Canada sanctions three Haiti businessmen; Trudeau calls on prime minister “to do more”

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry on Thursday “to do much more to create political unity and consensus” in Haiti, where escalating gang violence and kidnappings are now at the center of an ongoing debate at the United Nations around international intervention.

Trudeau and Henry met in New York Thursday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where Haiti’s instability, fueled by its escalating gang crisis, has been mentioned by President Joe Biden, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader.

On Thursday, Trudeau hosted a high-level discussion on Haiti as his government announced a new round of sanctions targeting three high-profile, powerful members of the impoverished Caribbean nation’s economic elite. In a press statement, Ottawa’s foreign ministry said the sanctions were being imposed in response to acts of corruption that are fueling Haiti’s crises.

The three are banker Carl Braun and businessmen Jean Marie Vorbe and Marc Antoine Acra. All three have been deeply involved in Haiti’s politics over the years, developing close ties to various presidential administrations.

Trudeau touted the new sanctions, which could have far-reaching ramifications for Haiti’s fragile financial system. Braun is the chairman of the board of directors of Haiti’s largest bank, Unibank. Canada’s economic sanctions not only means he will be barred from visiting Canada, but it also limits financial transactions. In the past Haiti’s banking sector has responded to U.S. and Canadian sanctions by closing accounts and blocking anyone who has been blacklisted from doing business through the system.

While Washington has only imposed a handful of sanctions due to the high burden of proof required by the Treasury Department, Canada has issued more than two dozen, which Trudeau spotlighted after being asked during a press conference whether his government will contribute to the non-U.N. multinational force that Kenya is considering leading into Haiti and members of the U.N. Security Council are expected to vote on soon.

The Biden administration, which is supporting Haiti’s call for the deployment of “a specialized armed force” to help its Haiti National Police, had hoped that Canada would have led the intervention. But after various meetings and a fact-finding mission to Haiti, Trudeau appeared to have backed off, leading Kenya, nearly a year after the request was first made, to step forward.

Trudeau did not say what role, if any, Canada would play in a deployment should it be approved by the Security Council.

“Canada is one of the countries, if not the country, that has been leading, most substantively, in standing up for the Haitian people,” Trudeau said. “Whether it’s the 100 million [Canadian dollars] we’ve allocated to support the [Haiti National Police] six months ago or the $80 million we’re announcing further today, the 29 sanctioning of individuals responsible for the hardships going on with the Haitian people right now, Canada is taking action in significant ways.”

Trudeau said given Canada’s 30 years of experience of “supporting the Haitian people, we know that the only lasting solution will come through working with the Haitian people themselves, empowering the Haitian people themselves to direct and take responsibilities for their future.” This is why, he said, he called on Henry to do more.

A neurosurgeon, Henry was tapped by President Jovenel Moïse to serve as his seventh prime minister in four years. But Moïse was assassinated before Henry’s swearing-in. Moïse’s death created a political vacuum, plunged Haiti deeper into a constitutional crisis and accelerated the gang violence and kidnappings that were already happening during his administration.

Because there are no elected government leaders in Haiti and no constitutional answer for how the country should be governed, the international community has pressed on the prime minister to find a consensus among the country’s political parties and opposition groups. So far, that has not happened. Meanwhile, armed groups continue to exploit Haiti’s fragile political landscape.

Ongoing efforts by the Caribbean Community, the United Nations political office in Haiti and Jonathan Powell, a former British diplomat who served as adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, to try to break the political impasse, have hit a roadblock, with each side blaming the other for the lack of progress.

Earlier this month, former prime ministers Kenny Anthony of Saint Lucia, Bruce Golding of Jamaica and Perry Christie of The Bahamas visited Haiti, as part of an “Eminent Persons Group” the 15-member Caribbean Community tapped to mediate.

In a statement following their departure from Port-au-Prince after a five-day visit, the group said it was “disappointed that the tone of the discussions had hardened and that the positions of some stakeholders had regressed significantly, reflected in the strident calls for the resignation of the prime minister. These developments coincided with the alarming deterioration of the security situation in Port-au-Prince in August and the deepening of the humanitarian crisis in the country.”

Ahead of the mediation attempt, the former prime ministers stopped in Miami, where they met with former Haitian President Michel Martelly. The meeting was heavily criticized, because Martelly is among those the Canadian government has sanctioned, and the group had so far not sat down with any sanctioned individuals.

On Wednesday, while Henry met with members of the international community over his request for help, Jimmy ‘Barbecue” Cherizier, a former police officer who leads a powerful gang coalition, led an armed demonstration through the streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, calling for the Henry’s ouster.

Cherizier, flanked by armed gang members who are part of his “G9” alliance, promised daily demonstrations while calling on Haitians to take to the streets against Henry.

“We are launching the fight to overturn Ariel Henry’s government in any way,” Cherizier said.

As has been the case with previous Canadian sanctions, the announcement Thursday was not specific. But all three businessmen are well known in Haiti and play an integral role in Haiti’s economic landscape.

Despite his powerful position as the head of Unibank, Braun he is a low-key operator and influencer who shuns the public spotlight.

Vorbe is the head of a family with various business ventures in the country, from road and housing construction to electricity. His company, Société Générale d’Énergie SA (Sogener), was one of three independent power providers in Haïti that produced then sold electricity to state-owned Electricité d’Haïti (EDH) under a 2005 contract.

The company, however was targeted by Moïse before his July 2021 assassination, as the president accused oligarchs of being the source of Haiti’s problems.

In one of the most high profile business battles in Haiti in recent years, each side accused the other of owing millions of dollars in uncollected debt after Moïse abruptly terminated Sogener’s 14-year-old contract to provide electricity to the state-owned electric utility and seized its property.

Moïse also issued warrants for the arrest of the shareholders of the corporation, along with a former public works minister and a finance minister who had negotiated the Sogener contract and Haiti’s $1.2 billion debt relief package prior to the 2010 earthquake.

Sogener later challenged the decision in Haiti’s court system, arguing that the moves by Moïse, who was ruling by decree in his final years, were illegal. The court agreed, unfroze the company’s assets and killed the warrants. Sogener also challenged the lawyers Moïse put on the case, arguing that they were not legally authorized to represent the government.The court agreed and threw out the case.

Acra is a former Haiti goodwill ambassador who was appointed to the job by former President Martelly. His appointment came while he was under investigation by Haitian authorities in a high-profile drug smuggling case a sugar-boat haul in April 2015. The bags of sugar were packed along with drugs onboard the MV Manzanares docked at the Terminal Varreux port in Cité Soleil.

The case came to light after two veteran Drug Enforcement Administration agents filed whistle-blower complaints that triggered a Justice Department investigation into the effectiveness of the DEA’s drug-fighting efforts in Haiti. At the time, Acra told the Miami Herald that he’s innocent added that investigators weren’t going after the real traffickers.

In a statement, Canada’s foreign ministry said its has “reason to believe that these individuals are fueling violence and instability in Haiti by engaging in corruption and other criminal acts, and by enabling armed gangs to carry out illegal activities that terrorize the population and threaten peace and security in Haiti.”

“Canada remains in solidarity with Haiti and its people and believes that sanctions constitute an important tool in the multidimensional approach to remedying the political situation in Haiti,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said. “We continue to urge the international community to join Canada in putting pressure on those who are directly contributing to the violence and instability in Haiti.”

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