Exclusive: Haitian president defends himself against corruption allegations as he begins rule by decree

Harriet Alexander
Mr Moise starts ruling by decree on Monday - James Breeden

Haiti’s president has denied accusations of participating in a $2 billion (£1.5bn) corruption scheme, as he admitted on the tenth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that his country remains “in constant crisis”.

Jovenel Moise on Sunday visited the memorial at the nation’s largest mass grave, where tens of thousands of bodies were unceremoniously dumped by diggers.

Over 300,000 people died in the January 12 quake – the worst to hit Haiti in 200 years – and 1.3 million were left homeless.

A decade on from the disaster, the country remains in ruins. Over $13 billion in aid has been allocated to Haiti in the intervening time, of which half has been distributed.

Yet an estimated 35,000 people still live in temporary housing; annual per capita income remains at $800; and basic infrastructure of water and electricity is scarce.

Furthermore, Mr Moise, who took power in January 2017, finds himself with no prime minister, no government, no budget, and, as of Monday no parliament.

Elections to choose new representatives and senators were never held. From Monday, so isolated that even his own political party seems against him, he will rule by decree.

Mr Moise starts ruling by decree on Monday Credit: James Breeden for The Daily Telegraph

Is he Haiti’s next dictator? “Of course not,” he laughs, crossing his lanky legs and leaning back in his gold chair inside the temporary presidential palace, in the lush hills above downtown Port au Prince.

The lavish original, home of Haitian presidents since independence from France in 1804, was severely damaged in the earthquake, and was razed to the ground in 2012.

“We’re trying to find a solution to this crisis. I’m not the first president to rule by decree. And I’m confident that the answer is around the corner; then the legislature will be put in place to play its role.”

Jovenel Moise finds himself with no prime minister and no government Credit: James Breeden for The Daily Telegraph

Exhausted Haitians seem uncertain. They are tired of incompetence, tired of corruption.

Mr Moise himself has been swept up in the corruption allegations, accused of benefiting from a vast scheme relating to the Venezuelan PetroCaribe oil agreement, signed by Haiti in 2006.

Venezuela would sell oil to sympathetic nations nearby, and demand 60 per cent of the purchase price should be paid upfront, and the rest of the  deferred at a one per cent interest rate, over 25 years. This debt has racked up, and currently stands at $2 billion.

The government was supposed to use the money for desperately needed social and development projects.

However, almost a third of the $2 billion is unaccounted for, and in May a 600-page investigation by the government auditors, looking into PetroCaribe funds from 2008-16, found suspicious transactions made to Mr Moise himself.

In August a Haitian filmmaker tweeted a photo of himself blindfolded, with the caption: “Where’s the PetroCaribe money?”

People protest Mr Moise's presence at an event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the earthquake that devastated the country Credit:  Jean Marc Herve Abelard/EPA-EFE/REX

The image went viral, sparking violent protests in September which wracked the country for three months, killing 42 people. The demands for Mr Moise to resign were deafening.

Mr Moise told The Telegraph he did not receive any kickbacks or additional payments, insisting that he did the work for which he was paid.

He also warned against using the dossier - which implicated a swathe of senior Haitian politicians - for political ends.

“The judgement talks about a lot of people,” he said. “No one – absolutely no one - can take this dossier and use it for personal pursuits, and political persecution.

“I see that the institutions to fight corruption are weak. So we’re investing in anti-corruption agencies. And when it comes to corruption, there is a lot more to do. Corruption isn’t only fighting it, but also preventing it.”

The five most pressing problems facing Haiti, he said, are “corruption, corruption, corruption, corruption, corruption.”

But he could not answer why no one had been held account for their actions described in the May report, insisting only that the president could not interfere in the justice system.

A demonstrator holds up her arms and chants slogans during a protest against the ruling government in Port-au-Prince in June Credit: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images

“We have taken action,” he insisted. “I believe in the independence of the judiciary. We have taken action, to say to the judiciary that we are there to support them, with any logistical help.”

Jake Johnston, research associate at the Washington DC think tank, Center for Economic and Policy Research, who writes the highly-regarded blog Haiti: Relief Watch, scoffed at Mr Moise’s claims to be cleaning up the house.

“President Moise is attempting to sell himself internationally as a reformer, but he owes his own power to the very system he claims to be fighting,” he told The Telegraph. “If the president is serious about taking on corruption, he can lead by example and open his own books.

“Until he does, it’s unlikely he’ll ever have the credibility needed to ask the same of others.”

Mr Moise’s rule has been wretched from the start. The 51-year-old businessman and agricultural entrepreneur, hand-picked by his predecessor Michel Martelly, nicknamed himself Banana Man – a nod to his plantations in the north – and campaigned on a promise of ending corruption, implementing rule of law, and providing universal healthcare and education.

He was elected on the results of a vote with a mere 18 per cent turnout. And he has delivered little. “I am an institutional president,” he said, arguing that all his efforts have been thwarted by his political rivals.

“I believe in the institutions of my country. But with this constitution, these institutions cannot play their role. Nor can the executive, the legislative, or the judiciary.”

People are still displaced since the 2010 earthquake Credit: REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

But surely some of the responsibility belongs to him, after three years in power? He gives an answer more that of an analyst or presidential hopeful, than a sitting president.

“We have to reconstruct the state,” he said. “I arrived as the head of a state which was not at the service of the people.

“It’s not a slogan – we have to go deep. We have to go to the foundations, that’s to say: our constitution. We have to change our constitution. Our country can no longer live with this constitution as it provokes interminable crises; gives too much power to certain groups. It says that the president oversees – that’s a good idea, but impossible.

“It’s a moment of opportunity. As a problem identified is a problem half solved.”

He says he is tired of the Haiti’s fame as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and its reputation for chronic corruption.

When Donald Trump referred to Haiti as a “shithole country”, he reacted in fury – although, of course, his country remains resolutely in thrall to the US.

Decisions made by his predecessors, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, were “catastrophic”, he admits.

He freely accepts that there is woefully little to show for the $6 billion that poured into the country in the previous decade. But today’s problems are also someone else’s fault, he says – blaming the constitution, the opposition, and his predecessors.

“I look at the state of this country with huge concern – the sums of money spent, in the context of our social indicators,” he said.

“There were a lot of mistakes made. When you hear of the billions spent… The government created an office to manage the spending, but the results have been catastrophic.”

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, a Methodist minister and Labour life peer, has been coming to Haiti for 50 years, spending most of the 1970s living and working in remote rural communities.

“It’s the most marvellous place, with the most incredible history,” he said. “And the people are absolutely, stunningly fabulous.”

And yet he is dismayed by the state of his beloved Haiti. “I’ve never seen it worse,” he said. “President Moise is incapable of doing the job. “But on the other hand, I can’t think of anyone that is.”

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