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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Canada imposes sanctions on former leader of Haiti

Former President Michel Martelly of Haiti, center, arrives in Les Cayes, southwest Haiti, on Aug. 20, 2021.

By Natalie Kitroeff and Vjosa Isai

Canada announced sanctions on a slew of powerful politicians in Haiti over the weekend, part of a broad push to punish officials believed to have ties to the increasingly dominant gangs terrorizing the Caribbean nation.

Among those targeted by the measures was Michel Martelly, who was president from 2011 to 2016 and remains influential in Haiti, as well as two former prime ministers.

The Canadian government did not detail specific allegations against the three men but said in a news release that they were “using their status as current or previous public officeholders to protect and enable the illegal activities of armed criminal gangs, including through money laundering and other acts of corruption.”

Haiti’s gang warfare has intensified since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year, as armed groups have grown bolder in their attacks on one another and on the population, overpowering the nation’s poorly equipped police force in much of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Last month, the Haitian government made an extraordinary appeal for armed intervention from abroad to help stabilize the nation. The United Nations Security Council voted to impose sanctions on gangs and individuals who fund them, but diplomats have not decided whether to send a multinational force.

As gangs continue to torment the country, Canada and the United States have sought to lean more heavily on financial penalties to pressure current and former Haitian officials believed to be supporting the armed groups.

In a news conference in Tunisia on Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada called the measures “very severe, very direct sanctions on those elites and those oligarchs who have for years, if not for decades, profited from the instability that Haitian people continue to suffer through.” The sanctions will cut access to most financial services in Canada and freeze the politicians’ assets in the country.

Canada has placed penalties on several Haitian officials, including Rony Célestin, a senator whose purchase of a $3.4 million villa in Montreal has raised accusations of corruption from Haitian activists.

But Martelly, the former president who hand-picked Moïse as his successor and held substantial sway over his administration, is the most high-profile Haitian official to appear publicly on any sanctions list this year.

“The most significant thing is that this is a former president who received strong support from Canada and the international community while he was in office,” said Jake Johnston, a Haiti expert at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Johnston said Martelly splits most of his time between Miami and the Dominican Republic, and that it was unclear whether the financial restrictions in Canada would affect him.

Still, the announcement may send a signal about a broader shift in approach by some of the countries with the greatest influence over Haiti. On Sunday, Canada’s foreign minister called on other countries to follow suit with their own sanctions on those targeted by Trudeau’s government.

“It could be an indication that the international community is not going to go down the same path as it had in the past,” Johnston said. “The question is, is it just Canada, or are others coming?”

Moïse’s assassination remains unsolved, although several Haitian officials — including the commander in charge of guarding the president’s home — have been implicated.

Witnesses have accused that commander, Dimitri Hérard, of working with Martelly’s brother-in-law, Charles Saint-Remy, among others, to bring a shipment of more than 1,000 kilograms of heroin and cocaine into the country in 2015, using official government cars and personnel.

Saint-Remy has long been suspected by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of involvement in the drug trade.

A singer turned politician, Martelly remains a powerful but contentious figure in Haiti, where many blame his government for the misuse of funds tied to $2 billion that was lent to the country as part of a Venezuela-sponsored oil program.

Canada also imposed sanctions this weekend on two former prime ministers: Laurent Lamothe, who served under Martelly, and Jean-Henry Céant, who served under Moïse. Lamothe was pushed out of office in 2014 amid a political crisis between his administration and opposition parties. Céant was fired in 2019, six months after he was appointed to form a unity government.

The measures follow sanctions announced by the United States and Canada earlier this month targeting two Haitian senators accused of being involved in drug trafficking.

Left to defend themselves, Haitians have been terrorized by criminal groups that regularly kidnap civilians for ransom and use sexual violence as a weapon to subjugate the population, according to reports from human rights groups.

Gangs now control most of the capital and have essentially cut off entire neighborhoods from access to the outside world as they vie for control.

The violence has crippled efforts to combat an intensifying cholera outbreak, with gangs making it extremely difficult for aid workers to deliver basic care in sprawling slums where hundreds of thousands live.

Canada’s foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, said Sunday that the officials being sanctioned “are profiting from the violence that is being weaponized by gangs in Haiti.” The goal of the measures, she said, is to ensure that those “that are part of a corrupted system are facing accountability.”

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