Congress holds first hearing on Haiti in six years amid political instability

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Minutes after House Democrats announced articles of impeachment on President Donald Trump on Tuesday, Rep. Frederica Wilson entered a meeting room in Washington and asked a group of Haitian activists about efforts to impeach their embattled president, Jovenel Moïse.

“We live in the United States and we have corruption ... right in our White House just like you have corruption with your president,” said Wilson, D-Miami Gardens. “What has happened to the impeachment process in Haiti?”

Emmanuela Douyon, an economist and activist with Petrochallenger and Nou Pap Dòmi anti-corruption grassroots movement, laid out a scenario that makes the allegations against Trump look minuscule in comparison.

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“They voted against [impeachment],” Douyon said of the Lower House of Deputies in the Haitian Parliament that is controlled by the executive. “Parliament members received money for their vote. There is a corrupt Parliament where the majority allies with the president and they are taking money from the president and their party to vote when he needed their support.”

This was the same legislative body that jettisoned the prime minister in March, leaving Haiti without a legitimate government since.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held its first hearing on Haiti in six years amid ongoing political instability and widespread anti-government protests calling for Moïse to step down. Wilson, who is not a member of the committee but represents one of the largest Haitian communities in the United States, said she pressured the committee to hold the hearing.

“We have basically put Haiti on the back burner for too long,” Wilson said. “There’s apathy in the United States, there’s apathy in Haiti. Now, we have to put Haiti in the conversation of this committee. I am the genesis of this committee hearing because I said you got to have a hearing on Haiti.”

Wilson also organized a roundtable on Haiti with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in October, where prominent Haitian-American leaders said the U.S. should stop meddling in Haiti and Moïse should go.

Tuesday’s hearing was attended by three Republicans and 11 Democrats. Four Democrats, Reps. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Wilson attended the hearing and asked questions even though they are not members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is rare.

The lawmakers searched for a solution to the crisis, which deepened after last year’s ill-timed fuel hike in July, and in mid-September led to a countrywide lockdown that lasted for 12 weeks. Schools, businesses, banks and the court system were all shuttered. Businesses went bankrupt, and a hunger crisis ensued with roads still closed in some parts of the country.

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Waters, in particular, harshly criticized U.S. policy toward Haiti, arguing that Moïse is among a list of current and past government officials implicated in a corruption report on how $2 billion in savings from Venezuela’s Petrocaribe oil program was stolen, instead of invested to help the country’s poor after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

The U.S., she said, “is holding up” Moïse’s government.

“Our position in supporting this president is not a good position,” Waters said. “It is a failed position.”

The five witnesses and audience, which included dozens of Haitian activists, agreed.

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There also was no representative of the Haitian government there to defend Moïse, who has dismissed corruption allegations and repeatedly said he is not resigning. Moïse has proposed the creation of a unity government but the opposition has rejected all calls to dialogue and negotiate on the formation of a new government.

Pierre Esperance, the executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Network, said Moïse uses armed gangs to combat political dissent. Esperance said the government’s actions have led to the deaths of 187 protesters since July 2018, with 42 of them shot execution-style. Additionally, 44 police officers and two journalists were killed this year.

“These armed gangs bolster the political interests of their protectors by attacking the population, especially in neighborhoods known as strongholds of political opposition that support anti-government demonstrations,” Esperance said. “Armed gangs, with the protection of government authorities, have carried out five massacres over the course of President Moïse’s administration.”

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One of those massacres happened in the La Saline neighborhood in November 2018. Several members of Congress wanted to know if anyone, including two individuals appointed to their posts by Moïse, had been prosecuted. None has, Esperance answered.

He also told committee members, when asked about perceptions of the U.S. in Haiti, that the embassy had until earlier this year given unconditional support to Moïse, and most recently had used pressure tactics against government opponents by canceling some of their visas.

Esperance said the U.S. and other international actors need to give resources to bolster Haiti’s police force and judiciary to strengthen the rule of law. He said international efforts that focus exclusively on administering elections or giving out food won’t help Haiti in the long run, a critique of U.S. foreign aid efforts in the country.

“This obsession with the electoral process, one man, one vote elections, has created a cottage industry of bogus parties that come up and that attract not the most civic-minded people to come and run,” said Leonie Hermantin, a Haitian American community activist who splits her time between Miami and Port-au-Prince. “The idea that you have elections and that is proof democracy is healthy in Haiti, is not really accurate.”

Daniel Erikson, a former special adviser for Latin America under Vice President Joe Biden, said the State Department should form a comprehensive strategy for helping Haiti get out of its current crisis, which also includes a deepening economic malaise, by working with international partners like Canada, the European Union and the Organization of American States.

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“If the U.S. does not lead, no one else will step up to take our place,” Erickson said. “I believe the time is right to choose new approaches. As we turn to 2020...Haiti must be a more central role on the U.S. foreign policy agenda.”

Erikson also said the U.S. should ensure that any foreign aid does not end up in the hands of Haiti’s newly remounted army or paramilitary groups and that Temporary Protected Status, a program that allows Haitians in the U.S. to temporarily live and work without the potential for deportation, should be extended past its 2021 end date.

“What Haiti really needs is a functioning Haitian national police and judicial system,” Erikson said.

He and all of the other speakers agreed that the solution is not the return of the United Nations’ blue-helmet peacekeeping force that recently ended its mission after 15 years.

Officials from the State Department and USAID were not present at Tuesday’s hearing, and Wilson said she wants more hearings where Trump administration officials can explain how they plan to get international cooperation for stabilizing Haiti.

“We need to get the State Department here so they can get international buy-in to what’s happening in Haiti,” Wilson said. “We can no longer pretend that Haiti does not exist and that Haiti is not in crisis. Haiti is in crisis. Haiti is just a couple of hundred miles from the U.S. border, specifically Florida.”

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

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