Sanctions against wealthy Haitians step in right direction

Ottawa’s Haiti sanctions are so surprisingly well targeted that one must ask, did the Liberals bid to lead a foreign military intervention drive them to target former allies?

In recent weeks the Liberals have sanctioned former Haitian president Michel Martelly, Gilbert Bigio, the country’s richest man, and other politicians and members of Haiti’s light skinned economic elite. Targeting Martelly is significant. He founded the PHTK party, which continues to rule Haiti. After the devastating 2010 earthquake the US and Canada effectively anointed Martelly president.

Bigio is a leading member of what a US ambassador once called Haiti’s “morally repugnant elite”. He owns the country’s largest port, which is an important transshipment hub for weapons to gangs. Thought to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Bigio is honorary consul to Israel and well connected in the US.

While the sanctions have limited direct impact since most of the individuals have few assets in Canada, they have been felt. Forty-eight hours after being sanctioned by Canada, Sheriff Abdalah was forced to resign as 2nd Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sogebank, one Haiti’s largest (Sogebank was founded in 1986 when RBC sold off its seven-decade-old Haitian operations). That bank also closed the account of former Prime Minister Jean Henry Céant who was sanctioned by Ottawa. The sanctions have no doubt shaken those targeted and others among Haiti’s ruling elite.

Still, Canada hasn’t drastically shifted policy. Canada continues to back the unelected, unconstitutional and unpopular Ariel Henry as prime minister. Last week Canadian ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, met Henry in Port-au-Prince. Ottawa also remains part of the colonial Core Group and continues to assist the highly repressive police force. Rae met the police command during his visit though he remained silent about their recent killings.

Concurrently, there are broader questions about the legitimacy of sanctions. Why does Ottawa have this power, but the Haitian government is not in a position to sanction Canadian officials? Additionally, why weren’t George W. Bush and Paul Martin sanctioned for their role in the 2004 coup or Hillary Clinton and Lawrence Cannon for intervening to appoint Martelly in 2010?

Leaving aside these broader questions, the sanctions are a substantial development in Canadian policy towards Haiti. So, what is happening? Here’s a somewhat hopeful thesis:

Four months ago, the Canadian diplomatic apparatus launched a big push for a foreign military intervention. The prime minister, foreign minister, international development minister, UN ambassador and many other Canadian diplomats raised Haiti with the leaders of the United Nations, Organization of American States, CARICOM, as well as many individual governments.

As part of this push to build momentum for a military intervention, they promoted the idea that the situation in Haiti was dire and required dramatic action. But China and Russia appear to have blocked the UN Security Council from backing a mission. Without UN approval CARICOM and Latin American countries seem unwilling to send troops to be part of a Canadian-led mission.

Beijing and Moscow’s unwillingness to support the UN resolution was likely motivated by geopolitical competition though the Haitians who protested a military intervention likely emboldened China and Russia’s obstinance. In Canada many in the Haitian community have expressed opposition to a military intervention and a number of disruptive protests generated mainstream discussion critical of a military intervention. After 1,000 individuals emailed Heather McPherson and the other parties’ foreign affairs representatives to oppose a military intervention the NDP critic spoke out against it.

Did the mix of domestic and international opposition give the Liberals cold feet about leading a military mission?

The problem, however, was that they spent months raising the need for decisive action. As such, are the sanctions a bold move short of leading a military mission? Did the Liberals box themselves in, prompting unplanned measures against former allies?

An alternative explanation is that the mass protests against Henry have quieted, making a military intervention less important to protect the regime. But that notion is undercut by Washington continuing to push for a military intervention.

Or consider another possibility. Maybe the sanctions are designed to legitimate a still planned Canadian military intervention, a way to say, “we took drastic measures but the situation still didn’t improve and now we have to intervene with military force”.

Time will tell. In the meantime, we should continue to demand that Canada withdraw from the Core Group and end its support for Ariel Henry.

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