That there is corruption in Haiti isn’t a surprise. But then a senator admitted it openly

A pro-government Haitian senator recently went on the radio and made an unexpected admission: The Haitian government, of which he is a part, runs on corruption.

Even in a country that has become numbed to such allegations the acknowledgment was stunning.

“There is always money distributed for the ratification of a prime minister,” Sen. Kedlaire Augustin said on the popular “Guest of the Day” program on Vision 2000 hosted by journalist Valéry Numa. “This is the practice. Without these actions, some senators may not be in favor of the government in question.”

Haiti finds itself in the throes of another violent uprising, this time prompted by a crippling fuel shortage, a free-falling currency, soaring inflation and allegations of graft involving public officials from the highest levels of the executive branch to the Parliament. And Augustin’s statement highlights the current state of the Caribbean nation’s volatile politics: Corruption is no longer a secret but an open and accepted practice, and whatever shred of public trust there was in government has evaporated.

Anger that was once aimed mostly at the presidency and prime minister’s offices is now spreading to everything else in the country, where protesters have set police stations and businesses ablaze, and targeted lawmakers, calling them “thieves.”

“Being poor and miserable is already bad and unacceptable, but add to that the feeling that the authorities, either Parliament or the executive branch, are getting rich at the expense of your interest, it’s the worst,” said Etzer Emile, a Port-au-Prince economist.

Emile said Augustin’s surprising statement during an interview last month added fuel to an already blazing fire. It came days after a former ruling party ally who has joined the opposition, Sen. Sorel Jacinthe, told reporters that Augustin and four others had accepted $100,000 each to confirm President Jovenel Moïse’s latest pick for prime minister, Fritz William Michel.

Jacinthe also accused Senate President Carl Murat Cantave of offering him money to vote in favor of Michel. An unknown government bureaucrat tapped by Moïse on July 22, Michel has denied the bribery allegations along with other corruption accusations that he raked in more than $16 million in government contracts, which included the sale of goats for $500 a piece to the government while he was employed in the ministries of finance and agriculture.

Cantave, meanwhile, took to Twitter to defend himself against the bribery accusation, saying Jacinthe was “delusional.”

But the fallout of the allegations, coupled with the admission of another member of Parliament, Sen. Willot Joseph, that he accepted the $100,000 and saw nothing wrong with doing so, has showed that even Haitians’ tolerance of graft has limits.

“For people, that scandal meant there is no lack of resources in this country, but instead bad allocation of money,” Emile said. “They are thinking, ‘How come the country does not have enough money to subsidize gas or to support parents on back-to-school needs, while big money is buying congressmen’s votes?”

A security officer sits amid overturned tables inside Parliament after it was vandalized in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

Even before last month’s vote-buying scandal, business leaders, peasant organizations and others members of Haitian society had been contemplating taking direct action regarding Parliament, from curbing its powers to dissolving it entirely.

A constitutional amendment committee led by Lower Chamber of Deputies Lawmaker Jerry Tardieu proposed that instead of the current 119 congressmen, the number should be reduced to 52. The 30-member Senate would be reduced to 10, one senator per department. The committee also proposed making it easier to take away the immunity of lawmakers accused of wrongdoing and eliminating the office of prime minister altogether.

“For the Haitian people, the Senate is a bunch of thieves; they aren’t serious but rather are a bunch of people who aren’t doing anything,” said Sen. Patrice Dumont, a first-term senator who has been outspoken about the scandals gripping the chamber. “I have people who ask, “What are you doing among those people?’ My response: Are you going to leave the country because there are thieves, there is trash, there is misery?”

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Francois Pierre-Louis, a professor of political science at Queens College in New York, remembers a time when the United States and other foreign donors were consumed by the corruption issue. For example, they protested a plan under the late President René Préval that would give lawmakers money for infrastructure projects in their communities. Donors said it was an attempt to buy senators and deputies, and invited political bickering.

Now, Pierre-Louis said, donors just seem to look the other way as lawmakers sell support in exchange for control over judges, government ministries and the country’s land, sea and air borders.

“Nobody cares. The Trump administration is in turmoil because they cannot get any permanent officials to follow up,” Pierre-Louis said. “And you’ve come to a situation where Haiti can operate without financial aid from abroad because there is so much drug money in the country... and because they are not providing any services to the population. People have gotten to that situation where they are accepting it and not protesting against it and not asking anything from the state.”

But Haitians are increasingly refusing to accept it. Earlier this year, when the country’s Superior Court of Auditors — Haiti’s rough equivalent to the U.S. Government Accountability Office — issued a damning 600-plus page report on the wide-scale corruption in the Venezuela PetroCaribe oil subsidy program that Haiti joined in 2008, it intensified an anti-corruption grassroots movement calling for the resignation of Moïse.

The report accused the president of receiving millions of dollars for questionable road rehabilitation projects before he was a candidate, and of being a part of an embezzlement scheme that defrauded Haiti’s poor out of billions of dollars that should have gone to improve their lives. Moïse denied the allegation but immediately found himself on the ropes as calls for his resignation grew.

Critics say Haiti’s constitution is part of the problem. Adopted in 1987 after the fall of the nearly 30-year dictatorship of the Duvalier family, the constitution gives lawmakers stranglehold control over the executive branch, which they have used as a threat to get kickbacks and other unwarranted advantages, such as imposing often-unqualified family members, friends and allies in high-level government posts.

A protester yells anti-government slogans in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, June 9, 2019. Protesters denouncing corruption paralyzed much of the capital as they demanded the removal of President Jovenel Moise. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery) Dieu Nalio Chery AP

Rather than becoming a tool for good governance, the constitution has been bastardized, critics say, by parliamentarians as a tool for blackmail and for taking down those who don’t pay to play.

Parliament’s approval

Haiti’s government is patterned on the French, with both a president and prime minister sharing governing authority. While the president is elected, the prime minister is appointed by the president to run the country’s day-to-day affairs. To do so, however, the president must get the approval of Parliament for the prime minister’s political program and cabinet. Since the Lower House of Deputies fired the last prime minister, Jean Henry Céant, seven months ago, Haiti has been without a legitimate prime minister or working government.

Michel was tapped after opposition senators blocked Moïse’s other choice, Jean Michel Lapin — another unknown government bureaucrat — on three different occasions by resorting to tactics that critics described as more criminal than statesmanlike.

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At one confirmation hearing, for example, four opposition senators vandalized the chamber and dragged the furniture onto the lawn. At another, they invited in supporters who poured gasoline on the floor after throwing chairs around the chamber to disrupt the vote. And on a third attempt last week, the scene ended in chaos, with a journalist and security guard both getting shot after a ruling party senator, Jean Marie Ralph Féthière, drew his handgun and opened fire in the Senate yard.

Documents lay on the floor of Parliament after it was ransacked by opposition lawmakers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

The incident involving Féthière, who called the shooting an act of self-defense, was just the latest in a long list of recent scandals involving the men and women elected to create the country’s laws. Some of the others:

In August, an investigation by the Haiti National Police’s Bureau of Finance and Economic Affairs accused Senate treasurer Onondieu Louis, in his capacity as Senate treasurer, of masterminding a money-laundering network that misappropriated thousands of dollars in public funds. Also accused in the investigation were Louis’ chief of staff and the deputy secretary of the Senate. According to the report, obtained by the Miami Herald, the senator set up a rental car company as a front —the address was in fact a soft drink depository —to launder more than $590,857 through two bank accounts.

Sen. Garcia Delva, the vice treasurer of the Senate, was accused of conspiring with a wanted gang leader, Arnel Joseph, in the kidnapping of the senator’s neighbor. Following the accusation, Delva offered to temporarily step down from his post and the U.S. State Department revoked his U.S. visa. Delva recently wrote to the Senate president asking for his job back, calling the police investigation an attempt to discredit his reputation.

In April, Delva was accused of exchanging more than two dozen phone calls with Joseph, the gang leader, while Haiti National Police were engaged in a nationwide manhunt for him. The accusation was made by fellow Sen. Jean Renel Sénatus, who as head of the Senate’s justice commission said he had the phone records.

Also in April, documents surfaced on social media showing that the Lower Chamber of Deputies between October and December 2018 spent nearly $2.5 million on water and coffee. Gary Bodeau, the chamber president, denied the accusation but the group “Together Against Corruption” asked the Superior Court of Auditors to audit the chamber’s books as well as those of the Senate.

Prior to the bribery scandal in the Senate, congressmen in the lower chamber were accused of accepting sacks of rice and money to support Michel’s ratification, though no one publicly admitted to it.

In addition to the corruption allegations, opposition lawmakers, some of whom have their own share of corruption scandals when they were in power, have been singled out for their almost thug-like behavior in the chamber. The behavior was strongly condemned by the international community.

In May, opposition senators trashed the Senate chamber to block the vote on Lapin, the nominated prime minister, who eventually failed a total of three confirmation attempts. Four months later, opposition lawmakers in the Lower Chamber of Deputies resorted to the same tactic in hopes of blocking confirmation of Michel, Lapin’s replacement.

This time, however, Bodeau quickly replaced the broken furniture and sound system to hold one of the fastest confirmation hearings in Haiti history. During the debate, the congressmen threw chairs and desks at each other as they pushed and shoved one another before the opposition walked out. Michel was approved 76-0.

*In addition to Féthière, Joseph, the senator who admitted he had accepted the $100,000 bribe, also drew his gun in public on Sept. 23, but he did not fire. On a widely shared radio interview, Joseph told reporters he saw nothing “wrong with receiving money during difficult times.”

“I don’t “have any problem with [accepting] money that comes my way without having to sign for it, or any kind of paper trail,” he said. “I take it and I don’t have to be a hypocrite [about it] with anyone.”

The same day of the shooting incident, opposition senators invited protesters onto the premises of the Senate. Féthière and others referred to the protesters as “violent militants,” and accused them of creating a threatening environment as the protesters berated pro-government senators and called them thieves.

“There is a total breakdown of rule of law in Haiti,” said Pierre-Louis, the political science professor. “The state is not functioning at all.”

Numa, the radio host who got Augustin to admit that vote-buying is a common practice even though he denied accepting the $100,000 bribe for himself, said while people have always assumed that money changes hand in Haiti, “it wasn’t something people spoke about.“

“Honestly, Parliament got like this during the last few legislatures,” said Numa, a former legislative reporter. “I used to be accredited to the Parliament... and I’ll be honest with you, there was never anything like this. It started to degenerate when they decided that members of Parliament can decide on ministers when forming a government. Sure, at a certain moment [in the past] you had lobbying that was done, but in this case... things have become too obvious.”

While the corruption in Parliament became more obvious under former President Michel Martelly and his prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, it got worse with the ascension of Moïse as president, said Marie Yolene Gilles, a human rights activist.

“It is something that has become normal since Jovenel’s government — if you don’t take the money it’s because you don’t need it. It’s a practice that has become systematic,” she said.

In 2015, Gilles predicted that legislative elections “would unleash a post-electoral crisis.” The reason, she said, was because the agency charged with vetting candidates, the Provisional Electoral Council had not removed candidates with criminal records.

Not only was her prediction correct, Gilles said, but an investigation by her organization, Fondyason Je Klere, found that between 2008 and 2018, only 10.7 percent of heads of state, prime ministers, ministers and other senior government officials had declared their assets as required by law. The situation was even more alarming for members of Parliament: 97 percent of senators and 93 percent of deputies in that time period did not declare their assets by the end of their terms. The failure to disclose meant the public had no way of tracking corruption by seeing how much a lawmaker’s wealth had grown while in office.

To make matters worse, the Citizen Observatory for the Institutionalization of Democracy recently said that the Senate and lower chamber together had voted on only seven pieces of legislation over the past three years. The group also noted that out of 80 sessions each chamber should have conducted for the year, the Senate only had 32 and the lower chamber 34.

Recognizing that corruption levels are high throughout the hemisphere, not just in Haiti, the Organization of American States is currently exploring mounting a $17.7 million anti-corruption project in the country that would bring prosecutors and investigators from other Latin American nations to Haiti to help strengthen anti-corruption institutions. Based in part on a similar effort in Honduras, the program received the blessing of Moïse earlier this year and would require donor funding.

“The country needs redemption,” said Dumont, the Haitian senator who is a well-known former sports commentator.

Just last week, the country’s chief prosecutor, Paul Eronce Villard, handed in his resignation following a radio interview in which he was critical of the two senators under police investigations and Féthière, who was not arrested after the shooting incident that injured a journalist and a security guard.

After Villard resigned he was promoted to the Court of Appeals. He declined the post in a brief letter without explanation.

Villard did not respond to a Herald request for comment, but those familiar with the incident said that after announcing his intentions on the radio to go after senators accused of wrongdoing, he saw the promotion as an attempt to buy him off.

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.