No quick fix for Haiti — but corruption comes first

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Recent headlines from Haiti portray a country in free fall. A president’s assassination, recovery from the massive August earthquake, fuel and hard currency shortages, kidnappings and criminal gangs operating with impunity all indicate a bleak future and possible failed state — all too close to the United States.

In this maze of challenges, a problem crying for solutions — and readily addressed — is corruption. This poison affects all sectors of the country and demoralizes Haiti’s people. Haitians alone cannot solve this challenge, but the United States has the key to doing so. Accountability and interdiction of illicit financial flows are not some esoteric undertaking, but are well within the legal means the United States already has in place.

Perhaps the most infamous of Haitian scandals is the $2 billion that was allegedly mismanaged in the PetroCaribe oil-loan program. The Haitian government purchased oil from Venezuela by paying 60 percent up front and borrowing the rest from the Caracas government. Proceeds from the sale of the oil in Haiti were to be used for social programs that rarely materialized. Despite a government inquiry alleging the extent of the crimes, Haitians continue to ask, “Where are the PetroCaribe funds?”

Corruption is sometimes seen by well-intentioned policymakers as a low-grade fever — something to observe but nothing to worry about. This is a fallacy and a root cause of failures to “help” Haiti from the outside. With “stability” often the most pressing goal of outsiders, a country’s wealth is siphoned away with bribes, extortion and phony invoicing, seen as the cost of doing business. Lacking a real fix to this syndrome, stability will never come. The fever, it turns out, could be fatal. Clearly, a new approach is needed.

President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, which begins today, provides a high-profile platform to announce an initiative that can be transformative. Not only can the administration promote an effort to help locate the PetroCaribe money, but it also can declare an innovative approach in a decades-long effort to help Haiti get on its feet.

Recent history in nearby Central America provides a roadmap out of this morass. Take Guatemala. In 2009, a new and independent institution, backed by the U.S. and the United Nations, was established to root out grand corruption by political figures — and it worked. During its 10 years, CICIG (its acronym in Spanish) helped dismantle 60 criminal networks, brought charges against 680 individuals, and had an 85 percent conviction rate. Seventy percent of Guatemalan people approved of it in a 2018 poll. Surely, a similar organization can flourish in Haiti. 

A complement to a CICIG-like entity should be created to address petty corruption in low-level, public-facing government agencies that affect people’s everyday lives. An adjudication panel, composed of community and diaspora leaders, can review cases at a personal level. First-time offenders get a public reprimand and have to repay the bribes they demanded for driving permits and business licenses. A second offense slaps a fine on them; a third infraction means dismissal from their government job. This dual approach of attacking corruption of all types can readily establish a systems change in Haiti. Removing corruption as the status quo and relegating perpetrators to public shaming, or putting them behind bars, can be transformative. 

There is fertile ground in Haiti for this type of effort. A large, cohesive and vigorous civil society community exists that will cheer such an idea. Indeed, the recent publication of a call to action by a broad coalition of groups seeks to “rebuild and reestablish [Haiti’s] institutions … in order to avoid the total collapse of the state.” Further, a presidential campaign due in 2022 could bring these anti-corruption bodies to the center of Haitian political discourse. The response from political parties to this anti-corruption approach will be revelatory. Anything less than full-throated support would indicate a desire to maintain the corrupt status quo.

From the U.S. perspective, fighting corruption in Haiti fits well with the Biden administration’s anti-corruption policy. CICIG provided tangible results in Guatemala for a mere $15 million per year. Such a high return on investment should prove attractive to both sides of the aisle.

The Biden administration can maintain our own status quo by fretting over who will be the next elected president of Haiti. Or it can address the source of instability and help build a secure, stable and peaceful Haiti over the long term.

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