On the Shoulders of Ancestors: Haiti’s Postdictatorship Generation Fights Corruption



In this text, Fania Noel introduces us to a new generation of Haitian activists born after the end of the Duvalier dictatorship 33 years ago. Following some of their ancestors, they are not afraid to face national and international opposition despite the weight of the establishment.

The crowd cheers and waves. In the distance, a man dressed as an 1804 Revolutionary soldier advances on horseback with a flag in his hand. It’s June 9, 2019 at 11 AM, 32° C, but feels like 40° C. Thousands of people are gathered at Carrefour Airport. In a few moments, the demonstration will begin. The protestors are demanding legal action against everyone implicated in the embezzlement of PetroCaribe funds and calling for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse, investigated in the Court of Auditors’ report. PetroCaribe, launched on June 29, 2005 in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, is an oil alliance between Caribbean countries and Venezuela in which the latter sells oil on preferential terms of payment. In this program, the benefits obtained by countries such as Haiti must be invested back into social and economic development projects. Haiti’s PetroCaribe Fund is estimated at 3.8 billion U.S. dollars.

For almost a year now, a grassroots movement has emerged on a scale we have not seen since the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986. Known as “Petrochallengeur,” the movement demands for transparency on the use of PetroCaribe funds and legal proceedings. Petrochallengeur also catalyzes many other calls for justice. Among the most active members of the movement are young people born of the post-1986 generation. Nou Pap Dòmi, one of the groups setting the tone of the movement, has been central to the latest mobilizations and analysis of the Court of Auditors’ report.

In January 2010, Haiti faced a deadly earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people and left thousands wounded and homeless. The media machine and the humanitarian industrial complex set off for Haiti to conveniently settle the nation as a republic of NGOs. Hundreds of millions of dollars passed through the various NGOs. The capital’s streets swarmed with expatriates and cars stamped with logos of Oxfam, World Vision, Action Aid, and USAID. The NGO expatriates could be found in the capital’s restaurants (with prices listed in U.S. dollars) to discuss their missions and mandates while their drivers waited in their cars outside. Every humanitarian NGOs wanted to be in on the action. 

Nearly 10 years later, the reality is more than deceptive. There has been no significant improvement after millions have been spent on projects without any real impact beyond generating more dependence. Even more than leaving zero effect, the presence of the NGO sector has contributed to aggravating the situation. Salaries and benefits such as rent covered by employers jacked up the prices of commodities typically consumed by the middle class — those who had the means to rebuild their houses, that is. At the peak of humanitarian madness, a two-bedroom apartment could rent for up to $1,500 a month in the poorest country in the northern hemisphere. Most young professionals left local businesses and public service industries to work for NGOs on projects where wages were much more attractive — a domestic brain drain of sorts. This does not even begin to account for the numerous scandals concerning aid spending. But the show must go on: Haiti had its moment of sensationalist aid and now Syria is the new place to be humanitarian. The departure of the NGOs began slowly but surely in 2016. The donors began to cut the taps, the started projects were left behind as they were, the Haitian employees, too. 

July 6, 2018. Brazil’s football team, beloved of Haitians, is in the World Cup quarter finals against Belgium. The streets are empty while the population is hooked to their screens. The match is barely over when the government announces a gasoline price increase, as recommended by the IMF’s new loan condition. The amount of 85 gourds (at the time $1 = 64HTG) is added to each gallon of gasoline. Gasoline prices rise to 309 HTG per gallon, bringing diesel up to 264 HTG per gallon and kerosene, the product used most by poorer sections of the population, rises to 262 HTG. Meanwhile, the minimum daily wage rests at 250 HTG. News spreads as soon as the match is coming to an end. What seemed like a good communication strategy to sugar-coat a bitter pill quickly whirls into a fiasco: uprisings led by motorcycle taxi drivers erupt throughout the capital. Roads are blocked, including access to the airport. Groups arrive at the entrance of the President’s personal residence to burn tires. It’s impossible to go home by car so students sleep at school. Less than 24 hours after the announcement the government is beginning to backtrack. Haiti returns to an apparent lull, but the air is still stirring. The situation is no longer tenable. The fear of an explosive thread is heavy on the minds of many: the bourgeoisie and those who identify as middle class to the government and the international community.

August 14, 2018. Filmmaker Gilbert Mirambeau posts a photo of himself on the anniversary of the Bois Caïman ceremony (gathering of maroons on the night of August 14, 1791, a founding act of the Revolution and the war of independence which ended in 1804). Mirambeau is blindfolded while holding a sign in his hands that says: “Kot kòb petwo karibe a?” (Where is the PetroCaribe money?) The post goes viral and other artists and anonymous Internet users follow suit. The amount of $3.8 billion is central to conversations about the projects it was intended to finance such as infrastructure, schools, hospitals, etc.

The top suspects are named, the main one being the Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK), party of the current president Jovenel Moïse and also of the former president Michel Martelly, under which the majority of PetroCaribe funds were spent. Starting initially on social media, the mobilization takes to the street for the first time on August 24, 2018, staging a sit-in before the Court of Auditors. The demonstrations follow one after another every two weeks. October 17 marks a culminating moment when nearly a million people take to the streets of Port-au-Prince. The President and his government is trying to quell the protests by ensuring that the report of the Court of Auditors will serve as the basis for legal proceedings.

Meanwhile, a young movement is gaining structure. The “Petrochallengeurs” are organized into two structures: Ayiti nou vle a (Haiti we want), designated as a Citizen Think Tank, and Nou pap dòmi (We remain vigilant) positioned more in the organization of actions and political proposals for a structural transition. These two movements are mostly composed of young people born after 1986; some whom have decisively abstained from voting. The movements are also characterized by choices that break from traditional politics: while Haitian elites (political, economic or cultural) use French as a tool of social distinction, all the messages from these groups (written or oral) are in Haitian Creole. Rather than choose a leader, the movements rely extensively on participatory consultation tools, an uncommon choice in a country still awaiting a charismatic leader. These groups are composed of young professionals, students, and activists, with a strong presence of young feminist activists. They claim to be able to live in their country in decent conditions for all and for that to be possible, the corrupt system must be put to an end.

In less than a year, Nou pap domi has achieved the feat of becoming an unavoidable political force — the only credible one — in a country where politics is synonymous with corruption. Political parties not in power (but have been previously), fall under the vague denomination “Democratic Opposition.” The conditions are especially difficult for this group of newcomers in the minefield of traditional politics in which opponents are known to arm poorer neighborhoods and use them as a disturbance to negotiate power. The Petrochallengers are surrounded by enemies: the government, the Democratic opposition, the bourgeoisie (composed mainly of Syro-Lebanese, European descendants arriving in Haiti in the 1920s, and Mulatto Haitian families), and the international community. Haiti’s alignment with the US position on Venezuela aims at securing the support of the United States and wider members of the CORE GROUP (U.N., Organization of American States, Ambassadors of Germany, Brazil, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, European Union.)

For a year now, Haiti has been living according to the sequential rhythm of Operation Lock Country (pays lock) organized by the famous democratic sector. These sequences are characterized by the total cessation of activities; not because of a general strike, but because people are afraid to leave their homes or even send their children to school (school accounts for 60% of Port-au-Prince activity). A domino effect means employees and officials do not go to work, taxis stay out of view for fear of having their tool upon which their livelihoods depend destroyed. Unlike the uprisings of July 6 and July 7, which were grass-roots demands, Lock Country operations are political coups of the old seasoned crew. The last notable episode dates back to February when there were 11 days of total paralysis, a shortage of water supply (in a city without running drinking water) and food. This situation has weighed heavily on the poorest households with incomes dependent upon day-to-day activities in the informal sector.

The opposition does not shy away from power plays and as such does not hesitate to put the Petrochallengeurs in impossible positions. They have nothing left to lose and know that without any remaining credibility to protect, their chance to return to power could only come from a new or transitional government, and will not come from elections. It is in this context that they have symbolized their activities as mobilizations. Their approach is two-fold, simultaneously negotiating a position of power by applying pressure to the President and the government and poaching a movement that has become a significant political force.

Haitian youth mobilizing against corruption and foreign interference run counter to the fantasized narratives that populations in poor countries only dream of rice sacks and crumbs via food aid from the West. There is also a very present silence in the West’s anti-imperialist circles, caught in their incapacity to complicate their analysis of power and to take into account the relations of South-South domination, because the PetroCaribe affair is also that of the government a corrupt Venezuelan who continued to pay funds to the Haitian government during a period when it was clear that these funds were used to enrich a caste.

The Haitian Revolution, the only slave revolution in the history of humanity that led to an independent state, had three goals: to abolish slavery, to drive out whites and to form an independent state. On these three points, it was a complete success. It is not a question of the nation-state, these questions have arisen on the job, in front of the risk of a return of France. 215 years later, new revolutions are in progress, their outcomes are uncertain as they continue down the perilous path. These mobilizations demand means to live but also demand happiness and freedom. The mobilization against PetroCaribe fund serves to catalyze a generation seeking justice, change, and hope. During the demonstrations, signs saying “Nou vle viv” (We want to live) are next to those quoting heroes of the revolution as if to say: on the shoulders of ancestors, we are closer to heaven. ■