For a few weeks after protests reignited in Haiti’s major cities on 7 February 2019, the media carried images of angry protesters and much speculation on what this meant for the embattled country. Familiar tropes dominated the narrative: “the people” were fed up with “corruption” and inequalities perpetuated by “elites” supported by “the West,” yet their actions risked pushing the “most impoverished nation in the Americas” further into a quagmire or even “over the brink.”
Sadly, there is truth in that narrative. Irresponsible elites (including some opposition political parties) and meddlesome international partners abound. The contrast between the ostentatious corruption of the few and the misery of the poor majority, including most youth, fuels the fire. The potential for breakdown is real. Yet there are complex dynamics at work in Haiti that could generate more productive outcomes than those envisaged in this doomsday scenario.
PetroCaribe Challenge, known in Haiti as “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe A” (Where is the PetroCaribe money?) is a large, social-media-powered movement with less visible links to the country’s human rights organizations. True, opposition political parties tried to use the movement to obtain the resignation of a president whose legitimacy they never accepted. Criminal gangs also took advantage of the disorder to extract “road taxes” from citizens and foreigners.
Yet the movement is rooted in youth activism and informed by the historic demands of human rights organizations for state accountability, the rule of law, and social equity. Whether it will remain true to those origins or be hijacked by politicians and criminal entrepreneurs, depends partly on its ability to collaborate with other social movements such as feminist organizations.
Even less visible to the world’s media, Prime Minister Céant has reacted to the movement’s demands with seriousness. True, President Moïse disappeared during the protests and spent most of his time denouncing his opponents in his public statement of 14 February. Yet shortly after, his prime minister announced measures that could begin addressing the country’s problems.
Those measures include supporting the prosecution of senior officials accused of embezzling PetroCaribe funds. They include reducing his office’s expenditures by 30%, reviewing public expenditures, raising the minimum wage, and maintaining price subsidies on basic goods like rice. His measures also include fostering an inclusive national dialogue to find more durable solutions to the country’s deep and interconnected fiscal, macroeconomic, governance, justice, security, social, and environmental crises. Since then, President Moïse has established a committee of eminent personalities to facilitate the national dialogue.
It is clear that Haiti’s foreign patrons are propping up an unpopular government. Yet in their statement of 10 February, the Core Group (the UN Special Representative, the ambassadors of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the European Union, and the United States, plus the Special Representative of the Organization of American States) took “note of the demands expressed by the demonstrators” while reiterating that “in a democracy change must come through the ballot box and not through violence.” They called on Haiti’s leaders to “engage in constructive and inclusive dialogue in order to implement realistic and lasting solutions to the political and economic crisis.”
They also encouraged the government to “accelerate its structural reforms aimed at promoting a better management of the state’s resources, improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable, fight inequalities, and foster a conducive investment climate to simulate the development of the productive sectors — essential to catalyzing the country’s growth.” Critics rightly point out that some of these same international actors have not always respected Haitians’ wishes at the ballot box and that their market-oriented prescriptions have failed Haiti in the past. Yet the Core Group’s current approach goes beyond supporting the incumbent government and opens the door for change at several levels.
What is Canada’s role in this context? Ottawa has remained very engaged diplomatically. Based on its Feminist International Policy, Ottawa insisted that the Core Group encourage political parties to “make every effort to ensure that women and men are equal partners in the democratic development process.” A growing part of Canada’s $80 million a year development assistance aims to promote gender equality in politics, in the economy, in social services, justice, and public security. Development co-operation has never been easy in Haiti but this is not the time for Canada to back away, given its considerable experience and interests in the country.
Gender equality remains a sensible priority for Canada IF it is treated intersectionally, not just by adding women to the equation. In the context of the Kot Kòb movement and the government’s considered response, it is important to bring more of the country’s social movements — from feminist organizations to the small farmers’ movement, from labour unions to organizations representing over one million persons living with handicaps — into national dialogue and policy making to ensure that the peoples’ interests, in the broadest sense, are not left behind yet again.