Jacquelin Belizaire in Washington, Matiado Vilme, Renan Toussaint, Florence Lisene in Port-au-Price, Yvan Martin in Cape Haitian, Jean Hernst Eliscar in Les Calles contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON /PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haiti is bracing for more anti-corruption protests on Sunday. "PetroChallengers" — a grass-roots assortment of social media savvy millennials, activists, concerned citizens and diaspora, whose motto is: "What happened to the PetroCaribe money?" — are behind the initiative. They are calling for people nationwide to hit the streets to demand the president's resignation and justice for what they say was stolen from the people.
"We're asking everyone in the poor neighborhoods for a repeat of what we did [massive protests] on Feb. 7, we're going to take to the streets in the same way," a member of the Petro Challengers group in the northern city of Cape Haitian told VOA Creole.
"We the people have been victimized by a predatory government that must leave power," another PetroChallenger added. "That's why we the youth, activists from all political parties, must unite. You may not think people of different party affiliations can work together, but I'm here to tell you that this [corruption] issue concerns us all."
The government denies the allegations, citing poor accounting.
In the southern town of Les Calles on Friday, protesters camped out in front of the local courthouse holding posters and chanting, "Jovenel, you are going to jail!"
"We want all the thieves who stole the PetroCaribe money to be arrested, especially the ones in the southern department," protest leader Carvens Laguerre told VOA Creole. "We're not playing. We are here today and we'll be back on Sunday at 9 a.m. to demand Jovenel Moise resign."
What is PetroCaribe?
PetroCaribe was launched in June of 2005 as a Caribbean oil alliance, with Venezuela giving members preferential treatment for energy purchases, at a discounted price with low-interest deferred terms and an option to pay in kind instead of currency.
Several audits have shown that much of Haiti's PetroCaribe revenue (about $3.8 billion) disappeared, having been disbursed for government construction contracts on projects that were never finished. The funds had originally been earmarked for infrastructure, social and economic projects.
Haiti's Superior Court of Accounts and Administrative Litigation (Cour Superieure de Comptes et du Contentieux Administratif), a non-partisan institution tasked with overseeing the government's budget, spending and allocation of funds, was preparing a report detailing irregularities and alleged abuse of funds generated under the PetroCaribe agreement. The CSCCA's jurisdiction is both administrative and financial, and it arbitrates disputes over government spending when requested to do so. Its final report was delivered to Senate leader Carl Murat Cantave on May 31.
The contents, which included details of alleged fraud by the current and former presidents — Jovenel Moise and Michel Martelly — sparked outrage and prompted calls for justice.
What President Moise is accused of
Andre Michel, a lawyer, opposition leader and frequent administration critic, is a member of a legal team who launched a civil lawsuit targeting those found guilty of fraud and embezzlement of the PetroCaribe funds. He detailed the alleged abuses by President Moise during a press conference on Tuesday.
"The report says the Borgne-Margaux Bridge construction project overseen by the racketeer Jovenel Moise was paid twice for the same project. He was paid under Agritrans, and he was also paid under Betex — which means what? Betex and Agritrans are two wings of the same bird, which bears the name of Jovenel Moise."
Denials, criticism of methods
Agritrans issued a statement defending the integrity of its projects.
"We disagree with the allegations that AGRITRANS S.A. and BETEX received two payments to perform the same work. It should be noted that AGRITRANS signed a contract with the MTPTC [Ministry of Public Works] on a separate segment of the Borgne/Petit-Bourg de Borgne road section. Remember that this contract has been duly approved by the CSC/CA and that the relative payments are around 40% to date for 80% of executed works," the statement said.
"Based on these considerations, among many others, AGRITRANS S.A. expresses its formal disagreement on the allegations of the CSC/CA and reserves the right to initiate proceedings before the Haitian justice to defend its integrity and rights," the statement added.
The president's special representative, Guichard Dore, said it was obvious the authors of the report were looking for "a scapegoat."
"An audit is supposed to deal with facts — from the auditor and from the person who is being audited — but the document produced by the Superior Court of Accounts and Administrative Litigation doesn't provide that," he told VOA Creole. "So to me this is not an audit, it's a political document."
Dore cited several "technical errors" involving figures and conclusions that led him to the determination the audit lacks credibility.
Meanwhile, PetroChallengers and their supporters across Haiti are preparing to march on Sunday.