The country’s designated prime minister still can’t get confirmed. Civil servants and diplomats in its foreign embassies aren’t getting paid. And hospital staffs are dealing with rolling blackouts and a dire shortage of blood .
Despite the ongoing turmoil, however, Haitian officials appear to once again be more concerned about their image in Washington.
According to forms filed with the U.S. Justice Department, the international law firm Dentons US LLP is now working for Haiti, the third lobbying shop on the cash-strapped government’s payroll. The global public relations firm Mercury, hired back in February 2018 to soften Haiti’s image after President Donald Trump reportedly derided the country as a “shithole” during a White House meeting, remains active. So does Johanna LeBlanc, a consultant hired by the country’s Washington embassy in March.
Mercury, which has helped Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and other government ministers land opinion pieces in major U.S. dailies including the Miami Herald, said in a March 2018 filing that it was to be paid $4,690 a month until December 2018, and then continue on a month-to-month basis thereafter.
In her March 2019 filing, LeBlanc said she was being paid $5,000 a month until September to interact with “U.S. government officials and public entities in order to promote the interests of the State of Haiti and its citizens in the United States.”
Dentons, meanwhile, is charging a flat rate of $25,000 per month for 12 months, for what it describes as legal advice on various matters and lobbying. The firm’s principal contact, David Tafuri, did not respond to a Miami Herald inquiry about the scope of its work on behalf of the Haitian government.
Haiti Foreign Minister Bocchit Edmond, who is listed as Dentons’ contact in the June 28 filing, would not provide specifics on what the international firm will be tasked with, and why the country needs a third firm to lobby for its interests. (A fourth firm is also registered, but it has been contracted by the Association of Haiti Industries to set up meetings for government ministers in order to push for extension of the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act.)
“A state has the right to contract the service of a firm at the same time identifying the kind of service it is seeking,” said Edmond, referring to the ongoing contract with Mercury, which he said the government is currently “reconsidering.”
“We are not dissatisfied [with] Mercury. I must admit they have been very helpful. But we wanted to assess Dentons’ work. We just contracted them so we are on [a] trial period,” added the minister, who in a June letter to Haiti’s diplomatic missions abroad acknowledged that the country was having financial difficulties and “it has been some time since you have received your pay.”
While it is not unusual for countries to hire lobbyists, the latest decision raises questions about Haiti’s priorities at a time when hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid are stalled because there is no functioning government to vote on a budget, and the Parliament has refused to even vote on an accord to receive a $150 million low-interest loan from the Republic of Taiwan to revamp the capital’s electrical grid.
Recently, the finance minister announced that tax revenues had fallen by more than 35 percent due to the ongoing protests and instability, and the World Bank predicted a 0.4 percent annual growth rate for Haiti — far less than the 2.8 percent forecast.
Haiti has been embroiled in persistent political and economic instability since last July, when three days of rioting and civil unrest over a gas price hike forced the cancellation of international flights. The volatility has continued amid increasing political tensions between legislators and the president, and Moïse’s implication in a Venezuela PetroCaribe corruption aid scandal. At the same time, the country faces a surge in gang and criminal activities, lack of food and continued deterioration of the economy along with the further depreciation of the domestic currency, the gourde.
“Haiti should be focused on domestic problems to provide medicines to hospitals, potable water to its population and education to its youth,” said Gary Bodeau, the president of the Lower Chamber of Deputies. “That amount of money could be used in a more efficient way, not to satisfy lobbyists to promote a political agenda.”
Jo-Ann Garnier, a human rights advocate and vocal critic of public spending, agrees.
“When you look at the situation of the country now, the poverty is so rampant. You have a government that is not even in the position where it can pay civil servants, and basic services are not accessible to the majority of the population,” she said.
“We don’t have money as a country. The resources are scarce and the little resources we have are not being used properly. For me this is nonsense,” she added. “Instead of trying to make more efforts to address the real issues, they are just concentrating on their image outside of the country.”
It is an old strategy, said Frantz Duval, the editor of and lead editorial writer for Le Nouvelliste, the country’s main daily.
“The more they have problems in Haiti, the more they try to get support in Washington,” Duval said, referring to Haitian leaders dating as far back as President-for-life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was eventually forced from power amid a popular uprising.
Duval said this may also explain the rationale behind Moïse’s recent decision to place an op-ed in the Herald declaring his innocence in the corruption allegations, and blaming Haiti for his inability to establish a government three months after the lower chamber of deputies fired his last prime minister, Jean Henry Céant.
While it’s unclear how the piece was received in Washington, it was heavily criticized within Haiti, where Haitians accused Moïse, who has refused to give interviews to the local press and doesn’t have an official spokesperson, of playing the victim and seeking the blessing of foreigners while disregarding the country’s desperate reality.
“What interests the people in power,” Duval said, “is to stay in power.”