Canada levies new sanctions against Haiti’s economic elite

Ramon Espinosa/AP

Canada unveiled a fresh round of sanctions against members of Haiti’s economic elite on Monday, accusing three high-profile individuals of aiding armed gangs that have thrown the country into turmoil.

The Ottawa government said it would freeze any assets that Gilbert Bigio, Reynold Deeb and Sherif Abdallah hold within Canada.

“Canada has reason to believe these individuals are using their status as high-profile members of the economic elite in Haiti to protect and enable the illegal activities of armed criminal gangs, including through money laundering and other acts of corruption,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Canada has already sanctioned senior members of Haiti’s political class, including a former president, Michel Martelly, and two former prime ministers, Laurent Lamothe and Jean-Henry Céant.

Gangs have ravaged the Caribbean nation ever since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021, blocking access to basic necessities and spreading violence throughout the country.

The United States has also imposed sanctions on Haitian individuals, including current and former Haitian senators, the latest issued on Friday. But Washington has been more constrained in who it sanctions, with many top Haitian officials and power brokers enjoying U.S. immigration status and complementary legal protections.

But Canada’s sanctions against Deeb, Bigio and Abdallah come as the members of Haiti’s economic elite come under greater scrutiny by the Canadian and U.S. governments. In some cases, the United States has revoked visas and launched investigations into their economic activities.

In anticipation of sanctions, some members of the private sector, including Reuven Bigio, who chairs his billionaire father’s GB Group conglomerate, have been meeting in Miami and Haiti under the auspices of a new entity called the Macaya Group. While their objective is still unclear — members have declined to publicly comment — there have been discussions about coming up with a 10-year investment plan for the country and weighing in on the ongoing political paralysis.

Recently, members of the group met with former British diplomat Jonathan Powell, who traveled to Port-au-Prince and met with members of the political class, including Martelly. The former chief of staff for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Powell is considered an experienced negotiator who has been involved in several high-profile conflicts over the years.

Gilbert Bigio, a billionaire, is one of the richest men in the Caribbean region, with businesses in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He was featured in the Pandora Papers, a massive leak of secret offshore company documents.

His purchase of Jeffrey Epstein’s $132,000 Mercedes Maybach was buried at the end of a 418-page document accounting for the estate’s finances in the third quarter of 2020. While a well-known power broker in Haiti, Bigio, 86, retired as CEO of the GB Group in 2018 and has largely receded from public life, splitting his time between homes in Key Biscayne and the Dominican Republic. Most of the company’s business dealings are handled by his son, Reuven, an honorary consul of Israel in Haiti, and other relatives.

Until recently, the younger Bigio appeared to be supporting a presidential comeback by Martelly. But following the announcement of sanctions, Reuven Bigio and others in Haiti’s private sector have been meeting to come to a new accord, even agreeing to sit down with longtime business rivals over dinner to discuss Haiti’s future.

Among the GB Group’s business dealings in Haiti is the Port Lafito, a private container terminal that has been targeted by gangs in recent weeks as thousands of containers remain blocked, unable to be off-loaded since a powerful gang coalition took over the country’s key fuel terminal, Varreux, to the north in mid-September before freeing it last month.

The Bigio family, like others in Haiti’s powerful economic class with a major foothold in the economy, prefers to operate behind the scenes. But increasingly their business dealings are coming under scrutiny by an international community desperate to bring the country’s gang violence and rampant kidnappings under control, and in the process clean up Haiti’s destabilizing political arena.

One player who has emerged from behind the shadows in recent years is Sherif Abdallah, an Egyptian businessman who serves as honorary consul of Italy in Port-au-Prince. A close friend and associate of Haitian President Moïse, Abdallah was deeply involved in his 2017 presidential election, meeting with members of the diplomatic corps and facilitating meetings between ambassadors and the late president. However, his alleged ties to Haiti’s rising gang violence amid rising concerns about the affiliation between gangs, illegal arms trafficking and the power structure have placed him under scrutiny for some time.

Deeb is one of Haiti’s leading importers of everything from motorcycles to food, and is a huge patron of political candidates. He has been known to finance both candidates and their opponents. But as Haiti’s customs revenue has come under greater scrutiny — the country loses at least $600 million in uncollected customs duties a year — so too has Deeb’s business dealings. He is a U.S. resident alien who splits his time between Haiti and Miami.