What's Behind Haiti's Fuel Protests

More than any other sport, soccer has been a useful political tool for governments to distract their citizens from their current social or political malaise. Continuing on this tradition, the Haitian government announced fuel price hikes during the World Cup’s Brazil versus Belgium game in hopes that, Haitians being devouts fans of  Brazilian soccer, the country would be too distracted by soccer to notice.

The fuel price hikes would have increased the price of gas by 38 percent to $5 a gallon and also increased the price of the diesel used for power generators by 47 percent and kerosene used for lamps by 51 percent in a country where the minimum wage has been stagnant at $4.39 a day because the U.S. State Department fought to keep it artificially low to benefit U.S. manufacturers.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the architect of the price hike,  is comprised of“experts” notorious for proposing “solutions” to poverty that prevent any real challenges to the status quo, intentionally disregard questions of power, history, context, and inequality. Their solutions frame the poor themselves as the problem rather than confronting the structures that enable extreme wealth and inequality.

The IMF insists that the Haitian government carry out reforms to stop fuel subsidies and improve tax revenue in exchange for $96 million in grants and loans to add to the crippling $2.6 billion debt that Haiti already faces. Two billion of that debt is owed to Venezuela for money that was embezzled by Haitian politicians and business leaders under a deal to subsidize oil. With that already festering in the background, in signing this deal with the IMF, the Haitian government had miscalculated the anger and frustration of the Haitian people.

Without missing a beat, once Brazil lost to Belgium, people took to the streets for days of massive protests that brought the capitol to a standstill. Reminding the Haitian government who it worked for, the protestors gave the president an ultimatum to step down in eight days or else.

"this time, it's the ideal moment."

"this time, it's the ideal moment."

Even though the fuel hikes were temporarily suspended almost immediately, the prime minister responded by resigning and dissolving the government on the eighth day of the people’s ultimatum to avoid further civil unrest or worse.

The fuel hikes were the final straw in a cycle of debt and impoverishment that had crippled Haiti’s poor and diverted all the promises and investments of post-earthquake reconstruction to the tax-dodging Haitian elite and Haiti’s foreign debtors rather than the majority of the Haitian people. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights criticized  the IMF for pushing the Haitian government into a deal that he called a “very bad dynamic and politically highly problematic.”

Moreover, eight-years after the earthquake, Haiti has little to show for the $9 billion spent on reconstruction. It would be politically expedient for some to dismiss this reality solely as an example of the corruption of Haiti’s government but Haitians institutions saw less than 1%  of that money while the vast majority was funneled through the piecemeal projects of foreign private contractors and international aid organizations.

“The government of Haiti is strapped for cash,” explained Robert Maguire, Retired Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University and long-time Haiti expert, “The IMF offered Haiti some short-term relief and the government thought it was worth the risk.” The protests, however, were an indictment on the entire neoliberal economic policies imposed on post-colonial countries by the IMF, the World Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB), and the US government.  

Haitians fundamentally understand that, more than two hundred years after becoming the world’s first black republic and overthrowing the chains of slavery, Haiti has been weakened to the point that it is essentially beholden to the economic and structural reforms of its debtors rather than its people.  Instead of building a viable Haitian state, the Haitian government continues to relinquish its most essential functions- sometimes willingly and sometimes by force- to outsiders, weakening government institutions, entrenching poverty, and providing a convenient excuse for the international actors to bypass the state and do as they please in Haiti.

Foreign aid accounts for more than 20 percent of the Haitian government’s annual budget making it no surprise then that the US meddled in the 2010 Haitian elections to protect their own interests. The World Bank funds Haiti’s primary schools and the rest of the education system is largely privatized and accessible only to the elite. The IDB builds Haiti’s roads, factories, and infrastructure using expensive foreign contractors. Foreign charities run Haiti’s few clinics and quality hospital-care is limited to those who can afford it.

The U.S. government pushed Haitian farmers off their lands and into sweatshops by flooding the country with heavily-subsidized American rice and taking arable land from farmers to construct more factories, exacerbating food insecurity. Multiple sex abuse scandals, many involving minors, have highlighted how foreign aid workers, missionaries, and peacekeepers have preyed upon Haiti’s most vulnerable with impunity- sometimes for years. UN troops charged with policing the country instead were involved in systematic sexual abuse with impunity and faced no consequences for unleashing a cholera epidemic that killed ten thousand people while American officers trained a national police force in their image. A lack of coherent cross-border trade controls and contraband smuggled in and out costs the government $400 million a year in estimated loss of trade revenue in bilateral trade with the Dominican Republic.

Worse than being corrupt, the government has become woefully inept and indifferent to the needs of its people. Hence why, with the scandal-embattled United Nations peacekeeping troops no longer patrolling the Haitian streets (and brothels) and America losing interest in its southern neighbors under Trump’s incohesive isolationist foreign policy agenda, there was no one to intervene and prevent the Haitian people from acting out on the sense of rage and disillusionment that had been boiling underneath the surface.

In order to move forward, the Haitian government will have to be more attentive to the needs of all the Haitian people and prioritize improving quality of life and access to social mobility and economic opportunities, working to create an equitable society where the average Haitian can actually afford a car in the Nissan dealerships that protestors set on fire. A fundamental shift needs to occur to realign socioeconomic development and institutions back under the purview of a functioning government rather than outsiders in order to strengthen national institutions and build the government's capacity to actually govern.

“The IMF is far from Haiti’s best bet,” explained Maguire, “Haiti’s best bet would be to do what the DR did and get a deal with no preconditions from the Chinese but, there is a lot of pressure behind the scenes from the World Bank on the Haitian government and private sector to not get involved with the Chinese. Haiti is much more vulnerable to external pressure than the DR is.”

Despite the protests, however, the IMF is eager to move forward with the reforms. Philip Alston said to the Miami Herald, “The one thing that is not a real option for a relatively powerless country like Haiti is to say ‘IMF go to hell’”, implying that we must be passive bystanders in the injustices imposed upon us. However, in order to bring about any sustainable change that addresses Haiti’s problems of governance, infrastructure, social services, and law and order, Haiti will have to tell the IMF and friends to go to hell- saying no to policies that shackle it in a cycle of debt and underdeveloped for generations and weakens the state. This means renegotiating more favorable loan terms- from more favorable entities- that address systemic inequities.

When Haitians took to the streets it was to send a message that the people fundamentally understand what it takes to take on an oppressive Goliath and they’ve taken down ones bigger than the IMF before.


A version of this article appears here in Latino USA