Putting Haiti’s Unrest in Context

To understand the riots in Haiti in response to last Friday’s announcement of fuel price increases, you have to go back to 1815 when Simón Bolívar landed in the newly formed nation of Haiti and asked the government of president Alexandre Pétion for arms and soldiers to help liberate various South American countries from Spanish rule. Bolívar’s request was met on the condition that he abolish slavery in all the countries he was helping to set free from Spain, which eventually included Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Bolívar was from Venezuela, and Haiti’s unique role in their gaining independence established a special bond between the two nations that continues to this day.
During a tenure that began in 1999, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez launched a program to sell several Caribbean countries subsidized oil on preferential terms. Haiti was added to that list in 2006 and oil began flowing two years later. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Venezuela contributed a significant amount of humanitarian aid and cancelled a big chunk of oil debt. Despite several years of their economy’s precipitous decline, Venezuela continued the subsidized oil program with Haiti until last year. The reasons that the program both began and ended–as well as the use or misuse of funds in Haiti connected with what was known as PetroCaribe–will depend on the lens through which you view geopolitics. No attempt at an unbiased explanation will successfully navigate those choppy waters and so I will not attempt it.
The bottom line, however, is not in dispute. The government of Haiti was able to provide subsidized gas and diesel for much of the last ten years. For most of that time the subsidy was covered one way or another by Venezuela, and then following the earthquake the Haitian government itself began subsidizing fuel. Some months ago Haiti turned to the International Monetary Fund for financing (specifically $96 million in low-interest loans and grants to start with). One of the cardinal rules in these situations is that loans can’t be applied to major subsidies on fuel. And there is an inherent logic to this, one has to admit.
This is the context for last Friday’s announcement by the Haitian government of price increases of 38 percent for gasoline, 47 percent for diesel and 51 percent for kerosene to be effective within hours. The rationale behind making the increases all at once instead of gradually was not part of the announcement, although it has certainly set off a firestorm of speculation. It is also worth noting that gas prices tend to impact the wealthier class that can afford vehicles. Diesel prices also affect them, along with a large swath of the middle class. But kerosene, with the largest increase, is used primarily by the majority of the population that ranges from less well-off to extremely poor.
While this announcement was bound to have a huge impact, it was made worse by Brazil’s World Cup loss on Fridayafternoon. Haitians are in a class of their own when it comes to being soccer obsessed, and if they don’t have their own national team in play, Brazil’s team becomes their team. Traffic was light in Port-au-Prince on Fridayafternoon because so many were glued to large screens put up for the occasion throughout the city. Then against most predictions, Brazil lost and at roughly the same time the fuel increases were announced. Energized soccer fans quickly became angry mobs. And those mobs became the first test for the national police force without the backing of the UN peacekeepers, who left the country last October. It did not go well, and by Saturdayafternoon President Jovenel Moise had suspended the fuel price increases but the violence and destruction of property continued until Mondayand even into Tuesdayin scattered areas of Port-au-Prince. As of today, things are calm but with a definite edge.
The reason I am sharing these observations is not to get involved in Haiti’s extremely polarized politics, and it is not to minimize the real and legitimate concerns of a populace that faces ongoing and persistent challenges that are hard to fathom. It is because I want to help people understand some of the forces that are at work behind the headlines and put them in context.
Haitians are just about the hardest working group of people I have ever encountered, but despite their best efforts, security for them and their families seems always just beyond reach. I would ask that you keep your hearts and minds open and see Haiti as a country still finding its way. Despite the odds stacked against them, it is a country with tremendous potential. Yes, they make mistakes. And yes, every person of influence is not part of a single unmitigated force for the greater good without concern for their own self interests. But that is certainly not a situation unique to this Caribbean nation. The consequences just play out differently in Haiti.
I have worked in this country since 2005 and remain deeply committed to being part of its steady progress. There are truly amazing and unheralded examples of that progress in virtually every area of human endeavor throughout Haiti, but they have yet to come together to form a movement that would signal broad, lasting and sustainable improvement. But we are getting there.

Please stay tuned and stay committed, as the road ahead is certain to be bumpy in the short term.

Hugh Locke

Author: `