Haiti: Does popular opposition to the new budget signal a sea change?

A year after category 4 Hurricane Matthew slammed into the south of Haiti, groups of farmers who lost their homes and crops took to the streets to protest a budget that they describe as “criminal” and a “punishment” for the popular masses.    

“How is it possible that the Parliament gets 5% of the pie, 17% goes to a mysterious ‘other’ category, and less than 7% goes to agriculture in a country where people’s bellies are filled by foreign food imports?” asked Development and Peace partner Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen, a national peasant organization, of the first budget of the government of Jovenel Moise, sworn in in February 2017. 

Of the 144 billion gourde (US$2.2 bn) budget, 3.4 billion gourdes  (US$5.2 m) are allocated to the presidency and the prime minister’s office,  while the presidential Caravane Chanjman campaign – which is overseen only by the executive – gets five billion gourdes.

The Caravane Chanjman is a much publicised effort by the president to  repair and make use of old vehicles used in infrastructure projects over the last few years to carry out road and other repairs.  It has been criticized for lack of transparency and efficiency.

“If the president took just a part of that money and invested it in crops that farmers could plant, we would have food on our plates, and peasants wouldn’t have that acute hunger in their guts,” said Antoinier St. Cyr, a member of Tet Kole in the southern city of Cavaillon, which was devastated by Matthew last year.

Increased taxes set out in the budget will also hit hard the poorest sectors, partners say.

“Small farmers will have to pay taxes on everything, including animals and seeds, that they buy in the market,” said Hérode, another member of Tet Kole. 

“We will have to pay 350 gourdes ($7 CAN) for the sale of a goat, and 1000 gourdes ($20) for the sale of a cow.  Yet we have no school, and no hospital here,’ said Antoinier St. Cyr.  

Several hundred Tet Kole members demonstrated in Cavaillon on October 2nd against the budget, following demonstrations by another Development and Peace partner, the Mouvement Paysan Papaye, in the central Plateau, days before. 

“The peasant sector is marginalized once again by this budget,” said Chenet Jean-Baptiste, executive director of Development and Peace partner organization ITECA (Institut de Technologie et Animation.)  “The agriculture envelope is just 10 billion gourdes – less than 7% of the total, and 80% of those funds are allocated to the functioning of the ministry, rather than towards agricultural projects.” 

“The government offers no support to agriculture, which could allow increased food production and generate income for small farmers,” said Jean-Baptiste. “Yet peasant agriculture represents a key sector for any just, sustainable economic development policy.”

Hurricane Matthew caused agricultural losses in 2016 of $538 million USD or 34.9 billion gourdes – more than three times the budget’s allocation – causing major losses to 2 million families, or 20% of Haiti’s small farmer population. 

“Of course, the people should pay taxes as everyone else in other countries do,” Tet Kole reflected.  “But what does our tax money buy us? Surely our taxes should pay for agricultural investments, schools, universities, health centres and hospitals, and housing.”

Yet the coordinated mass mobilization against the harsh budget is also considered a new and welcome sign that citizens are waking up to the fact that their elected authorities are accountable to the people.

“We often accuse the authorities of all evil, but we also forget that we are accomplices in their bad governance,” commented an editorial in the Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste on September 20th.  “Like sheep, we say nothing when charlatans take the electoral system hostage.  The worst thing is that we let them waste our scant resources.  Are these demonstrations the beginning of a break with this system in which we give everything to the authorities and ask nothing in return?”