US resorts to sanctions against Haitian politicians and businessmen accused of corruption

In a new strategy to try to resolve the widespread crisis plaguing Haiti due to gang violence and corrupt politicians, the United States and Canada are turning to a weapon that has rarely been used against the Caribbean island: sanctions.

In the last six weeks, the United States has sanctioned four Haitians, including the president of the Senate, while Canada has sanctioned 11 Haitians, including former President Michel Martelly, two former prime ministers and some prominent members of the economic elite of the country. The United States seems willing to take the rare step of sanctioning Martelly and his former prime minister Laurent Lamothe, both Miami residents and married to US citizens.

All of them are accused of having links to armed gangs in a fierce power struggle for control in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. However, neither Canada nor the United States have so far produced evidence to support the allegations contained in the sanctions announcements.

While many Haitians welcomed the sanctions imposed on some widely disowned politicians and businessmen and long suspected of corruption, others have questioned the selective nature of the sanctions and the lack of transparency.

“As long as the gangs and their accomplices continue to terrorize the population, Canada will continue to press for order to be restored to Haiti,” Melanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, tweeted when the sanctions against Martelly and Lamothe were announced on November 20. .

In response, Brian Nichols, the US State Department’s Under Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted his support for Canada’s action “for imposing costs on individuals who incite violence and riots in Haiti. […] We will continue to support these efforts.”

Decades of corruption in Haiti

Despite rampant political corruption and instability in Haiti for decades, the United States has rarely used sanctions as an instrument of pressure, partly out of fear that it could cause further economic hardship and turn local elites against the United States. Joined.

But that calculus has changed in recent months, as kidnappings, rapes and murders have spiraled out of control, turning the Caribbean country into what observers consider an uninhabitable hellhole.

“It’s a big step. The international community has never sanctioned Haiti’s elites,” said Diego Da Rin, a consultant with the International Crisis Group, which last week released a report on Haiti urging international action to deal with to gang violence, cholera and hunger.

“But it’s not enough,” Da Rin added. Although the link between Haitian criminal gangs and political and business elites is well known, the gangs have grown so large that they now operate more autonomously, he warned. “Before they were mercenaries. But they have multiplied their sources of income. Now it is an industry,” Da Win said.

In addition to the sanctions, Da Rin and other analysts say Haiti urgently needs international help to crack down on corruption through major judicial reform and the restoration of democracy.

“The message conveyed by the sanctions is that the international community is not willing to accept the current culture of impunity in Haitian society,” the respected rector of the Haitian University of Quisqueya, Jacky Lumarque, told French radio station TF1.

US and Canada try to negotiate a transitional government

The sanctions come as US and Canadian officials try to broker a political deal between the Haitian government and the opposition to create a transitional government and pave the way for long-awaited elections following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021.

The United States is working with a professional mediation firm, Inter Mediate, run by Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The State Department declined to provide details of any “interlocutors […] with whom we are engaging out of consideration for their safety – and the safety of those they work with.”

Haiti’s political instability has led to several foreign military interventions over the decades, including half a dozen United Nations missions since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1980s. Haiti has been without a president since the assassination de Moise and the elections that were to be held last February still do not have a date.

The Haitian government has called for foreign military intervention, claiming its small and ill-equipped police force is outnumbered by some 200 heavily armed gangs. The United States and Canada have discussed sending troops or an international police force, but neither has been willing to take the lead in what many see as a risky venture.

Why have the US and Canada waited so long to punish the corrupt in Haiti?

Critics say the United States and Canada have waited too long to threaten sanctions, for fear of causing even more chaos. With information about the alleged perpetrators and their ties to high-level Haitian officials well known to US officials, “one has to wonder why these tools for greater accountability in Haiti are only being applied recently,” he said. Susan Page, a former US ambassador who served as the United Nations special representative in Haiti. “It is time to hold those responsible for the horror that is Haiti today to account,” Page added.

The sanctions bar them from traveling to the United States or Canada, while freezing their assets in those countries. Most of those sanctioned are politicians and businessmen living in Haiti, some with assets abroad. For example, one of the senators sanctioned by both Canada and the US, Rony Celestin, owns a luxurious $4.25 million villa on the outskirts of Montreal, Canada, and has long been suspected of his illicit activities. .

Celestin and another senator, Richard Fourcand, are accused of “abusing their power to favor drug trafficking activities throughout the region,” according to Brian Nelson, Undersecretary of the US Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) claimed that Celestin abused his political position to orchestrate the importation of drugs from Venezuela to Haiti, as well as the exportation of drugs to the United States and the Bahamas. Treasury claims that Fourcand uses his own plane to transport drugs through southern Haiti, while also using his political influence to install people in government positions who help him facilitate his drug-trafficking activities.”

Fourcand and Celestin could not be reached for comment. Haiti’s government has not commented publicly, though its officials have privately expressed shock and have asked Canada and the United States for detailed justifications for the sanctions.

Michel Martelly and the party of the Bald Heads

The political party founded by Martelly, the Haitian Tet Kale Party (PTHK), which means Party of the Bald Heads in Haitian Creole, has long been accused of corruption, from the theft of public funds to links to drug trafficking and murder. committed by gangs. Martelly is a popular singer who performed under the stage name ‘Sweet Micky’ before becoming president in 2011. According to critics of him, one of his songs, ‘Bandido Legal’, epitomized the carefree style. of government from him.

Some say governments should make the evidence public or charge those sanctioned with crimes.

“When impunity is the norm, I can understand the value of naming and shaming. But if there is evidence of criminal activity, why not press charges? Why not turn the evidence over to Haitian prosecutors?” said Jake Johnston , an expert on Haiti at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington.

How do sanctions affect immigration status in the US?

In order to impose sanctions, it is not necessary for a person to have been convicted of a crime. It is enough that the American intelligence agencies suspect that he has committed a crime.

However, the US authorities admit that it is more difficult to target people living in the United States, since their immigrant status gives them a degree of legal protection. Martelly is a legal permanent resident married to a US citizen, according to his lawyer, while Lamothe told Univision that he is in the process of applying for residency.

In the case of Martelly, if he is sanctioned, he could be denied re-entry into the United States after traveling abroad, according to Univision immigration analyst Ezequiel Hernandez. “His residency could also be terminated if he lied about his activities and he could be placed in removal proceedings,” he said.

You could also face problems renewing your residency, or if you seek citizenship, even if you are not formally charged with a crime. “They could be denied for moral misconduct or if it is deemed not in the national interest of the United States,” he added.

Lamothe faces an even greater risk of deportation if he is sanctioned based on his temporary immigration status.

But Martelly and Lamothe could still fight the sanctions in court. Lamothe has already asked Canada to show the evidence it has, saying she plans to sue the government for defamation if it doesn’t come up with the details.

“It’s a complete invention,” says Lamothe

Lamothe has strongly denied any criminal involvement, noting that while he was prime minister Haiti’s crime rate was low. “It’s a complete invention. Never in my life have I had contact with gangs, nor have I supported or agreed to their actions,” he told Univision, adding that he has not set foot in Haiti since 2020 and has no business interests there.

In a statement, Canada’s Ministry of Global Affairs told Univision that it is “judicious” in its imposition of sanctions and was willing to impose more sanctions “on those who will continue to support violence and instability.”

Asked about the situation of Martelly and Lamothe, the US State Department said that “we did not give advance notice of sanctions or visa restrictions […] and we will continue to take appropriate measures as necessary.”

The United States and Canada are also seeking to expand sanctions with the help of the United Nations, which adopted a US-backed resolution in October to sanction Haitian gangs and their benefactors. The United Nations is currently assembling a team of investigators to go after Haitians linked to the gangs.

While the sanctions send a strong message, experts say much will depend on how they are applied and for what purpose. “Is it to sideline Martelly and make sure he doesn’t run in a future presidential election?” Page wonders. Or the US government would use the sanctions “to demand certain reforms in Haiti from those currently in power,” she added.

The use of sanctions does not mean that intervention is no longer an option, according to officials.

“We have not taken anything off the table, but with 30 years of experience in Haiti, we know very well that there are enormous challenges when it comes to any intervention,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a weekend news conference. of year.

“It is clear that our approach must change this time, and for this reason (there are) the sanctions that we have imposed,” he added.

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