Anti-Government Protests Continue in Haiti; New Details Emerge About Role of U.S. Mercenaries

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Ongoing protests are roiling Haiti, as demonstrators take to the streets to demand President Jovenel Moïse’s resignation due to government corruption and mismanagement of the country’s oil fund. The protests began in July, but Moïse is facing further scrutiny after five heavily armed Americans were arrested last month near Haiti’s central bank in Port-au-Prince with a cache of weapons, claiming to be on a “government mission.” The mercenaries were quickly sent back to the United States without facing criminal charges in Haiti, sparking outrage and mounting demands that the government explain why the men had been at the central bank in the first place. An explosive new investigation by Haiti Liberté and The Intercept has found that the mercenaries were at the central bank on a mission ordered directly by the embattled Haitian president. Their goal was to escort a presidential aide to the Haitian central bank as he transferred $80 million from the government’s oil account to another account controlled by Moïse. This news comes as Haiti’s Parliament has thrown out Prime Minister Jean Henry Céant in a no-confidence vote. We speak with Kim Ives, an editor of Haiti Liberté and co-author of the new joint investigation with The Intercept.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the ongoing protests in Haiti, where people have been taking to the streets since July to demand President Jovenel Moïse’s resignation due to government corruption and mismanagement of the country’s oil fund. Haiti received nearly $4.3 billion from Venezuela over the span of 10 years as part of an oil subsidy program called the Petrocaribe accord. But the agreement ended in early 2018, when Haiti’s central bank stopped paying Venezuela due to U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and the Haitian government’s mismanagement. Protesters in Haiti are demanding Moïse step down, as the Haitian Senate reports that billions of dollars from the oil fund were embezzled by the government. This comes as Haiti’s Parliament threw out Prime Minister Henry Céant in a no-confidence vote earlier this week—Céant.

AMY GOODMAN: Haitian President Jovenel Moïse is facing further scrutiny after five heavily armed Americans were arrested last month near Haiti’s central bank in Port-au-Prince with a cache of weapons, claiming to be on a “government mission.” The group included two former Navy SEALs, a former Blackwater-trained contractor. But the mercenaries were quickly sent back to the United States without facing criminal charges in Haiti, sparking outrage and mounting demands that the government explain why the men had been at the central bank in the first place.

An explosive new investigation by Haiti Liberté and The Intercept has found the American mercenaries were at the central bank on a mission ordered directly by the embattled president. Their goal was to escort a presidential aide to the Haitian central bank as he transferred $80 million from the government’s oil account to another account controlled by President Moïse. Kim Ives and Matthew Cole write in their investigation, “What at first resembled a comedic plot about a group of ex-soldiers looking for a quick and easy mercenary score was in fact a poorly executed but serious effort by Moïse to consolidate his political power with American muscle.”

Well, for more, we’re joined by Kim Ives, editor of Haiti Liberté and co-author of this new joint investigation.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Kim. Explain what’s happening in Haiti.

KIM IVES: Well, there’s an uprising going on. It’s a very chaotic situation, very similar to the uprising against Jean-Claude Duvalier 33 years ago. And these mercenaries arrived at the tail end of the latest spasm, which happened basically from the 7th of February to the 17th. They flew in and ended up being arrested at the central bank on Sunday the 17th. And everybody was wondering what they were up to, what they were doing, who was behind them. They were loaded for bear. They had semiautomatic weapons, pistols, drones, satellite phones, you name it.

And our investigation turned up that they were there on behalf of President Jovenel Moïse to transfer $80 million from the Petrocaribe account, which—that’s all that’s left in it—to an account that he controlled. We don’t know what he was going to do with it: Was he going to split town, or was he going to try to stabilize the situation? But, in short, that’s what their mission was, but they didn’t get very far. They went about it in a very clumsy way.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they identify—get identified? And how do you know the connection to Blackwater?

KIM IVES: Well, when the people were arrested, we got all their information, their passports. And everything went immediately up on social media, by the police putting it up there. And the process was that there were two Blackwater—there was two Navy SEALs, Blackwater contractor and a number of other former military people, a Marine pilot who was the leader, a guy called Kroeker. They ended up being caught in front of the bank because they had no license plates on their cars. And so, they were also apparently alerted by the bank personnel, by the security guard. They tried to get into the bank to do this transfer, but they couldn’t get in, because the security guard wouldn’t let them in. So, basically, they got rolled up, taken to the police station. But the U.S. Embassy immediately weighed in and made sure to get them out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But they were not all U.S. nationals, right? There were two Serbians.

KIM IVES: No, there were two Serbs involved.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Two Serbs involved, as well.

KIM IVES: Yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how many mercenaries were there?

KIM IVES: There was a total of seven.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Seven.

KIM IVES: Yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And two of which were not—

KIM IVES: Yeah.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Two of whom were not U.S. nationals.

KIM IVES: Total of seven. There was one guy, a guy called [Dustin] Porte, who ended up being more of a—he seems he’s an electrical contractor. He’s some sort of translator for them. He was speaking French. He’s from Louisiana. And he ended up being the guy who tried to negotiate them out of the 2-hour police standoff that took place then.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the U.S. explain how they got them out of the country and why they’re not facing charges?

KIM IVES: Well, the U.S. hasn’t explained that. They just—it was completely illegal, what they did, completely. First, it wasn’t even a judge that released them, as should have been the case. It was the [justice] minister who wrote a letter to the head of the police station where they were being held. And then they just whisked them out of the country, without the judge releasing them in any way. And then, when they came to the States, they should have been charged with illegally exporting arms, because they took their weapons on a private jet, which flew from Baltimore to Port-au-Prince on February 16th. They never went through immigration in Haiti. They never went through customs. And in the end, they ended up not being charged either in Haiti or the U.S. So, they’ve gotten off scot-free—until now, we hope.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, could you put this in the broader context of the ongoing protests in Haiti and the connection to what’s the crisis in Venezuela?

KIM IVES: Yes. Well, Haiti is going through a terrible uprising, or a great uprising, maybe we could say, in large measure because the support that Venezuela provided Haiti, $4.3 million [sic] of cheap oil and cheap credit, from basically 2008 ’til 2017 or beginning of ’18, has finished.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: $4.3 billion?

KIM IVES: $4.3 billion in oil was provided. Now, as we talked about here on Democracy Now! at the time that we broke the story about that and the U.S. opposition to it, thanks to WikiLeaks documents we had received, the program provided this money on very favorable terms. Haiti only had to pay 60 percent up front, and then 40 percent went into a thing called the Petrocaribe fund, which was repayable after 25 years at 1 percent interest. This money was used—was supposed to be used for hospitals, clinics, schools, roads—any social benefit projects. This was the vision of Hugo Chávez, was to give Haiti the capital to develop itself, so it wasn’t having to constantly turn to USAID or the IMF, etc.

This money, though, was largely plundered by primarily the government of Michel Martelly of 2011 to 2016, basically brought in through the good services of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And so, demonstrations began, asking, “What happened to the Petrocaribe money? Where did all this money go?” Then, in July of last year, they tried to hike the gas prices, because the cheap Venezuelan oil has finished, and the IMF came in and said, “You’ve got to raise the prices, if we’re going to give you any more loans.” And when they tried to do it, the people went ballistic, went in the streets for three days. Haiti was basically shut down. And Jovenel had to sacrifice his prime minister and bring in the new prime minister, who just was now ousted, Jean Henry Céant. So, that mobilization continued through the fall, in September, October, November, huge demonstrations.

And then it began again in February, basically after Jovenel stuck a knife in the back of the Venezuelans, after their exemplary solidarity, by voting against Nicolás Maduro, saying he was illegitimate, as part of an OAS, an Organization of American States, vote on January 10th. Until then, Haiti had not gone along with the U.S. campaign to oust Maduro. But they basically sided with Washington. And now Washington is doing everything to keep Jovenel propped up.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, why did they make that decision all of a sudden?

KIM IVES: They were between a rock and a hard place, because Washington was sort of sitting back. They hadn’t come in to help denounce Maduro or line up against Maduro. But when they did, the U.S. began to support them in some way. And we see, tomorrow, Jovenel Moïse will go to Florida to meet with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and will probably be asked to not only line up more with some sort of U.S. intervention or increased campaign against Venezuela, but also to reject China, which is trying to make overtures to Haiti. Haiti is one of the last of the 18 countries which recognizes Taiwan, and China has offered Haiti $4.7 billion to overhaul Port-au-Prince, but Taiwan, you know, remains giving small corruption bribes to the government. So…

AMY GOODMAN: How long will Moïse last?

KIM IVES: That’s the $64,000 question. Nobody knows. But he’s definitely on the ropes. This uprising looks like it will continue, despite the fact that Moïse has effectively neutralized the prime minister, who he was basically at odds with. The opposition was trying to—part of the opposition was trying to work through the prime minister to get Jovenel out. But now with this report about what’s happened with the mercenaries and with the continuing crisis of oil in the country, he probably won’t last until the end of his term.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kim Ives, we want to thank you for being with us, editor of Haiti Liberté, co-author of a joint investigation between Haiti Liberté and The Intercept titled “U.S. Mercenaries Arrested in Haiti Were Part of a Half-Baked Scheme to Move $80 Million for Embattled President.”

When we come back, Vicky Ward on Kushner, Inc. Stay with us.

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