After 19 hours of debate — through the night — Haiti welcomes a new government

Haiti's new Prime Minister Dr. Jack Guy Lafontant speaks at the national palace in Port-au-Prince in this Feb. 24, 2017, file photo.
Haiti's new Prime Minister Dr. Jack Guy Lafontant speaks at the national palace in Port-au-Prince in this Feb. 24, 2017, file photo. AP

Haiti’s new government was sworn in Tuesday, hours after receiving the nod of approval from the Lower Chamber of Deputies.

Jack Guy Lafontant, a gastroenterologist with no political experience, was ratified as prime minister by the chamber days after receiving a vote of confidence from a majority of senators.

Deputies’ vote on Lafontant’s policy statement came after 19 hours of debate that stretched through Monday night and into the early hours of Tuesday. At 9 a.m., the vote finally was held, 95 in favor, six against and two abstentions.

“The hour is grave, and the legacy is heavy,” Lafontant said during the ceremony at the National Palace before new President Jovenel Moïse, his Cabinet and the foreign diplomatic corps. “I’ve inherited the [prime minister’s office] at a time when inflation is galloping, where the decline of the [domestic currency] is accelerating, where agriculture, the main backbone of the economy, continues to lose its competitiveness.”

Lafontant, 55, was tapped last month by Moïse, to lead 18 ministers including one for Haitians living abroad and a minister of defense. Unknown in political circles, Lafontant was an early supporter of Moïse, who was sworn in on Feb. 7. Lafontant is a former president of the Rotary Club of Pétionville and a member of the American College of Physicians.

“To start this battle, we needed a government,” Moïse, 48, said before welcoming Lafontant to the podium to give his first speech as prime minister. “Today, with the installation of this government, the battle has started.”

Reminding the new government that it will be accountable to Haiti’s 11 million residents, Moïse added: “I know the problems are a lot. We have to move fast, and we have to move well. Every cent that is taken from the government’s coffers has to meet the people’s needs.”

During the discussions in Parliament of Lafontant’s nomination, lawmakers in both chambers raised questions about whether he met the constitutional requirements to serve as prime minister. They also noted that like one other prime minister before him, Laurent Lamothe, Lafontant had failed to pay taxes and paid five years’ worth only after he was designated prime minister. Addressing the matter during Tuesday’s hearing, Lafontant insisted that he had paid his taxes and blamed a government office for documents showing he had paid five years’ worth in a single day.

The most pressing question Lafontant faced from both supporters and opponents in the chambers, however, was how he plans to finance the many ambitious projects he has proposed as his government’s priorities.

“You have a lot of things that you are going to do, and I don’t even know where you are going to get the money,” said Deputy Bel-Ange Pierre, representing Anse-à-Pitre. Then he asked Lafontant to make a new road connecting his southern border town a priority. In Haiti, where the government’s annual operating budget is about $2 billion a year, it costs $2 million per mile of new asphalt road.

Deputy Wuinchel Olivier, who represents another southern city, Cavaillon, went even further. He noted that Lafontant in his policy statement spoke about the construction of 300 miles of new roads, new universities, 10 public schools and a cable car to ferry arriving cruise ship passengers 17 miles from the port of Labadee to the northern mountaintop fortress, the Citadelle Laferrière.

Olivier said it would likely cost Haiti more than $877 million to realize this new mode of transportation.

“Given the difficulties that exist today, how are you going to accomplish this?” Olivier asked. He also noted that the smuggling of imports from the neighboring Dominican Republic by tax dodgers who refuse to pay customs was harming the country.

“The Haitian government loses $400 million to $500 million along the frontier. What will you do to stop the government from losing this money and to boost agriculture?” Olivier added.

Lafontant told lawmakers that what he has laid out is “a vision,” which can be accomplished if both supporters and opponents work together to evaluate projects and their feasibility.

“We have to reduce expenses. We will combat corruption and contraband,” he said. “Our government will encourage investments, not just agriculture.”

While short on specifics, he did hint that he wasn’t in favor of upping taxes to raise revenue, telling deputies, “A lot of taxes can kill imports.”

Lafontant has said that agriculture is a top priority, prompting lawmakers representing the fertile Artibonite Valley to press for specifics on his plans to help struggling farmers.

Lafontant’s priorities are in line with those of Moïse, who on the campaign trail promised voters to turn Haiti into a banana exporting country again. But that won’t be easy. Haiti faces a looming food crisis in the southwest region hit by October’s Hurricane Matthew. South Florida-based charity Food for the Poor said 13 people have died in recent days as a result of a food shortage in the hurricane-devastated Grand' Anse region. Haitians are turning in desperation to poisonous fruits and foliage in an attempt to quell their hunger, the charity said, and more than 400,000 people are at risk of hunger. Crops replanted after Matthew were wrecked by a drought that followed.

Another issue awaiting the new government is the fate of United Nations’s independent human rights expert, Gustave Gallon. The government, according to Human Rights Watch, wants to end his mandate. On Tuesday, the organization was joined by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in asking Haiti to keep Gallon in his role.

Like Lafontant, Moïse also lacks political experience. The Cabinet is also new to politics and aligned with Moïse’s political party and its allies in Parliament. Other challenges facing the new government include a deadly cholera epidemic, not enough doctors, failing schools and deplorable public hospitals.

Several lawmakers noted that the government owed more than 5,000 employees back pay and a teachers’ strike had been announced for the coming days.

Haiti’s new government also faces the imminent withdrawal of the United Nations’ peacekeepers, drastic cuts in foreign aid, a depreciating currency and projected negative economic growth this year, according to the World Bank.