Last week, after the passing of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Haiti declared three days of national mourning. President Martelly stated that Chávez was a “great friend of Haiti who never missed an opportunity to express his solidarity with the Haitian people in their most difficult times.” It’s not the first time Martelly had such kind words for the Venezuelan president. Last year, Martelly told the press that it was Venezuelan aid that was “the most important in Haiti right now in terms of impact, direct impact." In February, Martelly attended the 11th summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas, a regional political organization spearheaded by Venezuela, and announced that Haiti was debating joining the group as a full member. While most of the coverage around Chávez’s legacy in Haiti and the greater Caribbean has focused on the Petrocaribe initiative, which provides subsidized fuel to the region, Chávez developed close ties to the Haitian people well before Petrocaribe. Following the earthquake of 2010, Chávez, in cancelling Haiti’s debt to Venezuela, declared, “Haiti has no debt with Venezuela -- on the contrary, it is Venezuela that has a historic debt with Haiti." As Chávez was quick to point out, it was Haiti that provided a vital safe-haven for Latin American independence hero Símon Bolívar before he went on to liberate much of South America from Spanish rule.
Opposition to 2004 Coup
In 2004, following the U.S.-backed coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Chávez was one of only a few voices in the region condemning what had taken place and refusing to recognize the coup government. Chávez told the Organization of American States that, “The President of Haiti is called Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and he was elected by the people." He formally extended an offer of asylum to Aristide in March of 2004. Perhaps the solidarity was in part due to the fact that just two years previously Chávez had been temporarily ousted in a coup, and similar actors were involved in both the Venezuelan and Haitian coups. As detailed in a 2004 investigation by Mother Jones, the International Republican Institute was active in both organizing and training those involved in the 2004 coup in Haiti as well as opposition factions before the 2002 coup in Venezuela, and its point man in Haiti at the time – Stanley Lucas, now an advisor to Martelly – had been in Venezuela some seven times prior to the coup. Senior Bush administration officials Roger Noriega and Otto Reich also actively supported both the Venezuelan and Haitian coups.
One with the People
In 2007, President Chávez traveled to Haiti; Brian Concannon and Mario Joseph described the scene at the time:
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez found a hero’s welcome when he visited Haiti on March 12. People from Port-au-Prince’s poor neighborhoods lined the streets of the capitol to cheer, to chant, to dance and sing, with the infectious enthusiasm of Haitian celebrations. President Chávez returned the affection. He jumped from his motorcade and joined the party, marching, even running with the crowd. At the National Palace, Mr. Chávez climbed up on the perimeter fence to shake and slap hands, like he had just scored a World Cup goal. He publicly thanked the Haitian people for their hospitality and enthusiasm, and for their historic support for liberty in the world.
President Chávez and the Haitian people hit it off so well for reasons of principle and of practice. Haitians consider Chávez a leader in the global fight against the global power inequalities that keep people in Haiti, Venezuela and the rest of Latin America poor, hungry and uneducated. They see him standing up to the most powerful leader in today’s world- President Bush (whose name was frequently invoked that day, not charitably) – and to the World Bank and other powerbrokers. Even better, unlike their President Aristide (whose name was frequently, and charitably, invoked), Chávez keeps getting away with standing up to the powerful.
Of course, while the solidarity between Chávez and the Haitian people has long existed, the more recent direct impact of this solidarity has been through the Petrocaribe initiative. The agreement, which was nearly blocked by the U.S. government and major oil companies, has provided Haiti with 23.6 million barrels of oil since 2008. Through the agreement Venezuela finances part of Haiti’s fuel import bill, allowing for a portion to be paid up front and the remainder to be used as a loan with a long maturity and low rates. Since the program’s inception, Venezuela has provided oil worth nearly $2.5 billion. Haiti has paid back over $1 billion of that and although Venezuela cancelled nearly $400 million in debt after the earthquake, Haiti retains a debt of roughly $950 million to Venezuela. Most of this will be paid back over a period of 25 years at a 1 percent interest rate. In the meantime, there is a two-year grace period. The IMF estimated fiscal year 2012/2013 external debt payments to be 0.1 percent of GDP, or less than 0.5 percent of government expenditure.
The financing that comes from Petrocaribe remains the primary source of revenue for government reconstruction projects. Since the earthquake, the Haitian government has used Petrocaribe resources to finance over 80 projects worth nearly $750 million. Unlike most other aid Haiti has received, the Petrocaribe funds are “under the control of the central government.” While official donor pledges have been slow to arrive and have largely bypassed the Haitian government, over $530 million or 72% of obligated Petrocaribe funds have been spent on the ground. While even long-term, low interest loans can cause problems for poor countries, and there have been issues regarding transparency, the billions in financing from Petrocaribe have been a key part of the country’s ongoing reconstruction from the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The relationship that Haiti has had with Venezuela over the past decade is glaringly different from its relations with most of the rest of the international community. Whereas much of the international community supported the 2004 coup against Aristide, Chávez was an outspoken opponent. Whereas the Haitian government has received less than 10 percent of all reconstruction aid given by donors, aid from the Venezuelan government has gone directly to the Haitian government. Whereas aid agencies and high-ranking foreign officials often “travel quickly between homes in wealthy neighborhoods and offices in wealthy neighborhoods, with armed escorts in large cars, windows tinted and rolled up, air-conditioning on” as Joseph and Concannon describe, Chávez ran alongside his motorcade directly with the Haitian people.