U.S. State Department deploys envoy to break political stalemate in Haiti

A Haitian man makes his way through the plaza near the National Palace as street life was slowly returning on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
A Haitian man makes his way through the plaza near the National Palace as street life was slowly returning on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

A relatively unknown diplomat who once served as special envoy for Middle East peace has been charged by the Trump administration with trying to break a political stalemate in Haiti.

After violent protests last month, a relative calm has returned to Haiti where a deepening political crisis, sinking economy and corruption charges sparked violent protests and ”do not travel” warnings from Canada and the U.S. government.

David Hale, under secretary of state for political affairs, is scheduled to spend several hours in Port-au-Prince Friday to meet with a handful of political and civil leaders. Among them: President Jovenel Moise, the head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an opposition senator representing the Secteur Démocratique et Populaire, often referred to as the radical opposition that’s been demanding Moise’s resignation.

Hale’s goal during his brief visit is to see if he can encourage a national dialogue, the U.S. State Department said in a statement announcing the trip.

It’ll be tough job. Hale, a career diplomat who spent most of his time in the Middle East, has no known experience with Haiti, where opposition groups have refused to negotiate with Moise. The groups also are still demanding an explanation of the State Department’s recent removal of five Americans and two U.S. permanent residents arrested in Port-au-Prince with an arsenal of illegal weapons. The men were flown to Miami, where they were later freed without any charges.

“It’s very difficult for us to negotiate with Jovenel Moise,” said Sen. Evaliere Beauplan, an opposition senator representing the Secteur Démocratique, which has been leading the protests against Moise along with a group of young people known as PetroChallengers.

“The reasons are simple. There are more people taking to the streets and life has become even more difficult…basic food prices are still high. Inflation, as you know, is 15.1 percent. The budget deficit in the first trimester of this year is already [$89.6 million]. Today as we speak, the government still has not paid January salaries.”

Beauplan noted that three corruption reports — two from the Senate and one by the government’s auditors — detailing how billions of dollars from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe discount-oil program were spent have cited Moise’s companies.

Beauplan, who headed one of the anti-corruption commission reports, said that since Moise’s companies are named in the reports, he should resign to face justice. “Every day that passes, it will become increasingly difficult for us to go negotiate with Jovenel Moise,” he said.

While the opposition managed last month to shut down Haiti for more than a week in what it labeled “operation lockdown,” recent attempts to call people out to the streets have not been successful. Yet tensions remain.

“We don’t know where we are going. The economic situation is growing worse. The tourism sector is almost bankrupt. Construction is almost the same. We are really in a bad moment,” said Frantz Bernard Craan, the president of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce and the equally pro-business Economic Forum.

Craan said that while he’s keeping an open mind with Hale’s visit, he noted that the president has not responded to the chamber’s own request for a national dialogue led by a group of respected leaders with national credibility.

Moise did announce the formation of a dialogue commission last week. But the seven members are mostly unknown. And one of the better-known members, Charles Suffrard, a one-time peasant leader, resigned before the swearing-in. Critics noted that the president and his advisers made the selections themselves rather than pulling people from different sectors of the society at the recommendation of civic groups..

“It’s unfortunate, but most likely this commission will not be able to do the job,” Craan said. “We feel there is a need for a dialogue but it should be between Haitians. It should be called by the president and conducted by a group of people with experience and credibility. We also feel that no subject should be taboo.”

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.