Sanctioned Haitian politicians accuse U.S. of targeting them

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Senate President Joseph Lambert, center, arrives for a press conference at the Senate chambers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. Along with former Senate President Youri Latortue, he was recently sanctioned by the U.S. government.

AP

For weeks, rumors had circulated that influential Haitian businessmen, current government ministers, powerful politicians and their wives were being humiliated at the hands of the U.S. government as they sought to leave Haiti, only to be barred from boarding Miami-bound flights.

Joseph Lambert, a powerful politician and president of what’s left of a dysfunctional Haitian Senate, was said to be among those who, along with his wife, had his U.S. visa revoked.

So on the last Sunday of October, Lambert, who has been attempting to fill the presidential void left by last year’s shocking assassination of President Jovenel Moïse through various political alliances and machinations, did what all Haitian politicians do: He took to the microphone.

During a Facebook live interview, he discussed the escalating gang violence that was keeping more than 2.4 million children out of school, the protracted political paralysis and the U.S. visa cancellations. In his opinion, he said, the latter didn’t go far enough to crack down on individuals colluding with criminal gangs in Haiti and contributing to the destabilization of the country.

“All responsible citizens know that it’s not just visas that should be cut,” Lambert told Philippe Moussignac on his show Public Forum after he was asked if there was any truth that he had lost his U.S. visa. “You need to take other measures. Seize people’s property, declare them persona non grata throughout the world, bring them before the justice system, use their property to construct schools, to construct hospitals. This is to say those people are traitors.”

Five days later, the U.S. State Department announced that Lambert and his wife, Jesula Lambert Domond, were being designated for visa restrictions as part of a series of sanctions being imposed by the Treasury Department and the government of Canada.

Both the U.S. and Canada announced they were imposing sanctions against Lambert as well as former Senate president Youri Latortue. Two of Haiti’s most prominent politicians, they are accused of using their positions to traffic Colombian cocaine into the Caribbean country over decades and working with criminal gang networks to facilitate their illegal activities. The two are also accused of directing others to engage in violence on their behalf, while the Canadian government said any assets they have in Canada would be frozen.

Both politicians deny the accusations, and in social media posts and radio interviews have accused the U.S. and Canada of trying to intimidate them and unfairly targeting them because of their political stances.

Haiti’s crisis ‘catastrophic’

The sanction announcement by the U.S. and Canada came on a day in which Haiti National Police had finally regained control of the country’s main oil terminal and seaports after nearly two months. It also comes as the U.N. Security Council mulls over a request by Haiti’s interim government for the rapid deployment of a foreign force to help police confront armed gangs that continue to attack police units trying to secure the area around the ports and the Varreux fuel terminal.

A week before the sanctions announcement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Canada, where he met with Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both of whom have been vocal about the need for sanctions.

The crisis in Haiti, Joly said during the meeting with Blinken in Montreal, was “catastrophic.” A small minority of gangs, she said, was controlling access to everything — ports, roads, food, fuel — necessary to respond to the problems Haitians are facing, including a deadly cholera outbreak.

“There are the elites that are directing them, that are funding them, and the government is not controlling anything,” Joly said, hinting at the forthcoming dual designations by Canada and the U.S. against Haitian nationals. “So for people to have access to potable water, to medication, when the ports and the roads are blocked by these gangs and by the elites that are controlling them — hence the sanctions that we will be imposing together in order to exert pressure on the elites that control the gangs.”

READ MORE: A Haitian ex-senator had his U.S. visa revoked while transiting through Miami. Here is why

Last month, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution by the U.S. and Mexico imposing sanctions on gang leaders and those who arm and finance them. Despite the unanimous decision and call to an end of the gang violence in Haiti, U.N. members have not yet decided on the deployment of a multinational force, which the Biden administration supports and would like for Canada to lead.

Canada last week asked for a hold on the U.N. decision while a government assessment team it recently sent to Haiti works on its recommendations for the country’s response to the crisis.

For now, the hope is that the sanctions will help the security and humanitarian crisis in Haiti, where arms and drug trafficking run hand in hand, corruption is rampant and politicians and business leaders vie to control key government assets like the port, customs, airport authority and pension fund. That, and the tightening grip by gangs, have taken the country to the brink of anarchy.

“It’s a well known fact in Haiti there are demonstrations that are sometimes real demonstrations where people come out and express their disagreement with a government or a policy. But there are also demonstrations that are bought and paid for that aim to destabilize the country because somebody doesn’t like one decision or another,” Canada’s ambassador to Haiti, Sébastien Carrière, told the Canadian House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

Sanctions, he said, had not been tried before to address the links between politicians and gangs, and between gangs and some of the economic elite.

On Friday, the first of those measures were announced in the designations against Lambert and Latortue.

“These actions collectively will make clear that the United States is committed to imposing consequences and accountability measures for those that are instigating violence and unrest in the country and otherwise supporting those on the ground who are fomenting instability and violence inside the country,” White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby said. “So we stand ready to take additional action as appropriate against other bad actors that are only making the situation in Haiti worse.”

Sanctions raise questions

The new sanctions raise a number of questions, from whether the Haitian state and other nations will follow suit by freezing assets and seizing properties, to whether the sanctions will make a difference in Haiti, where individuals with economic and political interests have been accused of taking advantage of recent anti-government protests against higher fuel and food prices.

Latortue, appearing on the show “Ranmase” Saturday from Port-au-Prince, questioned why visiting foreign delegations, including the recent one sent by the Canadian government, have sought out his opinion over the years.

“From 2012 to 2022, all the visiting American delegations, they call you to ask, ‘What is your position and how do you see the situation?’ And the first thing they always tell you is that they have not invited people who they think are involved in violence, gangs and financing gangs,” Latortue said. “This has been the case up to 2022, up to the arrival of [Assistant] Secretary of State Brian Nichols.”

Indeed, officials have sought out the opinions of Latortue, Lambert and others as they seek to understand what is unfolding in Haiti and report back to their capitals. But the access some Haitian politicians have to embassies or their host countries via diplomatic or visitor visas has been part of internal embassy debates, amid reports about some politician having roles in trafficking, corruption and ties to armed gangs.

Lambert and Latortue

Both Lambert and Latortue are known for their Teflon political careers — and their ability to never be out of power. When presidential elections were announced in 2010, months after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, they each supported different challengers to Michel Martelly, the singer turned presidential candidate. When Martelly won, following a controversial race, Lambert and Latortue joined forces and became Martelly’s chief advisers.

In 2017 when Moïse, Martelly’s hand-picked successor, took office, the political duo started off as supporters, but soon turned into his chief political foes. However, that did not stop Lambert from trying to have Moïse name him as prime minister, or trying to seize power upon Moïse’s assassination. As Interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry and then-acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph engaged in a power struggle, Lambert announced that he had been voted provisional president by his fellow remaining senators in a vote of 8-0.

When his efforts failed, Lambert joined Latortue in creating a coalition of some 70 political organizations and social groups, called PEN, for Protocole d’Entente Nationale. They joined forces with the broad civil society platform known as the Montana Accord, led by the Commission for the Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. But even as U.S. officials and other foreign diplomats met with representatives of the Montana Accord to try to reach a solution to the political crisis, they voiced their uneasiness with the group’s ties to Lambert and Latortue.

Most recently, after wanting to remove the Henry government, Lambert and Latortue changed their positions and agreed to work with the interim government instead.

In addressing the sanctions, Blinken highlighted Lambert, who has been leading the remaining 10 members of the 30-member Senate after the bicameral Parliament was dismissed by Moïse 18 months before his death. Blinken said Lambert had abused his public position by participating in corrupt activities that undermined the integrity of Haiti’s government.

“There is credible information of Lambert’s involvement in a gross violation of human rights, namely an extrajudicial killing, during his government tenure,” the secretary of state said, without offering additional details.

The Treasury Department, meanwhile, said the senator used his position in office “to lead and facilitate the trafficking of cocaine from Colombia to Haiti and to facilitate impunity in Haiti for other narcotics traffickers” over a span of 20 years.

“His drug trafficking, corrupt tactics, and continued disregard for the rule of law have contributed to the continued destabilization of Haiti,” Treasury said. Latortue, Treasury officials said, also had international drug trafficking ties.

Both politicians say they plan to fight the sanctions through legal channels, which acknowledging they have had visa issues in the past.

In a tweet, Latortue, a former member of the Haitian army who has studied in Canada, denied any involvement in drugs and said he was opposed to gangs and violence. He labeled the claims by the U.S. and Canada “Lies! No due process!”

“I fought corruption & laundering with numerous public reports,” Latortue tweeted. He later said that he was targeted because he opposed a foreign intervention in Haiti.

In a radio interview on Scoop FM, Lambert accused the U.S. government of unfairly labeling the two men as drug traffickers. He said it’s not the first time that the U.S. has used visa cancellations as a political tool to get what it wants. That was a reference to the 2010 election, when the U.S. pressured President René Préval to remove his candidate, Jude Célestin, from the presidential race in favor of Martelly.

Lambert attacked diplomats, as well as the current government, accusing them of having relations with the G-9, the powerful gang alliance that since mid-September had been blocking the Varreux fuel terminal and access roads. The reason for the sanctions, he said, is to block him from participating in a political transition. He has done nothing for the past three years, he said, except work for a solution to the crisis.

“Joseph Lambert has pleaded for dialogue, agreement and compromise,” said the senator, speaking of himself in the third person.

As for the sanctions, the senator said he hasn’t traveled to Canada since 2009, and “sincerely it isn’t a place I really like.” He had an active U.S. visa, he said, until its recent expiration with the current crisis and he chose “not to renew it.”

“I don’t have any property in the United States. I have a credit card,” Lambert said. “I don’t even have a pair of shoes in Canada. Everything I have is in Haiti.”

McClatchy Senior National Security and White House Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this story.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.



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