.
Venezuela and Haiti were definitely linked in the minds of US imperialism. Fearing the danger of a revolutionary tide sweeping the whole region, the imperialists targeted Aristide along with Chavez for removal from power. In fact, the tactics used in Haiti to remove Aristide from power in 2004 are remarkably similar to those attempted in Venezuela to remove Chavez, and now Maduro, including direct coup d’états, bosses’ lockouts, electoral boycotts and the fostering of a “democratic opposition”, etc.
The masses rise
After the OAS vote on 10 January, calls went out for rallies and demonstrations in solidarity with Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution. As the movement began to grow, calls went out for a massive demonstration on 7 February. The date of this demonstration was significant, as it marks the flight of Duvalier from Haiti in 1986 and the inauguration of Aristide in 1991.
On 7 February, Haiti was shut down by mass protests and strikes centered on three demands: (1) the immediate resignation of President Jovenel Moïse, the main ally of the United States in Haiti; (2) proper criminal proceedings against the Haitian political class for the embezzlement of 3.8 billion dollars from the public treasury; and (3) support for the government of Nicolas Maduro and the rejection of North American interference in the affairs of the region.
The movement continued to grow and gain momentum over the next two weeks. Schools, banks, embassies, businesses, and fuel stations all remained closed. Roadblocks went up across the country, disrupting transit and effectively shutting down airports.
Moïse was silent until 15 February when, in a public address, he refused to resign and rejected the demands of the opposition. He apparently wants to use the national police to drown demonstrations in blood and crush the opposition, but there have also been reports that the police forces have been “destabilised” and that the protests have created “massive contradictions” in the police. There are concerns on the part of the Haitian ruling class and the imperialists that the police are in fact “unreliable”.
Clashes with police have led to multiple injuries and deaths, and there have been reports of severe police repression against demonstrators in some areas, also including the involvement of UN troops, but the mass protests and strikes continued unabated until earlier this week.
With most services shut down for almost two weeks, there was a lull in the movement earlier this week as people took time to collect food and water, search for fuel and other necessities, and clean neighbourhoods (there have been no sanitation or garbage removal services for weeks).
The situation remains very fluid. After the lull earlier this week, the opposition has called for a continuation of the demonstrations on Friday, 22 February, with one opposition leader saying “On Friday we will march across the country to get Jovenel Moïse out of the National Palace. The time for dialogue has passed and the government has nothing to offer. The government’s policies are promises that it will never be able to implement.”
The government will come under enormous pressure from the imperialists to resolve the situation. The Moïse government is incredibly weak, with no mandate or popular support. Now, faced with mass protests and general strikes, the popular revolt of the Haitian masses could very well topple the government.
With no access to funds or fuel, the Haitian government has no real means of buying any temporary social peace. They have no economic means at their disposal to appease the masses, nor do they have any political capital to appease the political demands of the movement. With the national police force reportedly wavering, the government will find it very difficult to repress the movement with physical force. This doesn’t mean that the police cannot and will not attack demonstrations and striking workers, but given the balance of forces it seems unlikely that the government could defeat the movement with police action alone.
There has been some talk of US imperialism sending “humanitarian aid”, by which they of course mean an operation and coup similar to what they are now attempting in Venezuela. With no real means of dealing with the crisis, the Haitian ruling class will be very dependent on imperialism to solve the crisis. This then opens up the possibility of some sort of coup, supported by UN troops or imperialist forces delivering “humanitarian aid”.
By demanding the resignation of the president, proper investigation of the PetroCaribe theft and punishment for those involved, and by challenging the government’s foreign policy in relation to the Bolivarian Revolution, the Haitian people have directly posed the question of who rules in Haitian society.
It is very likely that the government could fall within the coming days or weeks. In that event, the question will then be: what replaces the fallen government? The Haitian ruling class is powerless, and the Haitian people cannot and will not trust in any solution offered by the imperialists. A deal brokered with US imperialism or the UN would only mean the continued occupation of the country by foreign troops, another temporary and ineffective political solution, and the continuation of the same policies of humiliation, poverty, and starvation. The movement of the Haitian masses must reject any deals with the ruling Haitian elite, the imperialists, and must demand the removal of all UN and foreign troops.
The working and poor masses of Haiti can only rely on themselves to resolve the situation and must take power themselves. With the movement now entering its third week, extended strike committees should be established and linked up in all districts, cities and regions to coordinate political activity and strike actions. These committees should then also begin to coordinate all the activities the government is no longer able to perform. With the economy in ruins, the strike committees should begin organising the collection and distribution of basic goods such as food, water and fuel, and organise transportation, education, sanitation and healthcare. Sources of fuel, food and water should be expropriated and distribution organised by the strike committees.
Only a government of the workers, farmers and poor of Haiti will be able to resolve the current crisis. Only socialism offers a way forward for the people of Haiti. The only way to permanently stop the economic chaos, end the crushing poverty, and develop the economy and provide jobs is to remove the rotten Haitian elite and the imperialists from power.
The people of Haiti are not alone in their struggle. The current movement was sparked by the betrayal of the Bolivarian Revolution by the Haitian ruling elite. There is a deep sense of solidarity among the working class and poor across the Caribbean and Latin America. The solidarity demonstrated by the Haitian people for the workers and poor of Venezuela will in turn not be forgotten. They struggle in common against a common enemy. By pressing their own revolution forward and striking a decisive blow against imperialism, the Haitian masses can come to the aid of the Venezuelan Revolution. As in past centuries, the Haitian Revolution today could be the spark and source of inspiration for a mighty wave of revolutionary struggle across the whole of the Americas and the world.