Haiti President Jovenel Moise appeals for calm, says he’s not corrupt

Nearly two weeks after Haitian government auditors issued a scathing audit on the misuse of billions of dollars in Venezuelan aid that implicates him, Haiti President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Wednesday.

Celebrating the 24th anniversary of the founding of the Haiti National Police, a defiant Moïse defended his embattled presidency while insisting he was not corrupt and anyone accused of misusing public funds should present themselves to be judged by the courts.

“I am going to look you right in the eyes, to tell you today,” he said, directing his speech at those living in Haiti’s ghettos and in raging misery. “Your president, the one you voted for, is not involved in corruption. Your president was never in corruption. The justice system needs to do its job and carry out an investigation.

“Persons who wrongly managed or used the government’s money will have to respond to justice in a process that is just, balanced and without political prosecution and without bias,” he said.

Moïse’s declaration, in which he called for “a huge sit down” along with serenity, calm and patriotism “to lift Haiti out of its black hole,” comes as tensions escalate around the country amid fresh new protests over government corruption and demands that he step down after his implication in the corruption audit. The audit looked at the Haitian government’s mismanagement of billions of dollars in Venezuela’s PetroCaribe oil program, which was supposed to be invested in Haitian programs to help the poor.

In the audience as he spoke were U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison, and the representative of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Helen La Lime.

While some schools and businesses reopened Wednesday after a two-day transportation strike, anti-corruption demonstrators pushing for the president’s ouster and for the courts to decide his fate have called for protests to resume on Thursday and Friday. They have vowed to do seven laps around the presidential palace.

On Tuesday, some protesters took to social media and launched an #UnfollowJovenelMoise Twitter Challenge. By Wednesday afternoon, he had lost more than 10,000 followers over a 24-hour period.

Prior to Moïse’s speech at the Police Academy on Wednesday, Canada’s ambassador in Port-au-Prince, Andre Frenette, issued another public appeal for dialogue in a bid to refocus the debate on the Haitian people. The embassy, he said, was concerned about the growing acts of violence, loss of life, and also the difficult political, economic, social and security issues.

HaitiProtest (1).JPG
A protester passes burning tires during a demonstration to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, June 10, 2019. Edris Fortune AP

“Since last July, Haiti has been experiencing periods of instability, moments of social tension and insecurity that reflect a general concern about the pace of reforms and actions that can positively impact the quality of life of Haitians,” Frenette said. “Through protests and in social media, Haitians are expressing themselves on many issues, including economic hardship, demands for transparency and accountability in the PetroCaribe case and on the fight against corruption.

“We urge political leaders, the private sector and representatives of civil society to listen to this call of the people and to work together toward an inclusive and constructive dialogue, open to all points of view, in order to develop sustainable solutions to the challenges facing the population,” he added.

A leading member of the political opposition, lawyer Andre Michel, tweeted that Moïse’s speech was a “provocation.” Moïse, he said, was taking the people for fools, and “the population needs to continue to mobilize until Jovenel Moïse gives his resignation so that we can do the judicial process for PetroCaribe and a national (dialogue) conference.”

During his speech, Moïse painted himself as a victim, a child of a farmer who was being targeted because he declared corruption to be a problem in Haiti. “When the president says that the biggest problem of the country is corruption,” he said, “they attack the morality of the president so that he doesn’t speak about corruption.”

In the audit done by Haiti’s Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes, auditors noted that two days after Moïse registered as a presidential candidate in May 2015, $1 million was disbursed to him on the instructions of the country’s then finance minister, Wilson Laleau.

The money was for two road contracts held by Agritrans and Betexs. Both companies, auditors said, shared the same tax identification number, technical staff and portfolio of projects, and were issued separate contracts for the same road rehabilitation project in northwest Haiti by the ministry of public works. The road was never built.

Agritrans listed Moïse as its president and Betexs listed someone else. Agritrans’ lawyer has said the companies are separate entities. Moïse, who is no longer president of Agritrans, said Wednesday that when he was running the company he was not president, a government employee or a presidential candidate.

“I will not permit anyone to put chaos and disorder in the country under any pretext,” he said.

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.