Source: Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald

A special Haitian Senate commission is accusing more than a dozen former government officials and heads of private firms of embezzling $2 billion in Venezuelan oil loans — money that could have helped the country rebuild after its devastating earthquake in 2010.

An anti-corruption investigation concluded that charges should be filed against two former prime ministers, several ex-ministers and the owners of private firms on grounds they misappropriated and embezzled money that left post-quake Haiti with unfinished government buildings, poorly constructed housing and overpriced public works contracts.

The nearly $2 billion that was paid out came from the country’s Venezuelan oil largess, known as PetroCaribe. It provides Haiti and several other cash-strapped Caribbean countries with subsidized oil on favorable financing terms. The debt is stretched over a 25-year period with a 1 percent interest rate and a two- to three-year grace period allowing the countries to use the savings to finance social and economic projects.

“It can be declared that the PETROCARIBE has been the object of embezzlement, embezzlement, embezzlement and prevarication on the part of those indexed in this report,” the commission’s report concluded.

The probe covers 2008 to 2016, a time frame covering four hurricanes in Haiti in 30 days, the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. In response, then-Presidents René Préval and Michel Martelly, declared states of emergency, allowing their respective prime ministers — Jean-Max Bellerive and Laurent Lamothe —to approve projects using PetroCaribe funds.

“The results, however, were very unconvincing and gave rise to worrying doubts about the management of the PETROCARIBE fund,” the report found.

Bellerive and Lamothe are among those named in the report, along with former finance and commerce minister Wilson Laleau, who currently serves as chief of staff for President Jovenel Moïse.

Among the waste detailed in the 647-page document distributed Tuesday, prior to a scheduled Senate hearing that was later postponed: construction overages that include the ministry of public works paying for 10 miles of road that actually measured 6.5 miles; the signing of a contract between the ministry of public health and a deceased person; large disbursements by government ministers with no documents to support the expenditures, and tens of millions of dollars paid to Dominican and Haitian firms for post-earthquake roads, housing and government ministries that never materialized or weren’t completed.

One of the most blatant allegations involved the reconstruction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, one of 40 government buildings that crumbled during the earthquake. The Dominican firm Hadom was awarded a $14.7 million contract, and paid $10 million up front, to construct the building that remains unbuilt. Hadom’s lucrative Haiti contract is among several given to Dominican firms after the quake that became the subject of separate probes in Haiti and in neighboring Dominican Republic, where Hadom owner and Dominican Senator Félix Bautista was accused of embezzlement. The Bautista case was eventually dropped by the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court.

Also cited in the Haitian Senate’s anti-corruption report are a number of private firms including one that the commission’s president, Sen. Evalière Beauplan, says is owned by current President Moïse.

Laleau has blasted the report as “biased, partial and partisan.” A minister under former President Martelly, Laleau is accused of misappropriation of public funds in the report.

“PetroCaribe,” Beauplan said, “is not a gift. It’s money Haiti borrowed, and generations of Haitians will have to repay this debt. But the government wasted this money, more than $2 billion.”

Prior to the earthquake, Haiti had accumulated more than $396 million in debt to Venezuela, which the South American nation forgave. But in the last seven years, it has wracked up almost $2 billion in new debt as Martelly’s government ministers traveled the globe promoting a new image of a post-quake Haiti while reconstruction projects languished and tens of thousands continued to live in camps. As of October, more than 37,000 Haitians still lived in 27 camps, the International Organization for Migration said.

“With all of that money, we don’t have anything in terms of a serious hospital. We don’t have anything in terms of an airport. We don’t have anything in terms of a port. We don’t have anything in terms of a stadium. We don’t have anything,” Beauplan said. “This money was wasted among a handful of people.”

This is not the first time a Haitian government commission has investigated government corruption. Last year, Senate President Youri Latortue launched a similar probe into Haiti’s management of its PetroCaribe funds. And after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s 2004 flight into exile, former Sen. Paul Denis headed an administrative probe that concluded that $17.4 million was transferred abroad by Aristide and his collaborators. No one was ever prosecuted as a result of either probe, leaving some to conclude that the current corruption investigation will be treated the same way.

Even so, the probe has sparked a debate about corruption and good governance in a country that continues to languish at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 159 out of 176.

That tainted image has led to donors such as the United States refusing to provide money directly to the Haitian government.

Both Bellerive and Lamothe — the two prime ministers who are among those the commission wants charged — have defended themselves against allegations of corruption in awarding the disaster-related contracts. They’ve said that $12 billion in promised earthquake aid was never delivered by the international community, forcing Haiti to dig into its own coffers and make quick decisions to help its recovery.

On Tuesday, they both rejected the report’s findings in messages to the Miami Herald, calling the report poorly put together and politically motivated. Three of the five commission members are in the opposition and some have charged that the goal of the report is to eliminate potential Haiti presidential candidates through the court of public opinion by tainting Martelly’s government as corrupt.

“As with everybody, my wish is for a true audit of not only the PetroCaribe funds, but generally of all the contracts signed by all governments,” said Bellerive, who also briefly served as Martelly’s prime minister after his 2011 election. “People have a right to a clear explanation. This report is just a political tool full of lies and assumptions. It won’t resolve the hunger for the truth.”

Lamothe, meanwhile, said the report “is a well-orchestrated character assassination campaign based on blatant lies and fabrications to block potential presidential candidates.”

On Tuesday, the Senate voted to delay a debate on the report until Nov. 30 to give members more time to read the final version.

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